University of Kansas senior Tammy Thomas arrived on the swimming scene last month without warning, as powerful and sudden as a Corn Belt twister. She swept into the Women's NCAA Championships in Lincoln, Neb. a complete unknown and promptly blew away American records in three of her four freestyle sprints. Then last week, at the Phillips 66/U.S. Swimming Short Course Championships in Indianapolis, Thomas, who's a muscular 6'1" and 160 pounds, had already won the 100-yard free when she stepped to the blocks for her heat of the 50. She proceeded to churn out the fastest time at that distance ever swum by a woman in a 25-yard pool, a 22.13 clocking that lowered her own U.S. record by .04 (world records for short-course pools are not kept). "I have a lot of size," she said afterward, smiling. "I guess when I get all that going, it's pretty hard to stop."
Thomas has the explosive starts and turns typical of great sprinters, but otherwise she's an anomaly. Swimmers of her caliber don't suddenly appear at age 21. They rise young, like California high schoolers Tiffany Cohen, 16, and Jeff Kostoff, 17, who together won seven events at Indy and established three of the meet's seven American records. Swimmers often fade young, too, like Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead, who set her first world freestyle record at 14 and now, at 19, is struggling to return to world-class level. Even Tracy Caulkins, swimming's Grand Old Lady, whose three national titles last week raised her career total to 45, is just 20 years old.
When Thomas was Caulkins' age she hadn't yet placed in a U.S. national meet; when she was 14 she'd hardly taken up the sport. An Army brat, she grew up in a medley relay of cities—about 15 in all—from Fort Knox, Ky., where she was born, to Bangkok, Thailand, where she joined her first swim team, to Fort Sill, Okla., where she went to high school. "We moved every nine months," says Thomas, whose father, Robert, is now a retired lieutenant colonel.
As a result, Thomas' training was constantly interrupted, and before this year she'd never swum faster than 23.22 in the 50-yard free or 50.20 in the 100. Then, at the NCAAs, she easily defeated American record holder Jill Sterkel of Texas in both events, cutting the 100 record from 48.61 to 48.40 and the 50 mark from 22.41 to 22.28 and then to 22.17.
Thomas can't explain her improvement. What she apparently lacked until recently were strong legs—squats, running and bicycling built them up—and confidence. She bolstered the latter by working with Dr. Andrew Jacobs, stress psychologist for the U.S. Olympic cycling team. "We did a lot of work on imagery," said Thomas, "on focusing in on what I was doing and closing out what was around me. Now I focus on a time."
Thomas had a sub-22.13 in mind for Friday night's finals of the 50, but had to settle for a 22.20 to win her second national title. "My start was flat and I didn't drive my legs into the wall," she said. Still, including relay legs, Thomas had a clocking better than Sterkel's old U.S. 50 record for the sixth straight time. No one else has done so even once.
Like Thomas, Texas sophomore Rick Carey has been busily setting U.S. records. In March he broke the American 100- and 200-yard backstroke marks twice each, trimming them by roughly two-thirds of a second, to 48.25 and 1:45.21, respectively. Last week he planned to lower them again.
But shaving records is easier for Carey, it seems, than shaving himself. When he uses shaving cream he breaks out in a rash—a dread curse for a swimmer. Besides, last Wednesday night he nearly forgot about his crucial prerace streamlining shave. Two hours before the finals of the 200 back, he had to rush to a bathroom in the Indiana University Natatorium with a disposable razor and a fresh bar of Ivory soap.
Carey had to be as sharp as a blade to beat his archrival, 1980 Olympic 200-meter backstroke champion Sandor Wladar of Hungary. "I hold a little grudge toward him," said Carey, recalling Wladar's victory over him in the 200 at the 1982 short-course meet. Although Carey had more than avenged that defeat by beating Wladar for the gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke at last summer's World Championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador, he wasn't satisfied. Carey thought that Wladar had been cheating on his turns during the morning preliminaries at Indianapolis—twisting the plane of his shoulders past vertical—and nothing upsets Carey more than a swimmer who either cheats or showboats. "If you're going to be in the race," he says, "it's 100 percent or nothing at all."
Wladar executed his turns properly in the 200 finals but ended up with nothing at all. Carey beat him on every lap and was three body-lengths ahead when he touched in 1:44.43, a U.S. record by .78. "Ricky can go 1:43 or even 1:42 before he's through," said John Collins, Carey's coach at the Badger Swim Club of Larchmont, N.Y. "He's that good."
Carey is the best backstroker to come along since John Naber, and potentially the best ever. He trains doggedly—he once swam a six-mile backstroke time trial in a workout—and is an intimidating competitor. Says one of his peers, "He's a cocky s.o.b. But he is tough."
Carey, who's frank and well-spoken, has matured dramatically since his tempestuous younger days, when he would turn irritable after a loss and handle reporters with the tact of a Bobby Knight. "Rick likes to be perfect," says Collins, who has coached Carey since he was 12. "It used to be that if things were a little bit off, he wouldn't tolerate it—in himself or other people."
By the time Carey won Saturday night's 100 back finals in 48.32—history's third-fastest clocking—North Carolina junior Sue Walsh had logged the meet's penultimate U.S. record, reducing her own 100 backstroke mark by .07, to 54.74. And Cohen and Kostoff had virtually clinched the meet's high-point trophies. Cohen, from Mission Viejo, Calif. had already won four freestyle events, the 200, 500, 1,000 and 1,650, and cut Kim Linehan's American 1,650 record from 15:49.10 to 15:46.64. But winning the women's high-point award was just as impressive a triumph: At every U.S. national meet since 1976—long-course and short-course, 12 in all—Caulkins had earned that honor.
Kostoff, from Upland, Calif. and the Industry Hills club, nearly became the first male swimmer since Mark Spitz in 1972 to win four titles at the nationals. He finished first in the 400 IM and the 1,000 free, reducing his year-old U.S. mark in the latter event from 8:49.97 to 8:48.57. He later added a third championship in the 1,650 free. Only a narrow second-place finish in the 500 free, behind fellow high school senior Mike O'Brien of Mission Viejo, prevented Kostoff from going 4 for 4.
The 120-pound Cohen, who won her first national championship at 14, looks choppy in the water—her head jerks about like a fishing bobber—but is utterly tireless. She's a typical high schooler: unsophisticated and partial to her Sony Walkman and "scary movies." Kostoff, by contrast, has the poise and intellect of an adult. The nation's top college recruit this year—especially after he upset Vladimir Salnikov of the Soviet Union in a 400-meter free in February—he has chosen to take his 3.8 GPA to Stanford. At next year's NCAAs he could bring the Cardinal a team championship. "He'll be 40 points for sure and maybe 45," says Texas Coach Eddie Reese. "He could win three events." To close Saturday's individual competition, Kostoff took .18 off Tony Corbisiero's U.S. 1,650 freestyle record with a time of 14:46.11.
As for Thomas, she ended the meet with a second place in the 100 butterfly—behind, ironically, 25-year-old Laurie Lehner, perhaps the oldest woman ever to win a national title. "Maybe it was an accident, but I came along at just the right time," says Thomas. "If it had been any earlier, I might not have been around to go for the Olympics."
Instead, she's America's brightest sprint freestyle hope, a swimmer from Fort Knox who, like Carey, Cohen and Kostoff, is thinking gold.