Almost every time the U.S. men or East German women touched the water it turned to gold
August 01, 1976

Having made the U.S. Olympic team as no more than an alternate on the 800-meter freestyle relay, University of Arizona junior Doug Northway arrived in Montreal in a subdued mood. "It means I only get to swim in a preliminary heat," he griped. "Big deal." No sooner did the eight-day Olympic swim program get into full swing, however, than Northway was exulting. "Aren't we doing great?" he exclaimed to anybody who would listen. "It's an honor just to be on this team."

What improved Northway's mood was the same hoard of gold medals and world records by U.S. men that was uplifting the spirits of the huge contingent of American fans—nearly all of them relatives, it appeared—in the modernistic 9,200-capacity Piscine Olympique. Whenever they dropped in, they could count on seeing one or another jaunty countryman, and often clusters of them, slamming into the last wall ahead of the competition. By the time the last abridged Star-Spangled Banner wafted through the arena on Sunday night, the U.S. men had amassed some startling statistics: 12 of 13 golds and, astonishingly, 25 of 33 individual medals. In four events they went one-two-three, in five others they were 1-2.

The spree exceeded the men's ambitious expectations and they rejoiced over every last triumph. When the University of Tennessee's Matt Vogel climbed out of the pool after leading a U.S. sweep in the 100-meter butterfly, his jubilant teammates showed their appreciation by rubbing his shaved head as though they were polishing an apple. The same thing had happened when Mike Bruner won the 200 fly. Following the U.S. win in the 400 medley relay, freestyler Jim Montgomery, who swam anchor, was asked to autograph a fan's shirt. Complying, Montgomery asked with a wry grin, "Do you believe this?" And when Southern Cal's 6'6" John Naber was making one of his many triumphant tours of the pool deck somebody thrust a large American flag into his hands. The irrepressible Naber did a 360-degree turn, holding Old Glory aloft for all to see.

The 20-year-old Naber was a hero in a Games that was heavy in the early going on heroines. A backstroker-freestyler who revels in the nickname the Snake, Naber won four golds and a silver, the latter coming when he was touched out by U.S.—and USC—teammate Bruce Furniss in the 200 freestyle. That was just 55 minutes after Naber won the 100 backstroke, beating, among others, East Germany's 25-year-old Roland Matthes, who had won both backstroke events in the 1968 and 1972 Games. But the Snake was hardly alone in the limelight, with the likes of Montgomery, who collected three golds (one for his stunning 49.99 in the 100 free) and a bronze; Californian Brian Goodell, who won the 400 and 1,500 free; and Rod Strachan, another of the ubiquitous USC men, who won the 400 individual medley in 4:23.68. "This team is a working entity that draws strength from one another," said Naber, who actually talks like that.

It took an all-out team effort for the U.S. men to outdistance the band of muscular yet limber East German women. GDR women had never before won a swimming gold medal but they made amends by taking 11 of 13 events, and 16 of 33 individual medals. When a West German journalist asked why a couple of them had suspiciously deep voices, a GDR coach retorted, "We're here to swim, not to sing." The West German scandalmonger was further squelched by the formidable but unmistakably feminine presence of Matthes' 17-year-old blonde fiancée, Kornelia Ender.

A sprinter with equal ability in butterfly and freestyle, Ender won four gold medals, one more than any previous woman Olympic swimmer, and a silver. Awesome off the blocks, she propelled herself into the water with such authority as to give the impression that she was pulling the pool toward her. She accelerated seemingly at will, winning early or late as the spirit moved her. In just retribution for Naber's domination of boyfriend Matthes, she and the GDR's Petra Thümer whipsawed Shirley Babashoff, who had to settle for four silver medals before anchoring a charged-up 4x100 relay team to a smashing upset victory over Ender and her teammates in the meet's final race.

That lone defeat notwithstanding, Ender's performance had been remarkable, including her attempt at a same-day double even more difficult than Naber's—and she pulled it off. On Thursday night Ender won two events in the space of 25 minutes, equaling her world record in the 100 butterfly and then besting Babashoff in a world-record 200 freestyle. "After the first race I had time to loosen up a bit and change my suit," Ender said casually.

The U.S. men and GDR women were like barroom showoffs trying to outdo each other, but outsiders now and then managed to horn in. The Russians, determined to become a swim power by the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, won a handful of medals, their biggest breakthrough coming when Marina Koshevaia and two other Soviet women shocked the East Germans by sweeping the 200 breaststroke. And Britannia briefly ruled the waves when Scotland's David Wilkie won the 200 breaststroke, dashing hopes of a U.S. sweep of the gold.

With Koshevaia and Wilkie joining in the parade, world records were equaled or broken in all but four of the 26 events. It was the greatest record binge ever in a sport that has seen many, and it left old-timers like Don Schollander stunned. Schollander's winning time of 4:12.2 in the 400 freestyle at the '64 Games in Tokyo would have earned him nothing more than a bronze medal at Montreal—in the women's 400.

The record breaking also seemed to affect the springboard diving events. Alabaman Jennifer Chandler and U.S. Air Force Captain Phil Boggs were rewarded with lofty scores while winning off the three-meter board. With Cynthia McIngvale finishing third in springboard, Deborah Wilson third in platform and 16-year-old Greg Louganis hoping to dethrone Italy's two-time champion Klaus Dibiasi in this week's men's platform competition, U.S. divers had strongly improved on their showing in '72 when only Micki King won a gold. Chandler fancies the name Jenni, giving her an affinity not only with Micki but with all the Lauris, Susis and Sandis who also abound in diving. A lissome 17-year-old high school senior who relaxes by chomping on bubble gum that she carefully tucks out of sight while diving, Chandler won with a succession of graceful, often elegant dives. Then she rushed off to hug her sister Mindy, who turned seven that day. Mindy is a budding diver who, you may be sure, is destined to one day become Mindi.

With the U.S. women swimmers relatively ineffective, Naber and the men were usually center stage. Naber acknowledged the crowd's applause with deep, swooping bows and was so busy waving and grinning at the fans that one time, while marching into the pool for a heat in the 200 free, he stumbled over the man in front of him, East Germany's Frank Pfütze. "I want to help the crowd enjoy what I'm enjoying," the Snake explained. "At the prices they're paying [up to $24 face value; $100 scalper's price] it's the least I can do." For all the grinning and gesticulating, Naber also admitted to feeling considerable tension; he grinds his teeth so badly in his sleep that he has a date with the dentist later this summer to outfit him with a dozen crowns.

Naber nevertheless was better off than his rival Matthes, who had recently suffered an ear infection, a sore shoulder and an appendectomy. But the onetime king of the backstrokers allowed that his romance with Ender had helped renew his flagging interest in swimming.

Even with such inspiration, Matthes proved easy pickings for the Snake, as did Roland's four-year-old world record of 56.3 in the 100 backstroke. Slashing through the water with long, shovel-like strokes, Naber broke that one with an almost effortless 56.19 in a semifinal, then reeled off a brilliant 55.49 to win the final, the silver medal going to University of California's Peter Rocca (56.34) and the bronze to the struggling Matthes (57.22). Plunging into the 200 free final less than an hour later, Naber led much of the way before being overtaken by Furniss, whose friendly rivalry with his fellow Trojan has earned him the nickname Mongoose, which is a critter that thrives on snakes. "Hey, Mongoose, you got the Snake this time," Naber said after Furniss lowered his world record to 1:50.29. Naber completed his week by swimming on both of the U.S. winning relay teams and dropping his world record in the 200 backstroke to 1:59.19, leading Rocca and North Carolina State's Dan Harrigan to yet another American sweep. Matthes, with little hope even for the bronze, had scratched from that event.

While Naber's victories were more numerous, the most dramatic were those of Brian Goodell, the engaging 17-year-old distance freestyler who, at 5'8", is a head shorter than the Snake. At the U.S. Trials in June the breezy Goodell broke Australian Steve Holland's world record in the 1,500 and that of longtime U.S. rival Tim Shaw in the 400. He was clearly the man to beat, a fact underscored by a sportswriter's purported interview with Holland, who trained at Goodell's home club in Mission Viejo, Calif. for a while last year. In the article, Holland accused the American of using him as a stalking horse and concluded, "We used to be mates but not anymore." The Aussie denied the statements and Goodell said the two had a "nice friendly talk" in Montreal. But that did not prevent Goodell from posting the clipping on the wall of his room in the Olympic Village. Nor did it prevent Aussies with their sporting instincts from making Holland even money against the entire U.S. field of Goodell, Bobby Hackett and Paul Hartloff. A number of American swimmers found the odds irresistible and the betting was brisker than Baron de Coubertin might have liked.

The way the much-anticipated race shaped up, Hackett would be the rabbit and Goodell would show late speed while Holland would plug away in the middle and, so his backers hoped, overtake the former while holding off the latter. But Hackett, the world-record holder at 800 meters, has apparently learned some wiles in his home pool, a four-lane, 58-year-old relic in the Bronx. He set a slower pace than Holland expected, and when the Aussie finally moved ahead at 950 meters it was too late to get the clear water he needed.

After the 1,300-meter turn Goodell drew even with Holland. Holland tends to rely on his pull and Goodell on his kick—the Australian logs 60 strokes per 50-meter lap to the American's 45—and their furious finish was a study in contrasting styles: as Goodell moved with long, measured strokes, Holland clawed at the water like an infant crawling across a room. Goodell moved steadily ahead to win in 15:02.4, with Hackett coming on to touch out Holland for second. Both finished under Goodell's old world record of 15:06.66, but Hackett's go-slow early pace had prevented the sub-15-minute clocking many expected.

"I'm no sprinter," Holland said when it was all over. "I should have made my move earlier." While Aussies dug deep to pay up, Goodell's parents rewarded him with a plastic banana-shaped harmonica inscribed, "I went bananas in Montreal."

Goodell next disposed of Shaw, who won the Sullivan Award last year but considered himself lucky to make the U.S. team behind Goodell in the 400. Plagued earlier this year by anemia and shoulder ailments, Shaw was swimming against a rival coming into his own on a perfect Olympic timetable. Finishing in 3:51.93, more than a second under his old record, Goodell beat Shaw by three feet. That lone silver was a far cry from the four golds that once seemed within Tim's reach, but the gentlemanly Shaw said simply, "Brian was stronger. He's the champion."

Shaw accepted second place philosophically; the 19-year-old Babashoff was hardly so sanguine. A fierce competitor, when her 17-year-old brother Bill recently began beating her at workouts, Shirley refused to speak to him on their drives home. She has a second brother, fellow Olympian Jack, 21, who collected a silver medal of his own by finishing behind Montgomery in the 100 free.

Faced with a grueling seven events in Montreal, Shirley expressed confidence that she would do just fine against Ender and the other GDR women. While Ender was considered unbeatable in the 100 free, Babashoff had scored a memorable come-from-behind win over the East German in the 200 free at last year's world championships in Cali, Colombia and had lately beaten everybody at 400 and 800 meters.

In the first confrontation between the two in Montreal, Ender swam the freestyle anchor leg on the GDR 400-meter medley relay team that scored a predictably easy victory, with Babashoff and her U.S. teammates coming in second. Ender next won the 100 free, lowering her world record to 55.65 as Babashoff finished a mildly disappointing fifth. But the American was favored to win the 400 free, especially because the world-record holder, Barbara Krause of the GDR, had been left in Berlin with a throat infection. In Krause's absence the top East German threat was 15-year-old Petra Thümer.

At the start Th√ºmer took the lead but Babashoff stayed at her shoulder, preparing to apply her customary cruncher at 350 meters. "I was where I wanted to be—I thought I'd won it," she said later. But Babashoff made a sloppy turn at 350 and Th√ºmer refused to give way, holding off the American to win by half a body length in 4:09.89, nearly two seconds under Krause's record. Babashoff failed to congratulate Th√ºmer in the water, and she had made the same oversight after the 100. "Shirley's a nice person but her competitiveness can make her mean," said Mark Schubert, her coach at Mission Viejo. The day after the 400, stopping by the motel where her parents were staying, Shirley flung her arms about her mother and cried.

Babashoff's agonies continued in the 200 free when an utterly poised Ender, reversing their customary roles, let her American rival take the lead before overhauling her to win in a world-record 1:59.26. That was the second act of the East German's half-hour gold-mining performance. "I went as hard as I could in the 100 butterfly," Ender said. "In the 200 I imagine I might have gone two-tenths of a second faster if I'd been fresh." A chastened Babashoff scratched from the 400 individual medley to save herself for the 800 free and the 4 x 100 relay. Her plan partly worked. Early in the evening she lost the 800—and her world record—to Th√ºmer. Then came the 400-free relay and a U.S. triumph that was by now wholly unexpected.

Swimming leadoff for the GDR, Ender got her usual shot-from-a-cannon start and outswam American Kim Peyton. Wendy Boglioli, a senior at New Jersey's Monmouth College, made some headway against East German Petra Priemer, and 15-year-old schoolgirl Jill Sterkel reeled off a torrid 55.78 lap to surge ahead of andrea Pollack, a lead that anchorwoman Babashoff held against Claudia Hempel. The winning time was a world-record 3:44.82 and although deprived of the individual gold she coveted, Babashoff was beaming. "I tried my hardest in every race," she said. "In this one I just had better help."

The GDR tide that otherwise washed over Babashoff and her U.S. teammates has been gaining force since 1973. Since then American women have been harangued with pep talks, enrolled in Dale Carnegie-style positive-thinking courses and exposed to the sort of sentiments reflected in a sign in their Olympic Village quarters reading, WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, U.S. GALS ARE THE TOUGHEST. But before finally winning their one gold medal, they suffered the indignity of failing to place a swimmer in three finals. When Boglioli hit the wall behind the GDR's Ender and Pollack in the 100 butterfly, she put on her glasses to look at the scoreboard and then, still uncertain, asked a poolside official, "What'd I get—third?" The man nodded. Bronze medalist Boglioli and University of Virginia-bound Wendy Weinberg, third-place finisher in the 800, were the only U.S. women other than Babashoff to win individual medals.

That the U.S. men fared so much better than the women is no doubt partly a result of the rigors of NCAA competition, in which all but a few of the U.S. Olympians have taken part. It is noteworthy that the man who spoiled U.S. chances for a gold-medal sweep, Wilkie, is also an American college product, having swum the last four years at Miami, during which he traded breaststroke victories with Stanford's John Hencken. In Montreal the bitter rivals went at it for probably the last time, Hencken winning the 100 breast in a world-record 1:03.11 and Wilkie the 200, also in world-record time (2:15.11, more than three seconds under Hencken's old mark).

Records were so routine that even Doug Northway, the lowly relay alternate, got into the act. Northway's only swim in Montreal came leading off an 800-freestyle relay team made up largely of substitutes that in a morning heat set a world record of 7:30.33. The mark held up only until that same evening when the U.S. first-liners—Bruner, Furniss, Naber and Montgomery—further lowered it to 7:23.22. Still, for nearly 10 hours Northway was in a spin. "Just think," he kept saying. "I'm the last man on the team and I've got a world record."

Which was the same sort of elation Shirley Babashoff and company were feeling after so dramatically ending their gold-medal drought. The one who applied the crunch, Sterkel, hails from Hacienda Heights, Calif., where she is a self-confessed tomboy. "I don't want to sound weird," she said, "but in school I've always been a better athlete than most of the boys." For an American woman in Montreal's Olympic pool, keeping up with the boys, for even one race, turned out to be quite an accomplishment.

PHOTOBringing new glory to Old Glory: (left to right) Naber, Hencken, Vogel, Montgomery. PHOTOBrian Goodell made the Aussies pay in the 1,500 and left teammate Shaw with just silver in the 400. PHOTOGDR's Kornelia Ender swam five finals, collecting four firsts and the same number of world records. PHOTOBritannia's Wilkie deprived the U.S. of a gold medal sweep, ruling the waves in the 200 breaststroke. TWO PHOTOSBabashoff and Furniss mirrored American moods. PHOTOJohn Naber was always on parade, bowing but never scraping for medals: he took four golds, one silver. TWO PHOTOSJenni Chandler parked her gum to gather in a gold medal in the three-meter springboard. Air Force Captain Phil Boggs flew to first place in the men's division with a near-supersonic score. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)