On Wednesday of last week Rick Carey, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Texas, hurled himself off the wall at the Clovis West High School pool in Fresno, Calif. and swam to a world record in the 200-meter backstroke. It was a whale of a way to get the U.S. National Long Course championships perking, and before the week was out there would be four more world and two American records set. Sad to say, though, American men were a long way ahead of American women in terms of prowess on an international scale—so much so that there was near despair over the women's Olympic chances at Los Angeles in '84.
But back to Carey and the good news. His 200 mark of 1:58.93—in a qualifying heat, no less—bettered the 159.19 swum by John Naber way back in 1976 at the Montreal Olympics. Carey had spent the previous evening lolling around his hotel room eating tortillas, watching The A Team on television, drinking "about four gallons of apple juice" and contemplating his race plan, which was kind of laid back. "I want to do about two minutes," he said. "Play it by ear, and then turn it on strong with the last 50." Carey swam the first 150 meters just off world-record pace, and then went flat-out for the last leg, stroking it in a fast 30.66. "I feel kind of numb," he said afterward. "I didn't think I'd do that well. The importance of what I did today, though, was not so much what I did, but that it took seven years to get past Naber's record."
It was hot when Carey swam—104° that afternoon and 95° for the evening competition—but few of the 1.285 competitors in the meet were complaining. The nationals were serving as the trials for this week's Pan Am Games, and Caracas would no doubt be hotter than Fresno.
Carey went out fast in the final, registering a world-record split of 27.51 for the first 50 meters. But he was unable to maintain the pace and finished in 1:59.27, .34 second off his own mark and slower even than Naber's old record. The pressure of holding the world record was getting to Carey already. "I kind of pushed too hard," he said. "I made a lot of dumb moves and I was uptight. All day long I couln't stop thinking about the record. Everyone kept stopping me on the deck and congratulating me. I couldn't go anywhere without thinking of it."
Next to fall on Wednesday was the U.S. mark in the men's 800 freestyle. Jeff Kostoff, 17, of Upland, Calif., easily lifted it from Tony Corbisiero after qualifying second to Tony in the prelims. Kostoff touched in at 7:58.31, .19 second better than Corbisiero's record but nearly six seconds away from the world mark of Vladimir Salnikov. Kostoff had beaten Salnikov in a 400 in Bonn last February, but he was not ready to launch an 800 challenge at the Soviet swimmer. "Firstly, Vladimir is still better than I am," Kostoff said. "Secondly, this isn't a Pan Am event, so everybody swimming in it was thinking, 'I'm not going to kill myself.' Besides, you don't want to shoot your wad the first day."
Maybe not, but the men's 200-meter breaststroke is a Pan Am event, and Steve Lundquist, 22, an SMU graduate, had come up to it off tough workouts with SMU Assistant Coach Eddie Sinnott. At a prerace press conference, Lundquist, who had damaged a shoulder two years ago in a motorcycle accident, declared himself fighting fit. "I've had some problems with my shoulder lately," he said, "but I've been taking some great drugs. Aspirin." Lundquist, already the world-record holder in the 100 breast (1:02.53), thereupon claimed the American 200 record with a 2:15.38, 1.88 seconds better than John Hencken's 1976 mark.
After Wednesday's race Sinnott said of his prize student, "Lunk is learning how to stay in control, lengthen his stroke, to swim his race and not look around. When he goes too fast he spins in the water. In the 200 he only looked around once, in the first 50 meters, when he checked out John Moffet. But he still has a better race in him. He's an animal, the type of guy who won't train for the silver medal. He wants the gold."
The animal never looked back. On Friday Lundquist and American-record holder Bill Barrett went head to head in the 200 individual medley, finishing in a dead heat to equal Barrett's mark of 2:03.24. "I had no idea who won," Lundquist said later, "I looked up at the scoreboard and saw two ones. Then I looked at the times. Deductive reasoning came into play. Tying and equaling a record, that's pretty bizarre." And then he hummed a few bars from the theme of The Twilight Zone.
Off in his own zone, meanwhile, was Rowdy Gaines, 24, who graduated from Auburn last year. The American- and world-record holder in the 100-meter freestyle at 49.36, Gaines won that event Wednesday night in 50.21 but could not savor the victory because he hadn't gone as fast as he felt he was capable of. On Thursday night he stood behind the blocks before the start of the 200 freestyle, twitching with nervousness. He is also the American-record holder in this event (1:48.93), and held the world record until Michael Gross of West Germany took it away from him in June.
At the gun Gaines was sizzling, and at the halfway point had a world-record split of 52.45. But he touched in at 1:50.32, 2.04 off Gross's mark and, worse, finished second to UCLA's Bruce Hayes. When he walked into the press trailer to be interviewed, Gaines looked shell-shocked. He struggled for words and shook his head in frustration. "I swam exactly the same race I always do," he said. "I go out and go for it. I've always had a great last 50." He bowed his head. "I've never swum this way in my life. Before this, every year I got faster and faster." As he walked away he said, "I have no confidence. It's like I have this line drawn down the middle of my body. One half wants to quit, the other half remembers all the great competition and wants to swim. I must have watched Rocky III a hundred times. He was afraid. He was afraid to lose. And if you're afraid to lose, you'll lose. On the blocks tonight I was starting to imagine what it would be like to lose. I'm not about to swim next year if I can't overcome that fear." Gaines turned and walked away, and there were tears in his eyes.
Gaines's coach, Richard Quick, tried to explain the swimmer's dilemma. "He's been defending a champion's position for quite a while now," Quick said. "There are pressures involved. In swimming there's no structured program after college. You're not only losing money, you're losing professional ground, too. This is costing him a career future as well as money. He's on a grant from U.S. Swimming, $6,000 a year, and that's near the poverty level. You know how many of our 1980 Olympians are at this meet? A lot. Many of them wouldn't be swimming today if there had been an Olympics in 1980. The boycott was psychologically bad for them."
Bad for 1984 Olympic Coach Don Gambril was the performance of the women at Fresno. "We're beginning to shore up in some places," he said, "but frankly, we look frightening in others." Randy Hart, manager of venue press relations for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, had an equally depressing reaction. "Except for Tiffany Cohen in the 400 and 800 freestyles," Hart said, "our women will not be favored to win a single Olympic event."
Unless they pull themselves together. Lord knows, they're trying. Mary T. Meagher, world- and American-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly, won the 200 fly Wednesday in 2:09.53, almost four seconds off her record. And on Saturday night she finished fourth in the 100 fly, in 1:01.08, her first loss in the long-course nationals in that event in six years. Meagher, newly svelte, having dropped 10 pounds in three weeks, obviously had the future very much on her mind. "The Olympic 100-meter fly is exactly a year from today," she said. "Oh, it's a leap year, so it's 366 days from today." Meagher, who has just completed her freshman year at Cal, plans to take the next academic year off just to train for the Olympics. "I've got to stop making excuses," she said. "I'm coming off a disappointing college season, and I spent the summer getting back into shape." She also admitted that she had probably been on top too long. "I was too confident." she said. "It was a real eye-opener when Ines Geissler [of East Germany] beat me in the 200 fly at the Worlds last year. At the Bonn meet in February I was a basket case. I was crying before my race. And I'm back to being nervous up on the block. I used to use my nervousness to my advantage, but now, on the morning of a race, I panic. That never used to happen."
Twenty-year-old Tracy Caulkins, who won her 47th national title at Fresno, seemed to be in the grip of ennui. Caulkins is the American-record holder in the 400 IM (4:40.61), but on Thursday her winning time was 5.10 seconds slower than her record. She finished second to Meagher in the 200 fly. "It's frustrating," Caulkins said of her slow performances, "because I don't know why." Caulkins always looks cheerful, even when she's reciting her shortcomings. "I think I've changed a lot since I was 14 or 15 years old. Then I was just out there having fun. Now it's work. But I have more experience; that should help." She brightened as she thought of her other plusses. "I'm bigger and stronger, and that should help, too." Then, in a wistful voice, she asked. "So why don't I go faster?"
But it was not all doom and gloom for the women; some new talent emerged at Fresno. Dara Torres, a 16-year-old from Beverly Hills, chalked up a world "best" in the 50 free (25.62), and Carrie Steinseifer, a 15-year-old from Saratoga, Calif. who was swimming in her first long-course nationals, won the 100 free in 56.52, within sight of Sippy Woodhead's American record of 55.63. Steinseifer particularly impressed Pan American Coach George Haines. "We have a lot of catching up to do in the women's events," he said, "but it's a good indication when a 15-year-old wins." It took a while for Steinseifer to come to grips with her victory in the 100. Her main concern had been making the Pan Am team, not winning. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "I turned around and looked at the scoreboard and thought it said I was second. I was happy with that. Then I turned around and looked again, and when I saw 'first' I almost went crazy. I'm sure I'll feel pressure on myself to maintain this level of performance, but I don't think it will affect me. Becoming a champion gives you a lot of confidence in yourself." She obviously hasn't been having long chats with Tracy or Mary T.
But, ah, those men. On Saturday, the meet's last day, no fewer than four world records fell. Carey did it again, this time in the 100 backstroke, stripping Naber of his last world mark, also set at the '76 Olympics. Carey broke the record first in the morning prelims with a 55.44, .05 better than Naber's best, then came back that night and swam even faster, taking .6 off his own record. Carey is a good friend of Naber's, and he phoned him the night before the 100. "He helps me out," Carey said. "When it comes to race planning, you can't beat him." Naber gave Carey some sound advice: Get some sleep, have something to do. So Carey took a walk early on Saturday, and then went back to his hotel and watched TV. Following his record in the prelims, Carey was very low key, playing down the achievement. "I thought it was a solid morning swim," he said. That's Carey.
He may not be an animal but Matt Gribble. 21, of the University of Miami's Hurricane Swim Club, assuredly is. Gribble had missed beating the 100 fly world record of 53.81, held by William Paulus, by .2 of a second or less six times in the last two years. Now he broke through the barrier with a 53.44.
The old original animal, Lundquist, capped the day by bettering his own world record in the final of the 100 breaststroke with a 1:02.34. Lundquist, who loves the limelight, was delighted with his showing at the meet. "It's my best performance ever," he said.
In the end, Cohen, who'd won the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles, was given the Kiphuth Award for the foremost female swimmer, while Lundquist was named the top male. Oh, and Gaines gained a measure of encouragement by swimming a 49.78 freestyle leg in the 400 IM relay that helped the Texas Longhorns' "A" team break its own American club record with a 3:45.66.
Afterward, as fireworks lit the sky over Fresno, Gaines draped his arms around his Texas teammates, flashed the "Hook 'em Horns" sign to the crowd and just smiled and smiled. It was like old times for Rowdy and, hopefully, a portent of new and faster times to come.