The four-day AAU long-course swimming championships were winding down, and Frank Keefe stood at poolside in Mission Viejo, Calif. wearing a troubled look. In front of him rose a hill emblazoned with marigolds arranged to spell MISSION VIEJO in large block letters, and beyond loomed the faint silhouette of the Saddleback Mountains. It was an inspirational setting for a swim meet, but Keefe remained strikingly unmoved. "This pool stinks," he said. "You need deep water to go fast and this is too shallow. I think the pool is awful."
It was apparent that esthetics were not foremost in Keefe's mind. Of more immediate concern was the challenge he faced as head coach of a U.S. all-star team that was being gleaned from the top performers at the AAU meet, a 36-member contingent scheduled to journey to East Germany and the Soviet Union for dual meets this weekend and next against the best swimmers of those two countries. East Germany is a superpower in world swimming, Russia is poised to become one, and what worried Keefe was a rash of uneven times in the Mission Viejo International Swim Complex' 50-meter pool. In a sport that thrives on world records, only one was set on the meet's final night by 15-year-old Alice Browne, a member of the hometown Mission Viejo Nadadores, whose 16:24.60 in the 1,500-meter freestyle was nine seconds under Australian Jennifer Turrall's old mark. But much as the occasion excited the 3,500 spectators, the women's 1,500 happens to be a non-Olympic event swum only in the U.S., Australia and a couple of other countries.
For the otherwise disappointing times, Keefe was merely expressing the view that seemed to prevail at the meet. Swimmers do have rougher going in shallow water, which tends to be more turbulent, and the Mission Viejo pool, a mere four to five feet deep at most points, can indeed be considered shallow. But Keefe was also practicing a bit of psychology. Plainly, he hoped to convince his swimmers that they would fare better in Berlin and Leningrad.
Just as plainly, the swimmers were susceptible to such suggestions. Brian Good-ell, for one, also operates out of Mission Viejo, a community 50 miles south of Los Angeles that prides itself on its Nadadores, the nation's No. 1 swim club. Goodell became a hometown hero when he won the 400 and 1,500 freestyle at the Montreal Olympics, and his performance at the AAUs, even more than Browne's world record, helped soothe the ruffled sensibilities of locals, who insisted that, well, their pool was not all that slow. Goodell won both the 400 and 1,500 and was runner-up in the 400-meter individual medley. His 3:53.47 in the 400 free was the fastest time in the world this year, and Goodell blamed the cool night air, not the shallow water, for his failure to break the world record of 3:51.93. "I hope to do better in the dual meets," he said.
August 28, 1977
Another two Montreal gold medalists expressed similar sentiments upon winning. Ex-Indiana freestyler Jim Montgomery, the Olympic champion in the 100, managed only a third in that event last weekend, but won the 200 free in a swift 1:51.14. Then he said, "There will be bigger crowds and more pressure in Berlin. I'll swim better there."
The same theme was sounded by Stanford's Mike Bruner, who was second to Goodell in the 400 free and took the 200 butterfly in 1:59.49, a scant .26 over the world record he set in Montreal. "I'll get better with another week's rest," he said.
With Goodell, Montgomery and Bruner on hand, the U.S. men's team has some of the flavor of the team that competed in Montreal, where American men won 12 of 13 events. But quite a few Olympians have retired, and enough newcomers will be swimming in Berlin and Leningrad to inject a note of uncertainty.
A far more dramatic turnover was taking place in the ranks of the American women, who no longer had Shirley Babashoff to try to single-handedly fend off East Germany's all-conquering Wunderm√§dchen. Everybody expected that Jill Sterkel and Jennifer Hooker, both strapping 16-year-olds, would take up some of the slack. Sterkel is a sprinter and Hooker a distance swimmer, and they combined to sweep all four freestyle events at the AAU short-course (25-yard) championships last spring. But both arrived at Mission Viejo with minor illnesses and both made the U.S. team only on the last night, Sterkel as a fill-in in the 100 free—she placed fourth—and Hooker with a second to Browne in the 1,500.
Including Browne's world mark, nine American records were broken and, while some of these clockings are slow compared with the world records held by the East Germans, at least there were people around working to narrow the gap. One was Wendy Boglioli, who won the bronze medal in the 100 butterfly at Montreal and was a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay that upset the East Germans, the only gold medal the U.S. women won at the Games. Boglioli had retired for a time, but unretired to qualify for the U.S. team in three events. Her most impressive swim was in the 100 butterfly, in which she lowered her American record to 1:01.16, barely a second over the world record held by the retired East German star, Kornelia Ender.
Boglioli was joined on the women's team by a couple of fresh-faced water sprites. One was Nancy Hogshead, a 15-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla. who won the 200 butterfly in an American-record 2:11.83, just .61 off the world mark. Another was Tracy Caulkins, a gangly 14-year-old schoolgirl from Nashville. Caulkins set American records in winning the 200 and 400 individual medleys (2:19.31 and 4:48.93), then set another American record (1:13.05) while placing second in the 100 breaststroke behind Canada's Robin Corsiglia. She qualified for the dual-meet team in four events. Caulkins has freckles on her nose and braces on her teeth but the most obvious thing about her in Mission Viejo was her tough-mindedness. "I should have gone a lot faster here," she said, sounding tantalizingly like the Brian Goodells and Mike Bruners of the world. "I'll just have to do it at the dual meets."
For all these brave remarks, there remained the fact that the dual-meet opponents also were obviously steeling themselves. While the Americans were swimming in Mission Viejo, the European championships were going on in J√∂nk√∂ping, Sweden, and the results were generally good—and occasionally very good. The Soviet men, stronger than expected at Montreal, continued to improve, while the East German women were still formidable. Despite the retirement of the wondrous Ender, GDR women won 10 of the 12 individual events and broke two world records—Ulrike Tauber improving her time in the 200 IM, and Petra Th√ºmer breaking her record in the 400 freestyle.
Meanwhile, poor Frank Keefe could only speculate about how seriously the East Germans took the meet in Sweden—and what surprises they might spring when the Americans troop into Berlin's Karl Friedrich Friesen Stadium pool. He is equally in the dark about the Russians. "We just don't know how good these countries really are," he said. Which wouldn't be so bothersome except for one thing. What with all the wait-till-Europe cries coming out of Mission Viejo last week, Keefe did not know how good the Americans really were, either.