Too Green To Gather Gold

Lacking international experience, U.S. swimmers flopped at the Worlds, but Steve Lundquist (left) was a shining exception—and our divers excelled
August 15, 1982

On the bleak fringe of Guayaquil, Ecuador last Thursday afternoon, diver Christina Seufert of Ann Arbor, Mich. watched a 30-foot-high cyclone of black dust swirl through dirt fields behind La Pradera Diving Complex. "This has been one strange meet," she said, and the cyclone abruptly dissipated. Seufert, 25, who five days earlier at the IV World Aquatic Championships had won a silver medal in the women's three-meter springboard, then took her seat in the stands to witness another unlikely sight: 17-year-old Wendy Wyland, a tiny (5'2", 110-pound) high school senior from Mission Viejo, Calif., leading the heavily favored Chinese divers with just two rounds remaining in the women's 10-meter platform finals.

As Wyland stepped up for her seventh and penultimate dive, one of the poolside judges began waving his arms in distress. "Wait—I can't see," he shouted. Some observers had already suggested that, but in fact the judge, a Colombian, claimed the sun was in his eyes. While Ecuadorian attendants vainly tugged and heaved at his lifeguard's chair—the judge was still in it—U.S. Diving Coach Ron O'Brien stood on the opposite side of the pool, fuming. "He should've at least waited until the end of the round," O'Brien said. Several minutes passed before Wyland was allowed to dive.

She moved to the very edge of the concrete platform, turned her back to the water and inched out until only the grip of her toes held her in place. Then, perilously, she started to wobble. Stiff, steady winds—strong enough to have shredded one of the flags (Great Britain's) flying over La Pradera—had prevailed throughout the 10-day meet. They had even slowed some of the swimmers. Now, an especially strong gust was blowing at Wyland's back.

She stepped forward onto the platform and smiled at the ludicrous situation. Wyland had been so relaxed all afternoon that she'd read a thriller, Eye of the Needle, between dives. "I really wasn't rattled," she said later. Said O'Brien, "I was a nervous wreck."

At last the wind subsided and Wyland launched into a back 2½ somersault, pike position. The somersaults were quick and sharp. She entered the water softly. "Hoooo," screamed Seufert as a small U.S. cheering section sprang to its feet. In a moment the board flashed 69.60 points, Wyland's highest score of the meet. She had clinched the gold medal.

The American divers needed only one more victory to complete an unprecedented sweep of the four world-championship events. On Saturday, the meet's final day, University of Michigan freshman Bruce Kimball and defending world champion Greg Louganis of El Cajon, Calif. would compete for the men's platform title. Louganis had already turned in the most spectacular springboard performance in history at the meet. Kimball had used the world championships as a motivational goal during the eight months of rehabilitation that had followed his near-fatal auto accident last October. Both divers were ready.

The U.S. swimmers, in contrast, were struggling. Going into Saturday night's finals at the Alberto Vallarino Pool in downtown Guayaquil, they had won just seven of 24 events. At the last world championships, in West Berlin in 1978, they had taken 20 of 29. "If we were living up to our own expectations, everybody else's wouldn't matter," said National Swimming Coach Mark Schubert, whose team had expected—and been expected—to break half a dozen or more world records. Instead, the Americans had swum unaggressive, sluggish, even stupid races. Former Auburn star Rowdy Gaines, the world-record holder in the 100-and 200-meter freestyles, had finished second in both events, losing to Jorg Woithe of East Germany in the 100 and West Germany's Michael Gross in the 200. World-record holder Craig Beardsley of the University of Florida had also come in second in his specialty, losing to Gross in the 200 butterfly. It was the first time Beardsley had been beaten in more than two years. Tracy Caulkins of Nashville, who had won five gold medals in West Berlin, had gotten only two bronzes in Guayaquil, in the 200 and 400 individual medleys, losing to Petra Schneider's world-record in the 400 (4:36.10) and to the East German's near-record 2:11.79 in the 100. Gross, Schneider and the U.S.S.R.'s Vladimir Salnikov, who won the 400 and 1,500 freestyle, were the only swimmers to get two individual gold medals during the meet.

It was too early in the summer for the Americans to be both fully trained and fully rested. They had been forced to peak for this spring's NCAA and national short-course championships, and they had swum in arduous trials only two weeks earlier in Mission Viejo. Moreover, they were inexperienced in international competition because of the 1980 Olympic boycott. Only seven of the 43 U.S. team members had ever swum in world championship competition, and that greenness showed. For example, when 18-year-old Rich Saeger of Mission Viejo, confused by the starter's signal, thought there had been a false start in his preliminary heat of the 200 freestyle, he gently coasted up from his dive and pulled to a halt. Five other swimmers in his heat didn't stop and Saeger failed to make the finals. The next night he swam a relay lead-off split that would have won him the 200-free bronze medal.

All the swimmers had to perform in the less than inspiring Vallarino complex, set between the bleached hovels and high-rises of Ecuador's largest city. Scores of grim-faced soldiers, bearing automatic rifles, lined the pool and the cement stands. (A military coup was widely rumored to be scheduled for this week.) And the crowds, though proud that Ecuador was hosting the meet, didn't know the first thing about swimming. During most of Schneider's brilliant 400 IM, the only sounds at the pool complex were the swimmers' splashes and a snarling dog on the street outside.

In addition to Schneider's record, Canada's Victor Davis broke the world 200 breaststroke mark and Ricardo Prado of Brazil and Mission Viejo—one of many U.S.-trained foreigners at the meet—established a world record in the 400 individual medley. Cornelia Sirch of East Germany, the nation that led all with 12 gold medals, took more than a second off the world 200 backstroke mark. But going into Saturday night, the Americans' only world record had come in the 400 free relay, in which they'd lowered their own mark from 3:19.74 to 3:19.26. They might have gone faster, but the second and third legs, Robin Leamy and David McCagg, had queasy stomachs from something they'd eaten, and the anchor, Gaines, encountered the largest wave this side of the Rio Guayas. (The pool lacked wave-absorbing drains at its ends.) "I saw it coming at me and I couldn't believe it," said Gaines. "It jerked me right up out of the water. It looked like something from Hawaii."

The divers had faced comparatively minor obstacles. Florida sophomore Megan Neyer swore—though no one else did—that the three-meter diving board she competed on wasn't level. "It was like climbing a hill," she said. Nevertheless, Neyer reached the top, winning the title by 11.01 points over Seufert.

Louganis came to the meet with a bad cold. That, however, was nothing compared to his ailments last year. Louganis had dived both springboard and tower for so long—he won a silver medal in platform at the 1976 Olympics, when he was just 16—that he developed an impingement of the rotator cuff in his left shoulder last October.

"It was simple overuse," he says. So he sat out until January, and then one week after returning to competition, dislocated the same shoulder while diving in a dual meet for the University of California at Irvine, where he'll be a senior. "We were at a 12-foot pool against Cal State North-ridge," Louganis says. "I didn't realize it was so shallow until I hit bottom." He couldn't raise his arm above his head for about three months and couldn't dive competitively until May. "What I went through was a lot of trauma," he says. His therapy was to throw himself into his drama studies at Irvine: He was dance captain and one of the lead players in a University production of Pippin, and assistant choreographer of another show, The Gondoliers.

Louganis' strengths off the springboard are the height of his dives and his sublime grace. On the afternoon of Aug. 2 he was "ripping," too—entering the water with no more splash than the plink of a pebble. "Only God was close to him," Seufert would say later. For his final dive, Louganis selected a front 3½ in the pike position. Its 3.1 degree of difficulty is the highest for any springboard dive. He ripped. Five judges gave him perfect scores of 10.0, while the other two put up 9.5 and 9.0. The numbers were stunning: His total of 92.07 points for the dive was the highest in the history of the sport.

Louganis' next trick came on his fourth dive of Saturday's tower finals. With the spin of an inward 2½ pike, he made seven straight 10.0s appear on the scoreboard. Only Mike Finneran, at the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials, had ever attained perfection from the platform.

"This one was much closer to a perfect dive," said O'Brien. "Perhaps the only thing that might have been out of line was maybe Greg's fingers." Perhaps. Maybe. "That was one goal I wanted to achieve sometime in my career," Louganis said later. "But it was awfully distracting. I had to get back down fast. Shoot, there were six dives left."

There were indeed, and Kimball was up in third place, right behind Louganis and Vladimir Alemik of the Soviet Union. Kimball had been almost perfectly vertical on every entry. "He's amazing," said Louganis. "He has a cat's sense. He's always on his head."

Except that recently, Kimball had also been on his back. On last Oct. 18 he was in the front seat of a friend's car, coming home from a party in Ann Arbor, when a van struck the auto head on. Kimball broke his jaw in six places and suffered a crushed right cheekbone, a fractured skull, a ruptured spleen, a lacerated liver, a broken left fibula and torn ligaments in his left knee. Doctors told him he should have died from the blood loss. He underwent 24 hours of emergency and reconstructive surgery. With his jaw wired shut for 10 weeks, he was kept on a liquid diet and dropped from 140 pounds to 100.

Yet he returned to diving in June and seven weeks later placed second to Louganis at the diving trials in Indianapolis. "From being around my father [University of Michigan Diving Coach Dick Kimball] for so long, I have things pretty well drilled in my head," Kimball explained. And by continuing to land on his head he remained third through eight rounds on Saturday. His ninth dive, a reverse 2½ tuck, drew six 9.0s and a 10.0, but three other divers were still breathing down his neck. Louganis, a close friend for nine years, was almost as concerned with Kimball's performance as with his own. "He's been through so much," Louganis had said earlier. Greg watched with joy as Kimball nailed his final dive—a back 2½ pike, good for three 9.5s and another 10.0—to win the bronze.

Perhaps Louganis was too relieved. On his last dive his concentration lapsed, and he went way over on an inward 3½ tuck. "The first time I've ever seen him miss it," said O'Brien. Louganis needed 43.41 points to finish first ahead of Alemik. The board showed three 4.5s and nothing higher than a 6.0, but because of the dive's huge degree of difficulty (3.2), Louganis had gotten 48.00 points. He had won by fewer than five.

"That was a new dive. I've just been using it in the last year," said Louganis, visibly shaken. "I won't let it happen again."

"You were good enough to get away with it," O'Brien told Louganis. Neyer and Wyland—O'Brien's star pupils at Mission Viejo—had also been good enough to go away with everything.

All that remained was the final night of swimming, and that was a disaster. Not only did Caulkins finish sixth in the 200-meter backstroke, but butterflyer Mary T. Meagher of Louisville, heretofore dominant in the event, lost her first fly race in a 50-meter pool since 1978, placing second to East Germany's Ines Geissler in the 200. Not even a world-record swim of 3:40.84 by the U.S. men's 400-meter medley relay team in the closing event could make up for the week's disappointments. Rarely have so many American swimmers left a meet with their heads down. The men's performance (six gold medals, three on relays) had been their worst since the 1960 Olympics. The only individual winners were Steve Lundquist in the 100 breast, Rick Carey in the 200 back and Matt Gribble in the 100 fly. And the women, well, the women had won just two of 14 events: victories by Kim Linehan in the 800 free and Meagher in the 100 fly.

"This won't make it easy for us," said Neyer, speaking for the divers. "It can be harder to play stay-ahead than it is to play catch-up." But playing stay-ahead is a whole lot more fun.

PHOTO THREE PHOTOSLouganis led an unprecedented sweep by U.S. divers, winning both springboard and platform and lighting up the scoreboard with a perfect dive. It was all music to his ears. TWO PHOTOSThe three-meter board wasn't on the level, according to Neyer, but she fought the uphill battle and took the gold from Seufert. TWO PHOTOSNeither high winds nor sun-blinded judges fazed Wyland as she coolly defeated the heavily favored Chinese in the platform. PHOTOHow sweet it is: 1) The U.S.S.R.'s Svetlana Varganova cheers the 200 breaststroke; 2) Davis shows who's No. 1; 3) Carey crows the 200 back; 4) Gross grins for the 200 free; 5) Sirch salutes her 200 back mark.
PHOTO[See caption above.]
PHOTO[See caption above.]
PHOTO[See caption above.]
PHOTO[See caption above.]
PHOTOGross, a really gross (6'6") West German, exhibits the wingspan that won the 200 fly. TWO PHOTOSGaines shows the agony and ecstasy of competition; he suffers a loss in the 200 free, beams for a record 400 free relay. PHOTOEast Germany's Ute Geweniger hit gold in the 100 breast and 400 medley relay.
PHOTOA huge surprise was Canada's Davis, who broke a 6-year-old world 200 breast mark. PHOTOOne of the few highlights for the U.S. men was Carey's victory in the 200 backstroke. PHOTOSchneider swam a world-record 400 IM. PHOTOLinehan was a rare U.S. woman winner. PHOTOPrado set a world mark in the 400 IM.