A few weeks before the 1976 Olympics, Forbes Carlile, one of Australia's leading swimming coaches, was musing about his sport's reckless way with world records. "I thought two decades ago that performances would have leveled off," he said. "I feel they must start flattening out soon."
Since Carlile spoke, swim times have plunged even more precipitously. At Montreal world records were set in 22 of 26 events, which together with three other world records broken at a pre-Olympic meet in Berlin left just one of the 26 records—Mark Spitz' 54.27 in the 100-meter butterfly, set at the '72 Games—more than two months old. Following this binge in 50-meter Olympic-size pools, the action shifted to the 25-yard short courses found in the U.S. Last month at the NCAA meet at Cleveland State University, all 16 events were swum faster than ever before. Then two weeks ago, at the AAU short-course nationals in Canton, Ohio, the women made their splash with 11 more record clockings. The aftershock of this spree is even more devastating than last summer's: in the 32 standard short-course events only two records are more than three months old.
What makes this ceaseless assault all the more extraordinary is that it is occurring in a sport enjoying less than universal participation. Short of growing gills and fins, it takes time, money and a lot of dreary practice laps to conquer the alien environment in which swimmers compete, a fact that scares away plenty of would-be John Nabers and Kornelia Enders. As a consequence, big-time swimming has the flavor of an exclusive splash party; just seven countries shared the swimming medals at Montreal as compared to 23 countries in track and field.
But those who do take the plunge tend to be zealous. It is hardly an accident that one of the sport's reigning superpowers is East Germany, a centralized society that has marshaled its technological resources to dominate women's swimming. But it is also significant that the U.S. remains No. 1 overall. Without much of a professional payoff, swimming in this country is confined to those who can afford the luxury, with the result that it is a country-club sport, a lily-white sport—and pretty much a California sport. Yet Peter Daland, coach of perennial NCAA champion Southern Cal, notes that these limitations are also, in a sense, strengths.
April 24, 1977
"Swimming people are generally upper middle class, which is the most disciplined sector of our society," Daland says. "They're achievement-oriented. They're the hard workers and tinkerers."
The best place to find the go-getters Daland is talking about is in the sport's thriving age-group program, the well-spring of most of the growling coaches and aggressive parents of swimming legend. Launched in the late '40s, age-group competition offers children as young as eight or nine a chance to break sanctioned national records. These attractions help the swim coach beat the football coach to a lot of big, strong youngsters. The enduring effects were apparent at Montreal, where the sight of all those strapping American swimmers—the U.S. men averaged 6'1", the women 5'8"—had Jack Nelson, the 5'6" women's swim coach, muttering, "Everybody's growing except me." But Kansas Track Coach Bob Timmons, who was once a swimming coach in Wichita, feels that the main benefit of age-group swimming is psychological.
"By giving the kids national records to shoot for, age-group swimming has taught them that records aren't sacred," Timmons says. "While track people were still talking about barriers—four-minute miles and the like—swimmers were out there breaking records."
The talented, record-hungry swimmers nurtured by the age-group program have also been innovative, another big factor in the evanescence of swimming records. In the mid-'50s swimmers got the idea they could go faster by shaving their bodies, theorizing there would be less drag. Though the actual value of shaving has yet to be proved, an unquestioned breakthrough came in the 1950s after freestylers discovered they could execute quicker turns by somersaulting and pushing off the pool wall with their feet. So what if the rules required a hand touch? The rules were changed and "flip turns" are now universal. Much the same sort of thing happened when East German women introduced their revealing "skin suits" in the early '70s. American women were scandalized—until the East Germans started beating them. Then U.S. swimmers began wearing skin suits, too.
Today, anxious to carry this technological one-upmanship even further, swim parents and coaches are spending a lot of time in basement workshops devising New Improved Starting Blocks, the Ultimate Bathing Cap and anything else that might conceivably keep times dropping. In the vanguard of this effort is Larry Wan of Fountain Valley, Calif., a Yale-educated engineer whose wife Sara is an age-group coach and whose two sons are swimmers. Wan owns a small electronics firm, Sycom, Inc., which recently came out with Pasar, a $130 battery-powered unit that straps on to the swimmer's head and emits a metronomelike beep to help regulate stroking tempo during workouts. And for another $200, a coach can buy a transmitter from Sycom that will deliver his orders through the Pasar. Wan's firm is also developing a training aid called Cybertron, an electronically sensitized mitten that issues a tone which varies in pitch according to the amount of water pressure exerted on the hand—and thus, Wan says, "helps the swimmer develop a more efficient stroke."
None of this is any more futuristic, however, than the product developed by an Iowa osteopath named Jon Van Cleave. His brainstorm is Time-Off, a spray-on solution selling at $6.95 for a 10-ounce can, said to hydrodynamically "friction-proof swimmers. Time-Off was tried at Montreal by ex-University of Florida star Tim McKee, who sprayed himself before winning the silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley. "I don't know if it helped or not," McKee allows, "but I figure it didn't hurt, either."
There is danger that this rampant "anything goes" spirit is being abused. Mutterings of anabolic steroids being used to build up some swimmers have been heard, and Swimming World magazine reported that the West German swimming establishment tried pumping compressed air into the large intestines of several top swimmers in an effort to make them more buoyant. According to the account, the experiment, dubbed Operation Balloon, was discontinued when some of the swimmers developed cramps and one complained that his feet kept coming out of the water as he swam.
The exotic aside, even the everyday workouts undertaken by swimmers—five hours of pool time is not unusual—can astound other athletes, particularly when one realizes that most swimmers are full-time students as well. Ask swim people why they labor so diligently, and they reply that even their so-called sprints are, in fact, endurance events requiring distance training. For example, Jonty Skinner's world record of 49.44 in the 100-meter freestyle is five times slower than the time it takes trackmen to cover that distance. But the notion that swimmers have to put in long yardage may be less important than the fact that they can. This is because the water both cushions and cools the body.
Swimmers in the '50s typically logged 5,000 meters a day, requiring two hours in the pool. Today's swimmers plow through as many as 20,000 meters. (The Russians, with a view toward excelling at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, are reportedly experimenting with 30,000 meters a day.) Swimmers are also training at an ever faster rate, reeling off much of their yardage in all-out bursts called "repeats," punctuated by rests of as little as four to five seconds. They monitor their repeats by checking the large sweep hands of poolside pace clocks.
To build endurance in leg muscles, swimmers immobilize their arms by clutching kickboards. To strengthen their stroke they entwine inner tubes about their ankles and grip flotation devices with their legs. They also wear hand paddles. Some swim in panty hose, T shirts and layered swimsuits, not to mention "Dragin," a suit with pockets that fill with water, like tiny sea anchors. The well-dressed swimmers also wear snug goggles that make them look like popeyed waterbugs. Goggles won acceptance four or five years ago as a way to protect the eyes from chlorine at workouts, but more and more swimmers are also using them (sometimes fitted with prescription lenses) during races, because they provide a window-clear view of opponents and the wall while making turns.
Gimmicks are not confined to the physical side of swimming. Former Olympian Debbie Meyer recited Shakespeare to herself during workouts to relieve boredom, Shirley Babashoff sang songs to herself and another world-class swimmer says he thought a lot about "Coleridge and sex." But Peter Daland cautions, "Swimming laps is like driving on the highway. You can relax a bit, but you also have to concentrate on what you're doing." All of which makes it a relief when swimmers taper off in their training in order to rest and sharpen themselves for major competition. From the maximum of 20,000 meters a day, over the course of three or four weeks swimmers cut down drastically to about a third of their normal yardage, leaving themselves with energy to burn at meets.
"If you hit the taper right, your kids are ready to rip the clocks off the wall," says Mark Schubert, whose Mission Viejo (Calif.) Nadadores are the country's No. 1 swim club. "They're ready to go crazy."
Of late, even when swimmers towel off they may not be through for the day. Some coaches now put their people through 45 minutes of dryland workouts, exercise that was once avoided for fear of turning svelte swimmers into heavily muscled sinkers. Bulk is still considered undesirable, but coaches have come to believe that speed can be better developed with dryland exercise. Buttressing this conviction is the fact that East Germany's brawny but supple women, while merely rumored to be on muscle-building steroids, are known to be into intensive weight training.
A prime mover in dryland training, as in so much else in swimming, is Indiana's James E. (Doc) Counsilman, the U.S. men's coach at Montreal. The 56-year-old Counsilman can often be seen at meets, descending with mask and underwater camera into the warmup pool to collect footage for his series of instructional films on stroke mechanics. Counsilman is also a pool consultant. He invented the first pace clock. His book, The Science of Swimming, is in its 16th printing. And a few years ago he became a consultant and part owner of Mini-Gym Inc., a Missouri-based manufacturer of "isokinetic" exercise equipment.
Conventional weight training is relatively slow and static—and it builds bulk. By means of an intricate arrangement of pulleys and centrifugal brakes, isokinetics provides high-speed exercise through a full range of body movement, building explosiveness rather than brute strength. Counsilman helped the Mini-Gym people devise units that strengthen specific swimming muscles. Then he spread the gospel. "To swim fast, you have to build muscle at high speed," he intoned. "That's what isokinetics do."
Today most leading U.S. swim clubs use Mini-Gym exercisers, and the East Germans and Russians have bought some, too. And this is one swimming innovation that has had rippling effects in other sports. A couple of years ago Counsilman put Indiana basketball Center Kent Benson on his Mini-Gym, and in six weeks Benson increased his vertical jump from 22 to 26 inches. Mini-Gym's basketball sales have been rising ever since, and the company is now drumming up business in track and field, tennis, baseball and football.
At college dual meets, Southern Cal's Rod Strachan has always been a so-so performer. Major meets are another matter, as Strachan demonstrated when he beat Tim McKee to win the 400 individual medley at Montreal in a world-record 4:23.68. One reason is that Strachan gets a big boost from shaving his body, which, like most swimmers, he does only at important meets. "I'm hairy-chested," he says. "When I shave, it makes me slick and tingly—kind of like using freshly waxed skis."
In search of similar sensations, less hirsute men let their beards grow in the days leading up to meets, and women stop shaving their legs—just to have something extra to shave off before the meet. Swimmers sometimes try to heighten the effect by shaving in stages, doing the arms, say, before preliminaries and the legs before finals. If the meet lasts several days, sandpaper is applied, as needed, to remove the nubs.
Alabama Coach Don Gambril, who wrote a thesis on the subject for his master's degree at Cal State, Los Angeles, says that shaving the body bares the nerve endings and increases "kinesthetic feel." Others say the practice provides a psychological boost; it is a kind of tribal ritual in which true believers think that something good will happen, whereupon it usually does. When it comes to shaving the head, there is not even that much consensus. Freestyler-butterflyer Mike Bruner, who made like Kojak at Montreal and won two gold medals, says of being bullet-domed, "It psychs me up and freaks other people out." The latter certainly was the case last year when a University of Miami coed shaved her head for a couple of big meets. However, most swimmers are content to wear short hair or bathing caps.
Something else that swimmers save for big meets are skin suits. After logging those miles of training in everything short of suits of armor, these snug, sheer wisps of fabric—women's suits weigh as little as 1½ ounces, men's half as much—can be liberating in the extreme. Some people think that nude swimming is the logical next step, but the fact is that suits are useful in streamlining the body, as breaststroker Elizabeth McCleary discovered a few years ago at the Orchards Swimming Club in Towson, Md. One night she and four other women swimmers stole into the darkened pool and timed each other in a series of 50-yard sprints, both naked and in their swimsuits.
"It felt luxurious without our suits, and we thought we were going faster," McCleary said, "but we went slower in every instance."
To ensure that their swimmers go faster, coaches prefer clean, clear water and underwater lighting, which enhance visibility. It also helps on turns if walls are adorned with bold designs. And walls will be less slippery while pushing off if covered with either rough tile or textured "touch pads."
Attention is also given to water temperature, which can make sprinters tighten up if too cold, sap the energies of distance swimmers if too hot. "Swimmers perspire like any other athletes," says UCLA Coach George Haines. "They can lose seven pounds or even more in a 1,500-meter race. If the water's too hot, they can become dehydrated." Most coaches agree that 78° or 79° is ideal for meets, but that the water should be a bit warmer at workouts.
A lot of technology has gone into finding ways to minimize turbulence that, if unchecked, can bog the swimmers down. Gutters are built wide and deep and in such a way as to swallow up waves, and lane markers are made of flow-through discs or plastic spirals. The earliest wave-dispersing lane lines were built by Ohio's Kiefer McNeil, whose president, ex-heavyweight boxer Pete Rademacher, relates that the inspiration for them occurred while a company official was visiting a men's room on the Ohio Turnpike. "He got the idea when he noticed that the meshlike material in the bottom of the urinals greatly reduced splashing," Rademacher says. "It shows that necessity is the mother of invention, or something."
But swimmers compete in a three-dimensional element, so of late an effort has been made to reduce turbulence by making pools deep enough to prevent waves from bouncing off the bottom. The saying is that still waters run deep, and some people feel the deeper the better—12 feet or even more. But Olympic hero Don Schollander believes it is important for swimmers to get a "sense of speed" by being able to see bottom, and he considers 12 feet plenty deep enough. In any case, everybody agrees that the "shallow ends" of three to four feet found in most pools create too much turbulence.
Big meets are usually held in fast pools. One of the fastest is in the Los Angeles Swim Stadium. Built for the 1932 Olympics, it is five to 17 feet deep. Another is Australia's ancient North Sydney pool, a saltwater facility in which 80-odd world records have been broken—but no more will be. Since saltwater is more buoyant than fresh, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) no longer recognizes records set in this pool. On the other hand, some newer pools are even faster: the 4-year-old Cleveland State pool, for example, where NCAA swimmers went on their recent spree, and the 3-year-old facility at Canton, the C. T. Branin Natatorium, where the AAU short-course championships were held. Any list of the world's ten fastest pools would also include the one built for the Montreal Olympics. Boasting the latest in wave-dispersing lane markers—personally installed by Rademacher—and gutters, it also had 10 lanes instead of the usual eight. The outside lanes were left vacant during the Games, further diffusing the waves churned up by all those Olympic record breakers.
Strategy also enhances speed in the water. For example, swimmers sometimes find it possible to "drag" on front-running rivals in adjacent lanes, much as auto racers "draft" one another. The trick is to hug the lane marker, stay at the other swimmer's waist and catch a ride in his wake. Brian Goodell appeared to drag on Bobby Hackett through several laps in the 1,500 at Montreal before forging ahead to win. Effective as this technique may be in a race, some swimmers also drag on each other in workouts, which is not deemed laudable. A USC swimmer of a few years back did a lot of this. His teammates nicknamed him "Latch." When his father visited the pool, the swimmers greeted the puzzled gentleman as "Latch Senior."
Doc Counsilman believes that swimmers keep breaking world records partly because theirs is an underdeveloped sport in which such achievements are overdue. "Swimming is a relatively new sport, and the evolutionary process is much less advanced than in track," Counsilman says. "Running is a natural skill, but swimming is acquired. And most of swimming is done underwater, which makes it more difficult to coach."
It is possible that records would be falling at an even faster rate if swimming attracted wider participation, or if the people it attracts stuck around longer. But swimmers not only start early—at the recent AAU meet, nine records were set by kids 15 and under—they also tend to quit early, as young as 18 or 19 in the case of top women performers and 21 or 22 among the men. Rutgers' Frank Elm, an assistant U.S. coach at Montreal, says, "In some ways, the age-group program is backfiring. Sure it gets young kids into swimming, but it also burns them out before they're even close to their potential peak."
The increase in college scholarships for women athletes may help reduce the number of early dropouts. There are also efforts to cut down on some of the sport's drudgery. Many swimmers are now executing a portion of their workouts wearing fins—which propel them through the water with frolicsome ease—because their coaches contend fins increase ankle flexibility. More dramatically, Long Beach State's iconoclastic Dick Jochums, whose protégés include Tim Shaw and (in the summer) Bruce Furniss, stubbornly eschews dryland exercise and holds yardage down to no more than 14,000 meters a day even for distance swimmers. Jochums instead concentrates on intensive "quality" workouts.
"Just because the times keep dropping, it doesn't mean there's not an easier way," Jochums says. "A lot of the yardage we've been piling on these kids is superfluous."
Whatever the approach, everybody obviously wants to keep the times dropping as long as possible. One who sees them falling almost indefinitely is Mark Schubert, who feels that swimming is nowhere near its technological limits.
"People say we can't possibly increase the amount of training we do any further," the Mission Viejo coach says. "Well, we can find ways to train harder in shorter periods of time. We're also going to get even bigger, even more dedicated kids. We'll be using computers, too. Some day we'll have computer terminals at the end of each lane. After the swimmer finishes a series, the computer will provide a readout of his times and tell him what the next series should be."
And what if the swimmer fails to go fast enough? Schubert grins wickedly. "That will be taken care of, too," he says. "When he touches the next wall, he'll get an electric shock."
Until that comes to pass, about the only thing in swimming that figures to be a shocker will be the first major meet in which not a record is broken.