Three of the world's most celebrated swimmers climbed out of Cleveland State University's pool last Saturday bemoaning their shared fate in strikingly similar terms. "None of us even saw the guy," grieved Indiana's Jim Montgomery. Alabama's Jonty Skinner wailed, "You watch the fellows you're supposed to watch and what happens? Some other joker wins it." Lamented Southern Cal's Joe Bottom, "I don't believe it. We're fighting each other's waves and he's out there by himself."
The occasion for this dripping-wet grousing was the final session of the three-day NCAA championships, a spectacular meet in which every event had been won in the fastest NCAA time ever. What had piqued the three was a shocking upset in the 100-yard freestyle. It was a race that figured to be won by any of them—and by nobody else. Certainly Montgomery was one of the favorites, having won the 100-yard freestyle at last year's NCAAs as well as the 100-meter free in the Olympics. The same went for Skinner, a citizen of Olympic-outlaw South Africa, who was barred from the Games but who shattered Montgomery's made-in-Montreal world record three weeks later. As for Bottom, he burst into the picture earlier in the week by toppling two of the oldest marks in swimming, then qualifying for the 100-free final in 43.49, almost half a second under the American record.
On the other hand, if there was one fellow in the six-man field who seemed certain not to win, it was Dave Fairbank, a 6'4" Stanford senior with a reputation for being a "drop-dead sprinter." That is, he had a lightning-quick start that served him well in 50-yard races but he tended to fizzle at longer distances. Indeed, Fairbank had barely made it into the 100-free final.
But as he proceeded to demonstrate, a lowly seeding in a swimming race is not always a bad thing. By qualifying 1-2-3, Bottom, Skinner and Montgomery were rewarded with the middle lanes, the better to keep an eye on one another. As the lowliest qualifier Fairbank was relegated to an outside lane, presumably away from the action. Instead he proved to be what swimfolk call an "outside smoker," reeling off the first 50 in 20.88 to build a lead over the unsuspecting hotshots playing cat and mouse in the turbulent middle lanes and holding on in open water to touch in 43.68, a shade over Bottom's hours-old record but good enough for the stunning upset.
April 4, 1977
Hitting the wall at 43.94, Skinner knew he had whipped Montgomery and Bottom and assumed he had won. "I was shocked when I looked at the clock and saw I was second," he said.
While Fairbank was providing the biggest surprise, Bottom and a host of others were responsible for the fact that the meet produced, in all, 12 American and four "U.S. open" records (those set by foreigners competing in this country), and there were a number of other swims that appeared to be new marks only to be disallowed because of technicalities. Nonetheless, all 16 events were swum faster than ever before.
The biggest part in this binge was played by Southern Cal, which won eight of the events en route to its fourth straight team title. The Trojans were led by senior John Naber, who sat one afternoon in a motel sewing buttons on a coat and getting misty about the imminent end of his collegiate career. Swimmers may enter three individual events at the NCAAs, and as a freshman and sophomore Naber won the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes and the 500-yard freestyle. As a junior he won both backstrokes but Long Beach State's Tim Shaw whipped him in the 500. "Did you see the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show?" Naber asked. "Well, Mary was saying that her friends were her family. That's the same way I feel about the Trojans."
By way of demonstrating his utter devotion to USC, Naber shaved off his mustache for the NCAAs, something he did not do at Montreal. Then he went to work. Shaw again outdueled Naber in the 500, winning it in 4:17.39, more than a second under his American record, but Naber once again won both backstrokes, lowering his American records to 49.36 in the 100 and to 1:46.09 in the 200. That gave him a total of 10 NCAA individual titles, breaking the career record of nine amassed by Washington's Jack Medica in the 1930s and USC's Roy Saari in the '60s.
Having established himself as the most successful collegiate swimmer ever, Naber said that he would be retiring from the sport soon. He is considering an offer of a marketing job with Walt Disney Productions, to which he had been steered by his father. "Dad woke up in the middle of the night with the idea," Naber said. "He decided that Disney had everything I wanted—working with kids, the chance to travel, the all-American image. I said, 'That makes sense to me, Dad.' "
Though USC Coach Peter Daland has talented underclassmen, Naber will be sorely missed—as will the rest of the Trojan Class of '77, including Bottom, a Montreal silver medalist and winner of five NCAA titles.
Bottom has no plans to retire, especially since his shoulders are no longer bothered by tendinitis. The condition was cleared up, he says, after a prayer session with two friends who, like himself, are devout Christians. "I really couldn't understand why God meant me to have tendinitis when it inhibits my swimming, something I do to glorify Him," Bottom said. "My friends and I prayed and they 'laid hands' on me. I got in the pool a couple of days later and I couldn't believe it. It was like I had a brand new pair of shoulders."
Last week Bottom won the 50-yard free for the third straight year, his searing 19.70 in a morning heat being the first sub-20-second clocking in history. The next barrier he breached was Mark Spitz' 47.98 mark in the 100-yard butterfly, set in 1972, the oldest swim record of any significance on the books. Bottom lowered it to 47.95 in a heat, and to 47.77 in the final. Then he ran into Fairbank's ambush.
Fairbank is certainly not out of the same mold as his USC rivals. A confessed partygoer, he is never known for exerting himself at workouts, which he strolls into at 11 a.m. Some Stanford swimmers are in the pool at dawn. But he did recently increase his daily yardage from 5,000 to more than 7,000. This may explain why, competing in the morning heats of the 100-free at Cleveland, Fairbank barely made it into the finals. "I don't function that well in the morning," he said. But he speculated that the added yardage paid off in the evening. "It's probably the reason I didn't die like I used to."
In the mercurial world of swimming, where records rarely last long enough for the ink in which they have been written to dry, Fairbank certainly picked the right time not to drop dead. No matter what happens in the future, he will always be in the books as a winner in a meet where a record was broken in every event.