Ambrose Gaines IV was standing in the bathroom of his Cambridge hotel room...bleeding. Clad only in a navy blue racing suit, his lean torso showed the gruesome work of the razor his right hand held. Blood was beginning to congeal on his left shoulder, a red rivulet ran from his left breast and a scarlet gusher was bursting anew from his right wrist. Gaines grimaced. "The next three days," he said, "are going to be pure hell."
Despite the evidence, Gaines wasn't readying himself for a M.A.S.H casting call; he was making preparations for the descent into Harvard's Blodgett Pool, which last week hosted the NCAA swiming and diving championships. Specifically, Gaines, who swims for Auburn, where he is known as Rowdy, was doing what most swimmers do on the eve of a major meet—he was shaving down, removing the hair from his legs, arms and torso. The theory is that this increases speed by decreasing resistance.
And whether or not depilation had anything to do with it, Gaines and his fellow competitors set pool records in each of the 16 swimming events at Harvard. Moreover, while no world marks could be established because NCAA championships are contested in a 25-yard pool, U.S. open records, the highest standard obtainable in this meet, fell eight times, to say nothing of six American records.
Beforehand, some coaches ventured that this year's field was the most talent-laden in NCAA history. That view seemed justified by the very first day's preliminaries. In the 400-yard medley relay, SMU breaststroker Steve Lundquist, California butterflyer Par Arvidsson and freestyler Gaines all achieved the fastest 100-yard relay legs in history in their specialties. And all three surpassed those times in the finals—Lundquist to 53.37, Arvidsson to 46.81 and Gaines to 42.40.
April 7, 1980
In the next two days, this same trio set five U.S. open marks: Gaines, a junior, scored in the preliminaries of the 100 free and then in the 200 final with times of 43.16 and 1:34.57, respectively; Arvidsson, a junior from Finspang, Sweden, successfully defended his 1979 titles in the 100 and 200 butterfly in 47.36 and 1:44.43, respectively; Lundquist, a freshman, smashed his own 100 breaststroke mark with a time of 53.59. The other two individual pool marks went to UCLA sophomore Bill Barrett, who broke the 200 individual medley mark in the Thursday afternoon preliminaries and then topped that in the finals with a 1:46.25 to carve 2.01 seconds from Scott Spann's American record. On Saturday he won the 200 breaststroke, breaking his afternoon record with a 1:58.43.
For the second straight year the team title was, surprisingly, won by California. In 1979 the Golden Bears had upset Tennessee. This year many observers felt Cal had lost too many top swimmers to repeat—among them a backstroker who took a year off to train for the Olympics, named, of all things, Jimmy Carter—and had installed Florida and Texas as the favorites. But Cal proved it still had unbeatable depth. The Golden Bears scored 234 points to top Texas by 14, even though they won just two individual events, Arvidsson's butterflys, as compared to seven in last year's meet.
While Arvidsson, Barrett and Gaines were all double winners in swimming, and Miami sophomore Greg Louganis doubled in the one-and three-meter dives, the meet's only triple champion was Brian Goodell, the UCLA junior who won the 400 individual medley and the 500-and 1,650-yard freestyle—he set an NCAA record of 14:54.07 in the last—moving him to within one title of John Naber's record of 10 career NCAA wins.
Goodell and Naber and Mark Spitz are the only swimmers ever to have won three individual NCAA titles as college freshmen. Lundquist had been favored to become the fourth until he came up against the 6'2", 180-pound Barrett.
For Barrett, who is in his first year at UCLA after a year of junior college, the two NCAA titles represent a remarkable reformation. He swam in junior high at Fort Lauderdale but quit the sport in his first year of high school, fell in with a bad crowd and became, in his words, "a derelict." "I wanted to get back into the right crowd," he says, "but once you're associated with one group, it's hard to switch."
Barrett got his chance when, at age 16, his family moved from Florida to the Cincinnati area and he took up swimming again. As a junior he won the Ohio high school 50-yard title, a victory he views as pure luck, but important to his rehabilitation. "With success, I dedicated myself more and more to swimming," he says. As a senior, in 1978, he set national high school records in the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyles, and last summer he won the AAU 100-meter breaststroke title. Under his warmup suit at Harvard, Barrett had on a green No. 53 football jersey that was his when he was a sophomore defensive end in high school in Florida. He considers it his lucky shirt because he wore it to that first high school swimming championship four years ago, but no doubt it also reminds him of how far swimming has brought him.
No one at last week's meet had grimmer reminders of how far he had come than Tennessee senior Andy Coan. The grimmest was a long, purple scar that curls like a worm from the back of his right hand well past his wrist. There is a smaller scar on his left wrist, and there are other, invisible, reminders—nine screws, two pins and a seven-inch plate in his left wrist and two screws and four pins in his right wrist, not to mention the stabs of pain he feels when swimming.
Coan broke both wrists and suffered a hairline fracture of the right kneecap in a car accident almost a year ago in Knoxville. Two weeks before, he had won both the NCAA 100-and 200-freestyle titles in U.S. open record times. Hours after the accident, doctors told Coan that he would never swim again, that, in fact, he might not ever be able to use his hands again. Coan was hospitalized for 2½ months and his weight plummeted from 175 to 133. He has undergone nine operations and he faces at least one more on his right wrist, which has almost no flexibility.
Despite the prognosis, Coan began training again last summer. At Harvard he was unable to retain his titles in the 100 and 200, finishing fourth in the former and 17th in the latter, while suffering the additional pain of watching Gaines erase both his records. Yet last week's championships were a great success for Coan, and not just because he had qualified. He did far more than that. On Thursday, the meet's opening night, he won the 50 freestyle in 19.92, his fastest time ever.
"I've done a lot of talking, saying I was going to get back," Coan said afterward, "but a lot of that was just trying to get my own confidence back up. I never really thought after what I went through in that car I'd ever come back.
"This is probably the hardest thing I've ever done," Coan continued, his voice becoming choked, tears beginning to slip down his cheeks. "It means more to me than anything else in the world."
While Coan could deservedly celebrate his opening-night win, it had crushed Gaines' hopes for a sprint triple. That loss was particularly unexpected because earlier in the day Gaines had swum the second-fastest 50-yard freestyle in history (19.80) to qualify first for the final. At least one coach wondered aloud whether Gaines' disappointment would hinder him in his remaining individual events, the 100 and 200.
Just how Gaines would respond was also interesting in light of his feelings toward the sport, which aren't the warmest. He has been swimming competitively only four years, but while shaving down last week, and simultaneously stemming the flow of blood from the nicks all over his body, he gave the impression that that was four years too many.
"One year from this Saturday, after next year's NCAA meet, I'll be done," he said, obviously relishing the thought. "I can't wait. The last stroke I take in the last 400-yard relay next year will be my favorite stroke of all time, win or lose. I don't like the pain in swimming. It has to be the hardest sport in the world to train for. I work 11 l/2 months a year. I swim nearly 10 miles a day and run three to six more every other day. I lift weights three times a week, and from September to February I do between 600 and 1,000 situps a day. Ouch!" A fresh trail of blood appeared on his right side.
Gaines admits that in the past he wasn't always the world's most dedicated trainer, but he says, "Because there was supposed to be an Olympics, I've worked harder this year than I have in the other three combined. I've let swimming control my life this year and it's done nothing but mess it up. I've been taking light loads in school and easy courses and hardly working at all toward my degree [in mass communications]. And the girl I've been seeing for 3½ years and was engaged to has moved on."
Despite these woes, Gaines proved at Harvard that he is a tough competitor. As his record-breaking 200 time flashed on the scoreboard on Friday, he leaped up in the water and thrust his right fist skyward. Then, realizing that he had swum more than a second faster than Coan's mark of 1:35.62, he clapped a palm to his forehead in disbelief. He slept only five hours that night because, he said, "I had smile cramps," but still set his mark in the 100 in the preliminaries the next afternoon. He was unable to improve on that time in the finals but held on to win in 43.36 in a race in which for the first time in history five swimmers broke 44 seconds. Then he swam a blistering 42.55 last leg in the meet's final event, the 400-freestyle relay, to pull Auburn from third place to victory, not to mention a fifth-place overall finish in the meet behind Florida and UCLA.
Gaines was asked what he thought of all his sacrifice now. "I didn't know if it was worth it," he said, "until I looked up at that scoreboard last night and saw that 200-yard record there. I'd swim another three years just to see that again."
Obviously to Ambrose Gaines IV that moment was pure heaven.