After winning the 100-meter freestyle in Philadelphia's sun-drenched John B. Kelly Pool, Jonty Skinner, a South African who swims during the college season for the University of Alabama, took one look at the overhead clock, saw the numbers 49.44, leaped into the air and joyously embraced his rivals. Then the 6'5" Skinner slumped, sobbing, against the edge of the pool. A moment later he climbed out of the water and put his arms around Alabama Coach Don Gambril. "Oh, Coach," he said in a choked voice, "Coach, I did it."
The cause of Skinner's tearful jubilation at the AAU outdoor championships was a world record made doubly gratifying by the fact that he had been deprived of an opportunity to do the same at the Montreal Olympics. Because of its apartheid policy, Skinner's homeland is banned from Olympic competition, and last winter he had sought Congressional assistance in hope of becoming an American citizen in time to try out for the U.S. team (SI, March 29). But a bill providing for hurry-up citizenship was rejected by a House subcommittee, forcing Skinner to watch on TV as Indiana University's Jim Montgomery won the 100 freestyle at the Games in 49.99—[6/10] of a second faster than Montgomery's old world record. U.S. men won 12 of 13 events in Montreal, but Doc Counsilman, the Indiana and Olympic men's coach, singled out Montgomery's breaking of the 50-second barrier as "an historic achievement."
In rewriting history so soon, Skinner created an ironic situation: his record means that in the most stunning year in Olympic swimming history, a non-Olympian now holds the title of Fastest Man Afloat. Leading all the way in Philadelphia, he pared half a second off Montgomery's three-week-old record and 1½ seconds off his personal best. Montgomery had elected to pass up the AAU meet, but the cheering crowd of 4,000 at the Kelly Pool obviously agreed with Skinner that his absence was not critical. Once the emotions of the moment subsided a bit, Skinner said, "Since I couldn't swim against Jim, my opponent had to be the clock."
Skinner's remarkable performance, which occurred during the final session of the four-day competition, came just as it appeared that the 1976 AAU would become the first major meet in memory that failed to produce a world record. The consensus was that the pool in Philly was slow, and there also was talk about a letdown after Montreal, where world records were set or equaled in 22 of 26 events. In fact, except for Skinner's swim, the times in Philadelphia were so plodding that it seemed almost sacrilegious that the scoreboard clock was one of those used in Montreal. At least the clock seemed to think so; until it was rewired on the meet's third day, it refused to function properly.
August 22, 1976
Even with the poky times, the AAU did provide a chance for the 28 U.S. Olympians on hand—23 others skipped the meet—to treat themselves to a curtain call or two. Predictably, the one obliged to take the most bows was John Naber, winner of four golds and a silver in Montreal. Naber arrived in Philadelphia with the avowed intention of "promoting swimming," and it was toward this worthy end that the 6'6" USC star endlessly talked up the sport during TV appearances and signed so many autographs at poolside that his felt-tip pen went dry on the second day of the meet.
Naber said, too, that he was competing in the AAU meet, in which team standings are kept, out of loyalty to the Ladera Oaks (Calif.) Aquatic Club. He also said he was there "because I want to get the Grand Slam." The Grand Slam? "Sure," replied Naber, flashing his famous grin. "That's when you win the same event in the AAU indoors, the AAU outdoors, the NCAAs, the Olympic Trials and Olympics in the same year."
This was about the first that anyone had heard of the Grand Slam, but then, it was also the first time that Naber was promoting the sport. Settling for a second in the 200 freestyle and a fifth in the 100 won by Skinner, Naber scored easy victories in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, completing a sweep of both events in the requisite meets. His 56.48 in the 100 and 2:03.73 in the 200 were off the world records of 55.49 and 1:59.19 he set at Montreal, but this mattered little to those who were now saying, "Hey, isn't that something about Naber getting two Grand Slams?"
Besides swelling Naber's hoard of championships, the meet produced some new stars, most of whom represented the swim club of Mission Viejo, a planned community of 35,000 south of Los Angeles. Mission Viejo attracts promising young swimmers from around the U.S., much as the Juilliard School does budding musicians, but until last week it was known mainly as the home club of Shirley Babashoff and Brian Goodell. Other Mission Viejo swimmers finally got their names in the headlines at Philadelphia because Babashoff, disappointed by her failure to win an individual gold medal in Montreal, has decided to stay out of competition until she enrolls at UCLA this fall. And though Goodell, the Olympic champion in the 400 and 1,500 freestyle events, was at the AAU, he admitted to a case of post-Olympic blahs.
Those taking up the slack for Mission Viejo as it swept the three team titles—men's, women's and combined—included a couple of fast-improving 14-year-olds, Alice Browne and Dawn Rodighiero, who have just the kind of fresh talent the U.S. will need if it hopes to overtake the powerful East German women swimmers. Browne took the 200 butterfly in Philly with a clocking of 2:15.57, while Rodighiero won both breaststrokes, the 100 in 1:14.64 and the 200 in 2:39.4.
While Browne and Rodighiero were making up for the absence of Babashoff, Goodell was being rudely treated by Mission Viejo teammates Casey Converse and Jesse Vassallo. Converse, who will be a freshman at Alabama this fall, was one of the few disappointments among the U.S. men at Montreal. He failed to make the finals in the 400 freestyle won by Goodell in a world-record 3:51.93. "I want to prove I'm a swimmer," Converse said as the AAU championships began, and he did just that by outracing Goodell to win the 400 in 3:54.65, which would have been good enough for the bronze medal at the Olympics. He also whipped the obviously tired Goodell in the 1,500.
Even more gratifying was the performance of the 5'6" Vassallo, who weighs 126 pounds and celebrated his 15th birthday two days before the AAU meet. Vassallo hails from Puerto Rico, but his family moved to Mission Viejo last year in hope that he and his four brothers might improve as swimmers. Despite his tender years, Vassallo emerged last week as a national champ by winning the 400 individual medley in 4:28.34, a time that would have broken the world record four months ago. Goodell finished second. Vassallo also swam well in three other events (the 400 and 1,500 freestyles and 200 backstroke), prompting Mark Schubert, the 27-year-old coach who has masterminded Mission Viejo's emergence as the nation's No. 1 club, to predict super-stardom for him.
"A lot of swimming prodigies do well mainly because they're big for their ages," says Schubert, "but that's obviously not the case with Jesse." Indeed, as Vassallo took his victory march around the pool, he was escorted by a willowy young woman who had to lean down to hear his confidences.
This was a problem that the towering Skinner, who stands nearly a foot taller than Vassallo, did not have to face during his triumphant tour of the pool deck. A resident of Cape Town who was recruited by Alabama's Gambril two years ago, Skinner won the 1975 NCAA 100-yard freestyle championship in an American-record 43.92. A well-spoken, lively sort who prudently clams up on politics—U.S. or South African—Skinner quickly endeared himself to Crimson Tide boosters, who were largely responsible for the "Let Jonty Swim" campaign for immediate citizenship. The rebuff in Congress did not surprise Skinner, who shrugs and says, "I figured it was worth a try."
Deciding to make the AAU outdoor championships his personal Olympics, Skinner moved for the summer to Long Branch, N.J., where he worked out with the Central Jersey Aquatic Club. "I ate good food, went to bed early and stayed away from parties," he says. "I didn't even have wine with my dinner."
The payoff on that regimen exceeded Skinner's most optimistic expectations. Getting a lightning start in the 100 freestyle, he had put clear water between himself and his seven rivals by the 50-meter turn. "At that point, I just kept telling myself, 'This is your only chance—don't blow it,' " Skinner said after the race. "I gritted my teeth and headed for the wall." He finished nearly two body lengths ahead of David McCagg, who this fall will be a freshman at intrastate rival Auburn. Third place went to another Auburn man, senior Gary Schatz.
Skinner showed his record was no fluke when he blazed to a second sub-50 clocking barely an hour later. His 49.81 lead-off leg powered Central Jersey Aquatic to victory in the 400 freestyle relay. Inevitably, his performances raised the question of how he might have fared against Montgomery in Montreal. To his credit, Skinner refrained from claiming that he would have won the gold medal. "The Olympics were one day and this was another," he said. But the Fastest Man Afloat could not resist one sly thought, prompted by a television camera standing nearby. "I hope Jim was watching me on TV today," he said.