Jeff Kostoff was swimming in only the fourth national championship race of his young life last Wednesday night at the U.S. Short Course meet in Gainesville, Fla., but the skinny 16-year-old was thoroughly "six-beating" his opponents. The six-beat is an exhausting pattern of freestyle kicking—six kicks for every two arm strokes—that few swimmers can maintain for more than a couple of hundred yards. Kostoff can hold a six-beat for at least 6,000 yards, and by the halfway point in Wednesday's 1,000-yard free final, his legwork had propelled him to a one-yard lead over Mission Viejo's Tony Corbisiero. Kostoff was on pace not only to lower Brian Goodell's 1979 American record of 8:52.45 but also to break 8:50.
By the 800-yard mark, Kostoff had extended his lead over Corbisiero to 10 feet. His strong legs—last fall Kostoff was the No. 2 cross-country runner for Upland (Calif.) High, the school that produced miler Steve Scott—were helping him on turns, too, in the short, 25-yard pool, where strong push-offs can cut a swimmer's time significantly. As he took a breath midway down the lane, Kostoff saw Ed Spencer, his coach with the Industry Hills team, holding both arms straight up. That meant Kostoff was going faster than planned—and Spencer had planned on a record for his swimmer. "I had no idea of time," said Kostoff later. "I was just trying to win." When he finally touched at the 1,000, Kostoff was fully four yards in front of Corbisiero. The clock in the O'Connell Center froze at 8:49.97.
"One of the best swims I've seen in years," said University of Florida Coach Randy Reese. "I'm encouraged. The Soviets have been taking over the distance freestyles. This gives us a lot more hope."
A goodly number of other performances at the four-day meet in Gainesville were also propitious. Fifteen-year-old Tiffany Cohen of Mission Viejo swept the women's 500, 1,000 and 1,650 freestyle titles, confirming that she's America's new female distance star, and 14-year-old Dara Torres of Beverly Hills, whose unorthodox starting block stance resembles that of a middle-distance runner, with one foot ahead of the other, became the first American ever to defeat Texas junior Jill Sterkel in a 50 free; Torres' time of 22.44 seconds missed Sterkel's U.S. record by a mere .03. In the men's 100-yard backstroke, Stanford freshman Dave Bottom, younger brother of Olympians Mike and Joe Bottom, won his first national title and reduced the American record in the event from 49.08 to 48.94. And after his 1,000 victory, Kostoff, a high school junior whose only previous titles had been in Junior Olympic competition, went on to win the 500 and 1,650 frees.
"Kids Kostoff's age shouldn't be allowed to do that," said 100- and 200-meter freestyle world-record holder Rowdy Gaines. Gaines's comeback at 23 after a year's retirement was perhaps the meet's best news of all. His grumbling about the youth movement was excusable: After all, Gaines was an aged 17 before he had his first crack at competitive swimming.
On the other hand, if Florida freshman Tracy Caulkins hadn't got such an early start in the sport, the 1982 short-course meet wouldn't have been so historic. Caulkins was only 14 when she won her first four national titles in 1977. "That first one, in the 100 breast at the short course in Canton, Ohio, that was probably the nicest one so far," she said last week. "You always remember the very first." In Caulkins' case, just counting the rest of her U.S. championships is a challenge. She won nine in 1978, seven in 1979, eight in 1980 and eight more last year, when she broke Ann Curtis' women's record of 30. Coming into the Gainesville meet, Caulkins had 35 U.S. titles, just one shy of Johnny Weissmuller's alltime record.
Caulkins' performance in Gainesville should have been dramatic, but it wasn't. She's simply too good to be seriously threatened in her races by other U.S. women. For the record, though, let it be known that Caulkins tied Weissmuller with her 200-yard backstroke win on Wednesday night, passed him with a victory in the 400 individual medley on Thursday and then placed first in both Friday's 200 IM and Saturday's 100 breast to lift her career total to 39 championships. And she didn't walk out on the TV reporter who asked, "How does it feel to sit on the same perch with Tarzan?" Or the one who followed with, "Can you do the yell?" She does not do the yell. But her record is perhaps more impressive than Weissmuller's: While her 39 titles have come in all five strokes and taken her less than six years to amass, Weissmuller's 36 were almost exclusively in the freestyle events (he won one 150-yard backstroke title) and spanned eight years, 1921 through '28.
"Thirty-seven titles? Oh, God, that's a lot," said Gaines after the women's 400 IM. What had hit him after his retirement from swimming last April was not the magnitude of his own accomplishments—five NCAA titles at Auburn, six national championships, two world and two American records—but his simple enjoyment of the sport. "As much as I hate to train, I'm happier doing it than not," he says. Gaines quit when his college eligibility ended, but after a summer of "lying in the sun, lying in the sun, going inside to watch Gilligan's Island and then lying in the sun" at home in Winter Haven, Fla., he was eager to resume his swimming career.
Ten pounds lighter than when he retired, Gaines looked his old self in winning both the 100 and 200 frees in Gainesville. He showboated a little—Rowdy never was shy—doing a corkscrew flip turn, for example, during his 200 preliminary. "I just wanted the winner of the previous heat to know I had something left in me for the final," he explained. "I regret doing it." No one regrets Gaines's comeback; ever since he hung up his Speedo, the U.S. has been searching for an adequate replacement for him. Now it doesn't need one.
Gaines decided to test Kostoff in Friday's 500 free, even though Gaines had previously swum a race longer than 200 meters only once in U.S. championship competition. "My coach says Rowdy could swim an awesome 500 if he went after it," said a concerned Kostoff. "His 200 split could be five seconds faster than mine." Gaines did indeed take the race out at breakneck pace for 200 yards; as a result, by the final 100 yards he "felt like I was in oblivion, like on Pluto or something." Nevertheless, he finished second, only .17 behind Kostoff, who moved from fourth to first with a rush in the final 200 yards.
In the warm-down pool, Gaines grabbed Kostoff with a playful headlock and soon began affectionately referring to him as "the little shrimp." It should be noted that while Gaines is 6'1" and 165 pounds, Kostoff is no shrimp, at 6'½" and 145. Kostoff isn't easily intimidated, either. When asked if he could handle being called Goodell's successor, he said, "Oh yes, I believe so. I think it sounds good."
Kostoff has been swimming since he was five, though he attained prominence suddenly last summer, when he finished seventh in the 800-meter free at the U.S. Long Course Championships and first in the 1,500 at a U.S.-U.S.S.R. junior dual meet. His enthusiasm for training borders on the ludicrous. "That boy is a killer," says Sterkel, who swam with him at Industry Hills last summer. "I don't think he's discovered pain yet."
On Friday morning, before facing Kostoff in the 500, Gaines talked of his admiration for both Caulkins and her senior teammate at the University of Florida, Craig Beardsley, who on Wednesday had broken his U.S. 200-yard butterfly record for the second time in three weeks, lowering it from 1:44.10 to 1:43.81. "It's not just their physical ability, but what they have upstairs, their mental toughness," Gaines said. "They get up on those blocks in a meet like this and they know they'll win." That night, having lost to Kostoff, Gaines returned to the subject. He remembered hearing that he was the swimmer Kostoff most respects. "Well, I've changed that," Gaines said. "That little shrimp goes out and six-beat kicks all the way through 500 and the 1,000. Now I look up to him. Now he's my idol."