The Best Is Getting Better

From the springboard and the platform, the nonpareil Greg Louganis led U.S. divers and swimmers to a mass of gold medals in the IX Pan Am Games
August 28, 1983

The Parque Naciones Unidas pool complex in Caracas had seen five days of raucous, emotion-filled swimming and diving in Pan American Games history, days of tears, jeers, rainstorms, records and confusion. But as the men's platform diving final moved toward its climax Sunday afternoon—old rivals Greg Louganis and Bruce Kimball trading tightly spun front 3½s and breathtaking reverse cut-throughs against a background of Venezuelan hills speckled with shanties—the 3,500 spectators grew quiet. Having seen Louganis' spectacular springboard performance on Thursday, they now marveled at his graceful acrobatics off the 10-meter tower. They savored his splash-free entries. And they understood why, at age 23, with three world and 24 American championships behind him, he is considered the greatest diver of all time.

They also saw that he had not broken free of Kimball, 20, a University of Michigan sophomore and a five-time national platform champion. After leading Louganis through four of the first nine rounds, Kimball trailed now—but by only 16.92 points. "Here we go again," said Kimball's father and coach, Dick, who'd seen this battle before. The two divers have competed against each other since childhood and have driven each other to such a high level of performance that judges have had to raise their standards. "They've seen us do the best dives we could ever possibly do," says Louganis. "Now they want something more."

Louganis' 10th and final effort would be a reverse 3½ tuck, whose 3.4 degree of difficulty is the highest of any platform dive. It is a parlous dive: In July, Sergei Shalibashvili of the U.S.S.R. hit his head on the concrete platform while attempting one at the World University Games in Edmonton. He fractured his skull and died a week later. "It was a technical error on the Soviet's part," Louganis says now. "Just a freak accident." But for a while it gnawed at him. "I felt guilty...[for] pushing people to do these dives," he says. Such is Louganis' talent that he has taken his sport far beyond its previous limits, perfecting dives that others cannot even try safely.

Here, in the final round, Louganis threw a 3½ like none other in history. Launching himself far out from the tower, he whirled through his backward somersaults while plunging toward the pool at 10, then 20, then 30 miles per hour. He straightened, then pierced the water like a spear. With five 9.0s, a 10.0 and an 8.0 from the judges, Louganis earned 91.80 points—one of the highest totals ever recorded for a single dive. Even though Kimball followed with four 10.0s, two 9.5s and one 9.0 on his last dive, a back 2½ pike, he fell 23.46 points short of Louganis' winning total of 677.58. But Louganis was not gloating. "I think Bruce is going to start doing inward 3½s and back 3½s pretty soon," he said. "That will give him a higher degree of difficulty. Then let's see how it goes."

Louganis' platform victory climaxed a succession of excellent showings by U.S. divers. On Thursday Louganis so dominated the men's three-meter springboard competition that he could have skipped the last of his 11 dives and still defeated runner-up Abel Ramirez of Cuba by more than nine points. As it was, Louganis finished with 724.02 points to win by more than 90. "On springboard I'm mostly competing against myself," he acknowledged afterward, adding that his goal in the event now is to score 800 points. "That's a lot to take on, but I feel every dive I do is potentially worth all 10.0s." Louganis already has earned as many as 18 10.0s and 752.67 points in a single springboard competition. No other diver in history has received more than seven 10.0s or broken 700 points. "People used to talk about the greatness of [Italy's] Klaus Dibiasi," says Canadian Coach Elizabeth Jack. "Greg has moved far beyond that."

Another of the sport's legends was Pat McCormick, who won four Olympic and three Pan Am diving titles off springboard and tower in the 1950s. "She showed me her gold medals when I was a little girl," recalled her 23-year-old daughter, Kelly, last week. "I made a bet with her that someday I'd make an Olympic team and win." Kelly pursued gymnastics for eight years, but at 15 she turned to diving. On Wednesday she put a little pressure on mom, winning the women's springboard title after a close battle with Wendy Wyland of Mission Viejo, Calif. and Sylvie Bernier of Canada. The Olympics are but a step away. "The bet's for a Porsche and either an ocelot or a cheetah," said a grinning Kelly, a 5'4", 120-pound Ohio State junior considered, by her friends, to possess a bit of a wild streak.

Her rivals weren't so elated. So trying was the competition that afterward Wyland was almost in tears, Canada's Debbie Fuller, the sixth-place finisher, was actually crying on McCormick's shoulder, and world springboard champion Megan Neyer of the University of Florida—who hadn't even taken part, having failed to make the U.S. team in the event—was sitting on a poolside bench sobbing, being consoled by her close friend Louganis. "This makes 12 times I've finished second this year," groaned the 17-year-old Wyland, who won the women's world platform championship last summer in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

"I'm getting frustrated," said Neyer, who remains a favorite for next year's Olympics. "I wanted to be out there so badly...it was hard to watch." In the women's platform finals on Saturday, Wyland put an end to her frustration with an impressive victory, while Neyer, away from her specialty, came in fourth. And thus, for only the third time in history, the U.S. swept all four Pan Am diving titles.

The U.S. swimmers, fresh off their best outdoor nationals in three years, came to Caracas confident in themselves but, like many others, wary about the games. "We weren't sure if we'd even find water in the pool," said breaststroke world-record holder Steve Lundquist. Having heard rumors all summer of unfinished facilities and inept organization, swimmers and other athletes arrived to find workmen still hammering away in the Pan Am Village, no time schedules set up for events and round-the-clock traffic jams. With the village located about 20 miles outside Caracas, the U.S. team had to take rooms in a downtown hotel so its swimmers could rest properly the day before competing. "Otherwise," said U.S. Head Coach Don Gambril, "our kids would be spending eight or 10 hours a day just riding back and forth between the village and the meet." By far the fastest lanes in town were those in the newly built pool, which not only held water but so impressed the Americans that, in the words of butterfly world-record holder Mary T. Meagher, "When we saw it, we stood there with our mouths hanging open."

Other sights evoked gaping stares of a different sort. CBS-TV staffers saw an improperly bolted diving board fall off just days before the games opened. Driving rainstorms knocked down part of a pool light, chilled and stiffened swimmers and extinguished the Pan Am's not-so-eternal flame. For U.S. victory ceremonies, the swim organizers played a coarsely chopped-off version of The Star Spangled Banner and brought out American flags with stars on only one side. On Tuesday night, to the utter bewilderment of onlookers, a maintenance worker diligently bailed water out of the pool and tossed it onto the deck with a bucket, while several of his colleagues kept moving a line of unused wooden desks back and forth in front of the U.S. swimmers. "We will never lose a war to these people," said former UCLA star Bill Barrett, shaking his head.

It looked as though the U.S. swimmers might never lose a race in Caracas, either. Through Sunday night they had won 21 of 24 finals. "At least 70 percent of these [U.S.] swimmers will be in Los Angeles next summer," said Gambril. "Here we want them to come together as a team." Breaststroker John Moffet of Stanford was more blunt. "After doing so poorly at last year's world championships," he said, "we just want to kick butt."

Moffet and Lundquist opened the kickfest with a dazzling 100-meter breast final on Wednesday night. While Moffet had looked sharp in the morning's qualifying, Lundquist, who just 11 days earlier had lowered his world mark in the event from 1:02.53 to 1:02.34, had swum terribly. "People said it looked like I was taking a bath, but it was more like I was taking a drowning," said Lunk, who had been having trouble reading the walls on his turns. But Eddie Sinnott, one of Lundquist's coaches at SMU, wasn't worried. "Steve's not a morning person," he said later. "I knew that when showtime came he'd be ready."

Both Americans were, and they went out fast. Moffet turned 50 meters in 29.28 and Lundquist flipped at 29.31, just behind world-record pace. "I only caught a quick glance at John under water," said Lundquist later. "I thought I was half a body length ahead." Lundquist swam smoothly and confidently toward home. Moffet stayed right with him, steaming toward the finish two lanes to Lundquist's left. Five yards from the wall, however, Lundquist lunged. Moffet did not, and that was the race. The scoreboard clock froze at 1:02.28—a world record for Lundquist by .06. Next to Moffet's name flashed 1:02.36. The third-best time in history. "The kid's too fast," said Lundquist with a look of mock terror. "What'll I do?" Abruptly Lundquist turned his eyes to the men's 200-freestyle final. "These people are going nuts," he said of the spectators, who were in a state of pandemonium.

That Caracas fans knew virtually nothing about swimming or diving didn't stop them from making noise. Deafening noise. Clapping, hissing, screaming noise. They continually greeted U.S. athletes with a chorus of shrill, derisive whistles—which the Americans turned into a dialogue by chanting, "U.S.A., U.S.A."—and broke into bright Spanish songs at the sight of Venezuelan swimmers and divers. When hometown hero Alberto Mestre, a University of Florida sophomore, placed second to UCLA's Bruce Hayes in Wednesday night's 200 freestyle, half of Caracas could hear the roar.

But Lundquist and other U.S. team members were paying more attention to the third-place finisher in the race, former 200-meter freestyle world-record holder Rowdy Gaines, who climbed out of the pool red-eyed, his head down. Gaines, 24, a longtime U.S. star in the freestyle sprint, had been contemplating retirement for months, his reasons ranging from financial woes to disappointingly slow performances. This latest defeat left him emotionally devastated. His teammates embraced him at poolside, offering encouragement. But Gaines had already made a decision: He had swum the last race of his career. He went back to his room and cried for hours.

Gaines, a 12-time national champion and the world-record holder in the 100-meter free (49.36), has always been outgoing and upbeat. Seeing him so dejected after his loss, U.S. team members couldn't help but rally around him. Gambril spent three hours trying to bolster his confidence on Thursday afternoon, and one by one the other swimmers stopped by to cheer him up. Among them were Tracy Caulkins, who had been struggling herself lately, and world-record holder Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead, whose 200-meter free victory in Caracas was her first major win after two lackluster years. "They've been through what I'm going through," said Gaines. "I could tell they understood."

Especially helpful was the counsel of backstroke world-record holder Rick Carey of the University of Texas, who won Pan Am titles in both the 100-and 200-meter events. "It's funny, we've never been that close before, even though we both live in Austin," said Gaines. "Rick told me to dump all my pressures on him. That he could handle them. He kept telling me to relax and saying things like 'Fear sinks, courage floats.' " Experiencing at least a temporary change of heart, Gaines went back to the pool to anchor the victorious U.S. 4 X 200-meter freestyle relay team on Thursday and floated through the fastest American split of the night (1:49.03).

Carey again eased Gaines's anxiety before Friday's 100-meter free final, this time using, well, pop psychology. "He said to go into it like [rock singer] Phil Collins says: 'I don't care anymore.' " Carey apparently called the right tune: "When I got out there," Gaines said later, "I felt like a weight had been lifted off my back." Further encouraged by another backstroke specialist—North Carolina junior Sue Walsh, who tied her American 100-meter back record of 1:02.48 on Friday night—Gaines managed to touch out Fernando Canales of Puerto Rico to win the 100-meter freestyle gold medal.

His winning time of 50.38 was more than a full second off his world record time, but Gaines didn't seem to care about that. He was more concerned about thanking his friends, especially Carey. "I know that he's younger than me [by four years], but now I look at him as my elder," said Gaines. "He's just so mentally tough. If I do keep swimming all through next year, I'll tell you this much: I'm going to train in Rick Carey's lane every single day."

Before Sunday's 100-meter backstroke final, Carey was the nervous one. And so Gaines came to the rescue. "He told me all the same things I'd been telling him all week," said Carey. "He told me to lift the pressure off my shoulders and toss it away." Thereupon Carey bettered his 15-day-old world record in the 100 back with a clocking of 55.19. "The record was in the turn," he said. "I really nailed it." The 20-year-old Carey has been nailing just about everything lately: Since Aug. 3 he has broken world backstroke records four times, presenting enough evidence to conclude that he's now America's most dominant swimmer.

Carey's 100-back victory made him the fifth U.S. swimmer to win two individual events, the others being Hayes (200-and 400-meter freestyles), Lundquist (100 and 200 breaststrokes), Caulkins (200 and 400 individual medley) and 17-year-old Tiffany Cohen of Mission Viejo (400 and 800 freestyles). Yet it was Gaines who appeared to be the happiest one of all.

"This team is just incredible," he said as the medals kept piling up. "I've never been around a group of people who meant so much to me in my life, ever." That's why, after a week of swimming and diving in Caracas, the U.S. not only had collected plenty of gold, but held onto its Gaines, too.

PHOTOIn winning the springboard by 92.76 points, Louganis knew his only competition was Louganis. PHOTOMcCormick's gold may be a springboard to a Porsche from her Olympic-champ mom. PHOTOLouganis won spectacularly from the platform but rival Kimball is not about to go belly up. PHOTOTwelve times a bridesmaid off the springboard, Wyland was no piker from the tower. PHOTOLundquist lowered his 11-day-old 100-meter breast mark. PHOTOBy virtue of his backstroke double, Carey is the most dominant of all U.S. swimmers. PHOTOWith Carey firmly behind him, Rowdy regained his spirit.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)