There Was Really Something Bruin

When defending champion Texas went flat, UCLA hopped to it, taking the NCAA swimming title with a win in the last event
April 05, 1982

Late last Saturday evening, UCLA senior Bill Barrett stood on a starting platform at the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center pool in a YMCA in Brown Deer, Wis. shrugging the considerable tension from his neck and shoulders. In three days of competition at the NCAA swimming and diving championships, Barrett had swum 11 races, had a hand in two of the three American records set at the meet and scored 54½ of the Bruins' 187 points. Now, in the meet's final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, he would be undertaking his most important swim of all: at stake was UCLA's five-point lead in the standings over defending champion Texas, whose relay team—ranked first in the nation coming into the meet—would swim in the lane to Barrett's left.

Not since 1974, when Southern Cal upset Indiana 339-338, had the team competition come down to the final event, and never had UCLA been so close to winning the title. In fact, the 1982 championships had been so wide open that before Saturday's finals it wasn't clear which one of four schools was the favorite. Texas, which had run away with the 1981 meet, was in front with 147 points, followed by the Bruins (127), foreigner-dominated California (126) and a young Stanford team (125) that three weeks earlier had defeated both UCLA and Cal for the Pac-10 title. "There's just no way it should be this close," said the disgusted Texas coach, Eddie Reese, who had hoped to have the meet wrapped up by Friday night. The Longhorns had brought more swimmers and divers to Brown Deer than any other team—19 compared with UCLA's 10—but were swimming poorly; Reese, by his own admission, had slightly misjudged his athletes' training tapers. "Everybody is just that much off," he said, holding up a thumb and forefinger that were a fraction of an inch apart. "That's all it takes."

Cal, meanwhile, was getting every last point out of two Swedish Olympians, backstroker Bengt Baron and sprint freestyler Pelle Holmertz, and Stanford was doing the same with its 16 swimmers, 12 of whom were underclassmen. The Cardinal eventually finished third, without placing anyone higher than third in any event. "This doesn't surprise us at all," said Stanford Coach Skip Kenney, who in each of the past two years has gotten the nation's best group of freshmen. At Brown Deer, Kenney was also getting some startled looks: It wasn't his swimmers' heads that were shaved, but his own.

Barrett and another UCLA senior, Co-captain Robin Leamy, were starring in the most eye-catching team performance, however. Matters were going so well for the Bruins that in Saturday's 1,650 free, freshman Bruce Hayes, who had missed almost a month of the season with mononucleosis, came in third and sophomore Rafael Escalas, from Spain, whose qualifying time had been 18th among the 18 entrants, was fifth. Those performances gave UCLA 22 points.

Leamy, generally considered the fastest sprint swimmer in the world, was having the meet of his life. He won the 50 free by .01 over Holmertz on Thursday night, 19.85 to 19.86, after clocking the second-best time ever, 19.57, in the afternoon preliminaries. The only better time is his own American record of 19.36, set last year. Leamy also won the consolation final of the 100 butterfly on Friday, good for seventh place in the event, and in Saturday's prelims of the 400-free relay, his 42.32 anchor leg—.06 better than the U.S. record for the 100-yard free—gave the Bruins an American record (2:53.85) by .01. Although Leamy couldn't match that time in Saturday's 100 free final, he still won the race easily, in 43.59, again over Holmertz. "I don't think this pool is really fast, for sprint times at least," said Leamy, who would have one last chance to test it while anchoring the meet-ending relay.

Leamy is a friendly, soft-spoken young man with a predictable interest in water: His New Zealand-born father, Brian, is an executive for Starkist Tuna. "My mother has prepared tuna any which way you can, from casseroles to tuna hamburgers," says Leamy. "I'm tired of eating it, really." Sorry, Charlie. Because of his job, Brian Leamy and his half-Samoan, half-Scottish wife, Vini, have shuttled their family between New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Samoa and California, where they now reside, in Palos Verdes Estates. Until two years ago, Robin, born in Samoa, was a citizen of New Zealand. "It's all too confusing," he says.

Leamy usually wins his races by taking the lead at the gun and then hanging on. "I guess I have what they call explosive starting reaction," he says. Leamy also is on the Bruins' water polo team; last year he was the second-leading goal scorer. "It's a good change," he says. "There's a lot of sameness in swimming."

"If you look, you'll notice that Robin always wears the same Marlboro baseball cap at meets," said Barrett on Thursday after winning the 200-yard individual medley. His time of 1:45.00 had reduced his own U.S. record by .01 and the victory had given him his fourth NCAA title. That's quite an accomplishment for someone who gave up swimming and started hanging out with the wrong crowd when he entered high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and became what he calls "a derelict." Only when his family moved to the Cincinnati area before his junior year did he straighten himself out and again take up the sport seriously.

Barrett knows his caps because he and his two roommates collect them. Although Barrett has about 70 to choose from, he always dons the same dingy blue-and-gold job, one that a roommate got long ago at a track meet. "I wore this for my first NCAA championship," Barrett says. "It's comfortable." He has a collection of roughly 60 beer bottles also, each of a different brand. For what it's worth, he can name his favorite brews quicker than he can his hat size.

The meet in Brown Deer presented the final two episodes in the three-yearlong series of NCAA breaststroke duels between Barrett and U.S. record-holder Steve Lundquist, an SMU junior. In both Friday's 100 and Saturday's 200, Lundquist was able to hold off Barrett—but barely. "He's been a good friend and a great competitor. We've pushed each other harder than anybody else in the sport," said Lundquist, who has won five of their six matchups. Yet as much fire as Lundquist has seen in Barrett's eyes over the years—and because Barrett's eyes are always bloodshot at meets, that fire sometimes seems real—Barrett had never been more intense than when waiting for the start of the 400-free relay.

Barrett got off the block so fast in the relay that he had a two-foot lead on Texas sophomore John Smith before they had swum halfway down the 25-yard pool. The team-scoring race was quite simple: If Texas won the relay, it would win the meet. Otherwise, barring a complete breakdown by UCLA, the Bruins would triumph.

All 1,000 fans in the Schroeder Center were on their feet screaming as Barrett completed his leg three-fourths of a body length ahead of Smith. His split of 43.49 would have been good enough to win the evening's 100-free final. It also left Barrett exhausted. He dragged himself out of the pool and slumped on the deck.

UCLA sophomore Chris Silva, perhaps the best black sprinter ever, widened the gap against Longhorn freshman John Pohl. "Nobody was taking that from me," said Silva later. "Nobody." Stuart MacDonald, a 6'7" junior, then brought the Bruins through the third leg with nearly a one-second lead. With Leamy up for UCLA, the only hope for Texas was a miracle performance by junior Eric Finical.

Finical, who had pulled out a victory for the Longhorns in Thursday's 400 medley relay with a superb anchor swim, lives in a different sort of animal house in Austin with three junior teammates. Breaststroker Nick Nevid and butterflyer William Paulus like to roam along nearby streams and in local woods hunting for snakes. They catch them with their bare hands and bring them home. Another housemate, Clay Britt, who won his third consecutive 100 backstroke title on Friday, prefers fish. Last Saturday morning he went to a Milwaukee pet shop and bought six piranhas to take back to Austin. "I have life insurance on them all—in my name," says Reese of his swimmers.

In another sense, the Texas team as a whole is unusual. It has an overall grade-point average of 3.0, has no physical education majors and engages in word play more often than video games on road trips. Butterflyer Todd Crosset, a philosophy major, has been known to pass the time translating Plato into English. And what kept the Longhorns in the meet on Saturday night weren't so much outstanding swims—freshman Rick Carey did win the 200 backstroke—as good dives. While none of the three other contending teams had qualified any divers for Brown Deer, Texas had brought two, freshman Matt Scoggin and sophomore Dave Lindsey, and they got the Long-horns nine points.

Finical closed out the Texas relay with an excellent 43.23 split, but Leamy, in his final collegiate swim, turned in a stunning 42.40. He touched at 2:53.15; the Bruins had not only won the team championship but, in the process, had also taken .70 off their seven-hour-old American record.

In the poolside bleachers, where the Longhorns and Bruins were sitting next to each other, the contrast was between gloom and absolute frenzy. UCLA Coach Ron (Stix) Ballatore was embracing a mob of swimmers and old friends. Suddenly he looked toward the far end of the Aquatic Center, where the scoreboard was placed on the three-meter diving platform. "I have to get a picture of that. I have to," he said, as though he doubted what he saw. The scoreboard read:


As Barrett climbed out of the pool after his warm-down, Escalas, crying openly, hugged him. "I love you, Billy, I love you," he said, over and over. Ballatore then did the same thing, spoke the same words.

"The memories of this, of my races with Steve, they'll keep me warm late at night when I'm an old man," said Barrett. Said Florida senior Craig Beardsley, the only swimmer besides Barrett to set an individual American record in the meet—he reduced his 200 butterfly mark from 1:44.15 to 1:44.10—"There was a strange thing about this meet. Usually at the NCAAs you have all sorts of new faces, guys you never heard of, swimming phenomenal times. Here it was all the old guys, the familiar names, that won."

Two names are all too familiar to opposing coaches. "I'm going to UCLA's graduation in person this spring," Kenney had said even before the meet began. "I want to make sure that Barrett and Leamy are gone."

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER'Bama's Arne Borgstrom, shown in an IM heat, left 'em goggle-eyed in his 1,650 win. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERUCLA's Leamy was ecstatic after swimming a 42.40 anchor leg in the 400-free relay. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERIn the 200 backstroke, Carey (foreground) got a jump on the opposition on his way to one of the Longhorns' two individual victories. TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERTwo Bruin heros: Barrett (above), once "a derelict," won the 200 IM in an American record 1:45.00, while Silva was golden on the second leg of the 400-freestyle relay.