Bruner and the burners

Mike Bruner made a fired-up comeback at the national championships, but he wasn't as hot as record-setters Rowdy Gaines, Mary T. Meagher and Par Arvidsson
April 21, 1980

Last week's U.S. Indoor Swimming Championships seemed unlikely to require a rewrite of the record book. The competition at the Texas Swimming Center in Austin came hard on the heels of both the men's and women's collegiate championships, which meant there would be a lot of weary, if not absent, collegians. As for those swimmers not yet in college or those who had graduated, this is—or was—an Olympic year, and most of them had decided to train right through this meet and peak for the Olympic Trials. But in swimming, the record book is never inviolate. By the time the meet came to a close last Saturday, three world records had changed hands.

The marks all fell on Friday, one day after President Carter had made it clear that no American athlete would compete in the Olympics and one day before the U.S. Olympic Committee announced it wouldn't attempt to send a team to the U.S.S.R. It was therefore a symbolic parting shot at Moscow when Auburn University junior Rowdy Gaines swam the 200-meter freestyle in 1:49.16 to break the world record held by Sergei Koplyakov of the U.S.S.R. by .67.

The other world records were set in the men's and women's 100 butterflys. Par Arvidsson, a University of California junior who comes from Sweden, and thus still has a chance of competing in Moscow, swam a 54.15 in his preliminary heat to break Joe Bottom's mark of 54.18 and then came back in the finals to win in 54.20, the third-fastest time ever. In the women's 100, 15-year-old high school freshman Mary T. Meagher beat University of Texas freshman Jill Sterkel, who had set four American records at last month's AIAW meet, and Tracy Caulkins, the 1978 Sullivan Award winner, while breaking the world record of 59.46 held by Andrea Pollack of East Germany by .2.

Meagher also won the 200 fly in the second-fastest time in history, but her 2:08.69 was more than a second slower than her own world mark. Meagher's double was particularly impressive because she is still feeling the aftereffects of a collapsed lung she suffered in December. That might have ended some swimmers' seasons, but Meagher dismissed it after her 200 as "the reason it went so slow." She seemed oblivious to the fact that no other female butterfly swimmer in the world has ever gone that "slow."

Despite the dazzling performances in the other butterfly events, it was the men's 200 fly that turned out to be the highlight of the meet. The race featured what may well turn out to be the best field that will be assembled in the event this year. It included all three medalists from Montreal—Mike Bruner, who set the still-standing world record of 1:59.23 in winning the gold, and Steve Gregg and Bill Forrester, who took the silver and bronze, respectively. Also on the blocks were the 1979 Pan American Games gold medalist Craig Beardsley and Arvidsson, who had doubled at last summer's FINA Cup in Tokyo in the 100 and 200 fly and did so again at the NCAA championships three weeks ago, setting U.S. open records in the process. Filling out the field of eight were Ed Ryder (Mission Viejo), Phil Hubble of England, and George Nagy of Canada. In a sense the international field at Austin had turned this race into the equivalent of a counter-Olympic event, the only top butterflyers missing being East Germany's Roger Pyttel and Sergey Fesenko of the Soviet Union.

What's more, the race actually exceeded premeet expectations. After 100 meters, Hubble, Forrester, Arvidsson and Bruner were all under the split of 58.10 that Bruner had recorded in his world-record swim, while Nagy was right on that time. As Arvidsson surged into the lead on the third lap, Bruner found himself headed for trouble. Approaching the wall, he realized he had trapped himself into making a poor turn. "I couldn't take another stroke or I'd have ended up with my head in the wall," he said later. "I just had to kick all the way in. I felt surrounded. I felt like the whole world was going past me."

By the time Bruner came out of his botched turn, he realized there was no choice but to burn the entire final lap if he was to catch Arvidsson. Bruner pulled even with about 20 meters to go, inched in front and then, taking a final gulp of air, put his shaved head down and flailed toward the wall. Coming up for his final breath, Arvidsson glanced sideways and realized he was beaten. A look of shock and disappointment spread over his face before he plunged his head back into the water and took two halfhearted strokes to get home. Arvidsson's lapse in the final few meters allowed Beardsley to pass him for second. Bruner's third turn had probably cost him a world record, but his time of 1:59.48 broke the meet record he had set in 1977.

For Bruner, 23, the win capped a remarkable comeback. At last year's NCAA championships, Bruner, then a senior at Stanford, had failed to make the finals in any event. A few weeks later he graduated with a degree in art and went to work as a sales clerk. His training lapsed. At last year's outdoor nationals in August, his best finish in any event was a 12th. Like most college graduates, Bruner seemed to be phasing himself out of competitive swimming, an impression that gained substance when he married Melanie Watson late in August. But by then, Bruner actually had decided to take one more stab at the sport.

The catalyst for that decision was a phone call from Bruner's coach for eight years, Bill Rose, who had taken a job in Canada after the '76 Olympics. Rose was the only coach that Bruner felt he had ever really responded to, and Rose's absence may explain Bruner's poor recent showings. Late last spring, Rose called to tell Bruner he would be back in the U.S. in the fall, coaching at Arizona State. Then Rose began to use a little psychology on his old swimmer. "I don't think there's anyone who trains as intensely as Mike Bruner," says Rose. "He feels, and so do I, that he's not a good swimmer. He's not a good athlete. He doesn't play any other sport well. But he's tremendously goal-oriented. The key is to set one up for him that he probably can't reach."

Rose asked Bruner if he might like to try for one more Olympics. "You know," the coach told Bruner, as if he had just thought of it, "no one has ever won back-to-back 200 butterflys in the Olympics."

That was the goal Bruner needed. In September he and Melanie moved to Tempe. She took a full-time job as a waitress so her husband could make training for Moscow his full-time job. When talk of the boycott started, Bruner became depressed, but Melanie never wavered. "She would sit and listen to me gripe," he says. "When I got really frustrated, she'd let me blow it all off at her. There's no way I could have made this comeback without her."

In the meantime, a chiropractor had rid Bruner of a troublesome back ailment, and Ric Glickstein, a weight coach, got him interested in weightlifting and nutrition. Bruner weighed 165 pounds in Montreal, but in Austin last week he was a trim 158. As one old friend noted incredulously, "He's got muscles now." Bruner also had a firm set of goals in mind. He wanted to be the men's individual high point scorer at the meet, and this summer, instead of gold medals, he wants world records in the 200 butterfly and in the 400, 800 and 1,500 frees.

Both the male and female high point scorers at the national championship win a Robert J. H. Kiphuth Memorial Award. Each receives an engraved silver tray and a $1,000 scholarship to be allocated to any school. Kiphuth awards have been presented at every national championship since 1968 and have proved remarkably accurate harbingers of success in Olympic years. In 1972 Mark Spitz won the Kiphuth and went on to win seven gold medals at Munich. In 1976 John Naber won the award before winning four golds and a silver in Montreal. Those are the two biggest medal hauls in Olympic swimming history. Last week in Austin, Mike Bruner won the Kiphuth, indicating to the swimming world that he would have been all but unbeatable in Moscow.

The win in the 200 was just the first step. With only an hour's rest, Bruner swam the 800 free and finished third in 8:03.7, his best time ever in that event. Doc Counsilman, the venerable Indiana coach, called it "the best double I've ever seen in swimming." The next night Bruner won the 400 free in 3:52.24, once again a personal best. On the last night of the meet Bruner clinched the high point title by winning the 1,500 in 15:19.76. For the first 900 meters, he was ahead of the pace that Brian Goodell had set in his 15:02.40 world-record performance at the Montreal Olympics, and though Bruner faded at the end, he once again had a personal best, this time by five full seconds.

"After the season I had last year, I had to win here," Bruner said. "I know everyone was saying, 'Bruner's through.' I wanted to win here to show the world that age has nothing to do with winning. Winning is a matter of desire."

He paused thoughtfully. "Looking back on it, if I'd known there was going to be an Olympic boycott, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But that's what made this meet so important. I wanted to feel that everything I've done has been worth it. Now I do."

PHOTOBruner's latest goals don't include any golds. PHOTOGaines left them goggle-eyed in the 200 free. PHOTOMeagher and mascot shared plaudits for her mark.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)