Three months ago it would have been difficult to imagine Tim Shaw thankful for runner-up spot in any kind of major swimming race. Yet there Shaw was last Friday evening climbing out of the Belmont Plaza pool in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. and looking happy over a 400-meter freestyle race in which he had not only placed second but also had lost the last of the three world records he once held. The occasion was the third night of the U.S. Olympic Trials and whooping it up in the lane next to Shaw was Brian Goodell, a 17-year-old California schoolboy with a Huck Finn expression and a machete-like stroke who had just trimmed .23 of a second off Shaw's record.
For the moment, however, Tim Shaw cared little about any of that. All that mattered was that the first three finishers in this event qualified for the Olympics, meaning that he would be joining Goodell, and third-place finisher Casey Converse, in Montreal.
Shaw, whose Olympic prospects were dim going into the race, showed his relief while being congratulated at poolside. A sometime water polo player, he suddenly pretended to be an announcer describing an exciting game. "It's a desperation shot, folks," he declared, pausing dramatically before adding, "and it goes...in!"
Shaw's bid for a spot on the U.S. team did indeed contain an element of desperation. The 1975 Sullivan Award winner came into the Trials weakened by the lingering effects of anemia and—partly because of that—with his confidence badly shaken. Then, at the very start of the six-day meet, he finished a shocking fifth in the 200-meter freestyle, another of the events in which he had held a world record. That raised the sobering prospect that the man who had been selected 1975's top amateur athlete would go to the Olympics as no more than an 800-meter relay-team alternate.
June 27, 1976
But the gloom lifted with the 400, a stunning race in which the 18-year-old Long Beach State freshman grittily got off his last-second shot. Shaw's world record was 3:53.31, and Goodell stormed to victory in 3:53.08, with Shaw just behind at 3:53.52, followed by—as quickly as you could snap your fingers—Converse and four other pursuers all touching out at under 3:56. Since the best time in history outside the U.S. is 3:57-plus, there was immediate talk of an American sweep in the event at Montreal, the only question being who would grab the gold.
"The doctor says I'll be completely healthy by Montreal," Shaw declared, building a case for himself. "That should help a lot."
But Goodell was boosting his own stock. "It will probably take another world record to win at the Olympics," he said. "I'll just have to do it again."
Such brave talk, and corresponding actions, are what the world has come to expect of American men swimmers, who routinely carve up one another at the Olympic Trials, after which the survivors go off to the Games and hack away at each other all over again with the rest of the swimming world on hand as not much more than witnesses to the mayhem. An example of such intramural battling was found in the backstroke events. John Naber, the 6'6" Southern Cal star, ended a long quest by winning the 200-meter backstroke in 2:00.64 to break the 3-year-old world record of East Germany's Roland Matthes by more than a second. But while Naber reached his goal at the Trials, it is apparent he will have his hands full in Montreal with the University of California's Peter Rocca, a fast-improving challenger who very nearly beat the USC swimmer in the 100 and pushed him to the record in the 200. "Peter's going to make me go faster," Naber acknowledged.
In contrast to the men's glittering prospects for gold medals, there is the fear that most of the American women will be going to Montreal only to practice their French. A couple of weeks before the Trials the already worried American women had been further jolted when East Germany's Wunderm√§dchen went on a spree at their own Olympic trials in Berlin, a mopping-up operation that left them, tidily enough, with world records in all 13 women's Olympic events. Far from responding in kind, the American women looked as if they were in shock at Long Beach, the notable exception being Shirley Babashoff.
Babashoff did not get back her world record in the 400 meter freestyle, broken in Berlin by the GDR's Barbara Krause, but she did set her usual batch of American records, toying with her U.S. rivals even as she tried to bolster their flagging morale by insisting, "The East Germans may win on paper, but in Montreal we'll win in the water." The upbeat words sounded somehow more persuasive coming from Babashoff than they did from 5'3½" Lauri Siering, who qualified in the 200-meter breaststroke in 2:38.75, far off the world record (2:34.99) of the GDR's Karla Linke, and then feistily pronounced it a personal goal to lower her time by six seconds at the Olympics.
"Six seconds?" a skeptic asked.
Lauri stuck out her jaw and glared back. "Six seconds," she repeated.
The Trials also produced heartbreak, notably when Rick De Mont, stripped of a gold medal at Munich for taking a prohibited decongestant, fared no better than seventh in any event in an unsuccessful effort to make the '76 team. One swimmer who did earn a second chance was ex-University of Florida swimmer Tim McKee, who had been touched out in Munich by Sweden's Gunnar Larsson in the 400-meter individual medley. The 23-year-old McKee, a 5'8" free spirit, allowed that he was motivated not only by what happened at the last Olympics but by the fact that he had never won a national AAU or NCAA title, either.
"It seems like I've been finishing second all my life," he said. "For once I'd like to win something." In the 400 IM preliminary McKee set an American record of 4:28.11 and celebrated by sling-shooting his goggles 40 feet above the pool. But in the finals he finished second once again, qualifying for the Olympics behind USC's Rod Strachan, who lowered McKee's seven-hours-old record to 4:26.79, barely half a second off the world record of Hungary's Zoltan Verraszto.
Of all the rivalries that seemed to be flowering in the Belmont pool, the coziest was the one involving the Furniss brothers, Steve and Bruce, both of whom starred this past season for USC. Twenty-three-year-old Steve, a 1972 Olympian, had been the family's top swimmer until he injured an ankle a year and a half ago, whereupon 19-year-old Bruce became top seed. But Steve, rounding back into shape, lately warned Bruce over a family dinner in Santa Ana, "I'm big, bad and I'm back."
To which Bruce replied, "I'm mean, lean and it remains to be seen if I'm too green."
The first test for the Furnisses came on opening night in the 200-meter freestyle, which pitted world-record holder Bruce against his big brother and an array of friends and nodding acquaintances that included Long Beach Swim Club teammate Shaw, Southern Cal pal Naber and Indiana's strapping Jim Montgomery. All told, there were four present or past world-record holders in the eight-man field.
When the gun sounded, Naber moved into the lead, where he remained until being overtaken at the 150-meter mark by Bruce Furniss, who went on to win in 1:50.61, three-tenths of a second off his world record. Naber held on for second place followed by Montgomery. By taking fourth, ex-Stanford man Mike Bruner made the 800-meter relay team. Shaw, fifth, received a sympathetic hug in the water from Bruce Furniss. The two have been club teammates on and off for seven years, and Furniss said later, "Tim has always been there when I needed someone to lean on, and I want him to be able to lean on me, too."
Happily, just about everybody in the 200, losers included, did well in other events. By also making the team in his backstroke specialties, Naber assured himself of the busiest program at Montreal among U.S. men. Montgomery finished first in the 100 freestyle just over his world record time, with USC's Joe Bottom and Jack Babashoff, Shirley's brother, also qualifying for the U.S. 27-man squad. Bruner went on to win the 200 butterfly just ahead of Auburn-bound Billy Forrester, who set an American record of 1:59.7 in the preliminaries, and North Carolina State's Steve Gregg. As for Steve Furniss, who was dead last in the 200, he won a berth in the 400 IM behind fellow Trojan Strachan and McKee.
Finally, there was the redemption of Shaw. His woes had begun in April with a sorry performance at the AAU championships in the same pool and had progressively worsened at workouts. "I'd get tired and my stroke would go bad," he said. "I'd work that much harder, which would make me that much more tired." Then Shaw came down with an infection, and it was discovered that his red blood cell count was low. Shaw was given a series of liver shots and gradually began to regain his strength.
Still, he was obviously not himself in the 200 free, somehow staying in the thick of things until the last 50 meters, at which point his once smooth stroke became jerky and strained. Shaw was in a subdued mood afterward, absently going home with the keys to someone else's car in his pocket. The next morning, back at the pool, he said, "The tough part of all this is that it's happening in my hometown. I feel I'm disappointing so many people." His lips tightened and he vowed, "This is going to psych me up for the 400."
While Shaw was psyching up, Brian Goodell was bouncing around his motel, busily chattering with other swimmers and, one day in the dining room, profusely apologizing to the cashier for having helped himself to what he felt were too many free mints. At his home club in nearby Mission Viejo, Goodell had been honed to a racer's edge by using what Coach Mark Schubert calls the "animal lane," a section of the pool open only to those willing to work 20,000 meters—roughly 13 miles—a day.
In their 400-meter showdown, Goodell and Shaw both stayed in the pack behind the ubiquitous Naber, who once again played rabbit by bursting into an early lead. They were third and fourth at 300 meters, and then made their move together, surging along with Converse past the fading Naber and Bruce Furniss. "It hurt like hell, especially the last 50 meters," Shaw said afterward.
"It felt super all the way," smiled the new record holder Goodell.
Goodell's confidence was equaled only by that of Babashoff, his more celebrated Mission Viejo teammate. Three weeks ago, after learning that her 400 freestyle record had been broken, Babashoff had been so unfazed that she went home that evening, had dinner and went to bed, remembering only the next morning to pass the news along to her family. Last week she said, "I knew the record was going to be broken. I wasn't upset, because it really wasn't that fast anyway." Babashoff, who has a fish tank in her bedroom, seemed far more distressed by the recent demise of one of her specimens, a kissing gourami. "I'd just bought it," she said, her light-blue eyes clouding over. "Then two days later it died. That made me very sad."
In their efforts to keep up with her at the Trials, most of Babashoff's rivals fared little better than that gourami. Babashoff arrived in Long Beach having pared her weight from 160 to 150 pounds, and in the 200 free slashed to an easy victory and an American record of 2:00.69, nine-tenths of a second above the world mark of the GDR's Kornelia Ender. Wolfing down a turkey sandwich and a pint of milk as a poolside snack just 45 minutes before race time, a warm-up procedure that would cause most coaches indigestion, she won the 400 in an American-record 4:12.85, just off Krause's new mark of 4:11.69. Meanwhile, in a preliminary heat of the 800 free—the finals were scheduled for early this week—she set an American record of 8:46. Going from one distance extreme to the other in the same day with the same result, Babashoff then set her fourth American record of the meet by winning the 100 free in 56.96.
Though primarily a freestyler, Babashoff had also demonstrated her prowess—or rather the relative weakness of the rest of U.S. women's swimming—by qualifying first in the 400-meter IM, an extra event for her. Her winning time was 4:57.11, nearly nine seconds slower than the world record of East Germany's Birgit Treiber, and it was rumored that Schubert might scratch her from the event. There are fears that Babashoff might be spreading herself too thin at Montreal, a line of thinking that led somebody at a news conference to point out to her that the Olympic schedule calls for preliminaries of the 400 IM and the 800 free on the same day.
The women's team will also include 6'2" Tauna Vandeweghe, who qualified for the 100-meter backstroke behind another 16-year-old Californian, Linda Jezek. Tauna's father is former New York Knick star Ernie Vandeweghe, her mother is former Miss America Colleen Hutchins Vandeweghe. With Tauna on hand to please nostalgia addicts, long-shot fanciers meanwhile had an eye on Jill Sterkel, a 100 freestyle specialist from the same El Monte (Calif.) Swim Club that produced Sandra Neilson, the surprise gold medalist in the 100 at Munich.
Blonde, sturdy and just three weeks past her 15th birthday, Sterkel is so new to big-time swimming that she arrived in Long Beach unclear as to what the world record was in the 100. The answer is Kornelia Ender's 55.73, and Sterkel is heading in that direction. Her best previous time in the 100 was 57.99, and after making the team with Babashoff in the 200, she was second again in the 100 with a 57.25.
With one day to go in the Trials, only the men had set world records—Goodell's in the 400 free and Naber's in the 200 back. As such things are recorded in swimming, this was not much of a haul. There was talk about the pool being "slow," a notion belied by the fact that the 8-year-old facility had previously produced 15 world records. But Olympic men's Coach Doc Counsilman noted that Americans are geared to swimming their best in the summer. There would be, Counsilman promised, a "whole lot" of world records in Montreal.
In the case of breaststroker John Hencken, 22, a world record in Long Beach was probably within his reach—had he been interested. Hencken faces a showdown in Montreal with Great Britain's David Wilkie, but at the moment anyway he is unique among U.S. men by being head and shoulders above his homegrown rivals. In a morning heat of the 200 meters he swam a 2:18.99, barely missing his world record of 2:18.21, then eased up to win the final easily enough in 2:19.37. Later, in the 100, Hencken again came off an early world record pace to finish in 1:04.20, less than half a second slower than his mark for that event.
Hencken was a study in equanimity before both breaststrokes, laughing and chatting with his Santa Clara teammates right up to the moment he stepped up to the blocks. He was equally relaxed afterward. "I could have gone faster, but it wasn't necessary," he said after his win in the 200 over veteran Rick Colella, who will also go to Montreal. "I was experimenting with some different things." It was a relief to find one of the men at Long Beach who was interested in something more than carving up his countrymen. At the same time, neither did John Hencken feel confident enough to indulge himself in any pre-race turkey sandwiches, which could point out the vastly different prospects of the men's and women's swim teams the U.S. will send to Montreal.