David McCagg occasionally feels old enough to have seen diplodocuses flopping about in the primal sea. He's 25, which makes him a first cousin to the dinosaur in the pool of competitive swimming. McCagg, a sprinter, and his buddies, Kyle Miller and David Larson, both 24-year-old middle-distance men, arrived at the U.S. National Long Course championships in Fresno, Calif. this summer by way of the Mesozoic Era. Twenty-four is practically the afterlife for Olympic swimming aspirants.
The three are the prize relics of the Florida Aquatic Swim Team (FAST). They competed at the Fresno championships against yeasty high school and college kids. "I can't see myself still swimming when I'm that old," said their teammate Tracy Caulkins, who at 20 isn't too far from extinction. "But it's nice to know that it can be done." She paused, and then added, "With enthusiasm."
McCagg, Larson and Miller are hanging on because they want to swim in the Olympics. They missed the last Games in their own epoch because of the boycott. Swimmers often get only one shot at Olympic glory, and the U.S. Government's refusal to allow American athletes to go to Moscow smashed the hopes of the 1980 team the way Moby Dick shattered the Pequod. "People will never realize what it did to a dedicated group of athletes, maybe the most dedicated there is," says FAST Coach Randy Reese.
"My parents have been divorced, but nothing hurt me more than the boycott," says McCagg, who had finished eighth in the 100-meter freestyle at the '76 Olympic Trials and was world champion in that event in '78. "It tore me up inside. I hated everyone who had anything to do with it. It didn't accomplish a damn thing."
McCagg was so devastated that he quit swimming for four months. In fact, all three have quit for periods of at least half a year. Swimmers tend to drop out after college. Among other things, they've lost their financial underpinnings. Besides, the rigorous training that swimming requires is more or less incompatible with the demands of adulthood.
Swimming exacts a terrible physical toll as well. "There's not a morning that I don't wake up sore with aches in my joints and sharp pains in my shoulders," says McCagg. "But when I have doubts, I just sit down and think how I'd feel having to watch the Games on television."
McCagg, a rugged 6'4" native of Fort Myers Beach, Fla. who attended Auburn, is a semi-reformed beach bum. He sees the world from behind Richard Petty shades. He has long, thick forearms and a powerful kick.
To hear McCagg and his pals tell it, they're all just a bunch of thrill-seeking party animals. Well, maybe fish, as befits athletes who spend half their lives in water. "I'm a barracuda." McCagg says. "I'm naturally mean, not real understanding or polite. And I'm probably seen as a jerk by the other swimmers."
In 1981 McCagg quit swimming again, this time for more than a year. He wanted to become an actor and tried his luck as a model in California, but he wound up tending bar. He returned to FAST in April of 1982 and finished second to world-record holder Rowdy Gaines in the 100 free at the long-course championships that August in Indianapolis.
McCagg credits his success to Reese's unorthodox training methods. "Randy's always inventing things," says McCagg, "and he keeps varying our routines so that they never get monotonous." They range from kicking with tennis shoes on to "baskets"—tying a rope around a swimmer's waist and then anchoring the other end of the rope, via an overhead pulley, to a milk crate loaded with weights on the side of the pool. Reese once even considered having his swimmers sluice through a one-lane tank filled with baby oil.
Reese's most grueling water torture is staged in Florida's Ichetucknee River. Once a week he requires his team to swim three miles upstream against the strong current. "It's the hardest thing I've ever imagined doing or ever done," McCagg says. The exercise can last three hours and leaves the swimmers looking something like William Holden floating face down in Sunset Boulevard.
Occasionally a snake will slither across a swimmer's path, and Reese, leading the way in a canoe, will try to dispatch it with a paddle. McCagg is afraid of snakes. "I don't like anything that can put me under," he explains. "I don't like snakes or alligators or sharks."
The only shark he gets along with is Larson. "I'm a great white," Larson says. "They're natural survivors; they never really had to evolve. To stay on top, all I've had to do is keep fit and dominant. Living in the sea, you either eat or get eaten."
A lean fellow (6'1", 180 pounds) with flinty resolve, Larson has been dining on the 200-freestyle field. He won the 200-yard free at the national short-course championships in Indianapolis in April.
Since 1979, Gaines and Larson, a native of Jesup, Ga. and a graduate of the University of Florida, have won nine U.S. 200 freestyle titles between them, but Larson has never beaten Gaines in long-course competition.
When Larson defeated Gaines at the 1983 short-course nationals, he, McCagg, Miller and Jeff Smith, a Zen-spouting dentist friend, had a legendary bacchanal in which they downed 10 dozen oysters, 14 dozen chicken wings and enough beer to fill a sensory deprivation tank. The idea was to stay up and go water-skiing early the next morning. They made it—a case of mind over matter.
Miller, who's from the same town and school as Larson, credits a book, The Man Who Tapped the Secrets of the Universe, by Glenn Clark, with helping him decide to stick with swimming through the '84 Olympics. He is a steady if unspectacular performer who makes up for his lack of size (5'10", 160 pounds) with textbook-perfect technique. "I've always been right in there, but never on top," he says. "I told myself I'd hang up my suit when I didn't improve anymore." Last year he was third in the 200 free at the trials to select the U.S. team for the world championships. He may be the best 300 IM swimmer in the country, but, unfortunately, he isn't too proficient in the breaststroke, and the IM is a 400-meter event, breaststroke included.
Miller is a Siamese fighting fish. "I'm at ease when I'm by myself in a bowl," he says. "But when I'm in a race, it's match play."
The best of the oldsters may be Gaines, 24, the one who got away. The world's top 100- and 200-free swimmer, he set his first world record while swimming for Reese. Gaines retired in April '81, but a year later became a member of the War Eagle Swim Team, a club based at Auburn. Now he swims for Longhorn Aquatics, where he works with Richard Quick, his old coach at Auburn, and Reese's brother, Eddie.
Gaines is a breed apart; he identifies more with porpoises than killer fish. "Sharks don't mess around with porpoises," Gaines says, which may explain why he's done so well against Larson. "Porpoises are graceful, friendly and easy to get along with. They know they're bad and they don't have to prove it."
Gaines lacks the obsessive single-minded devotion of the other three old-timers. Last summer he doubted that he could hold out until the Olympics. After this year's long-course nationals he made a list of the pros and cons and tallied them up. But as Gaines says, "It all boiled down to everyone telling me, and my thinking that if I quit, 20 years down the line it would haunt me.
"I realized I was old," he says, "when Kim Brown of the Mission Viejo team passed me in a workout. I was just warming up and Kim, who was just a little 12-year-old girl, scooted right by me. I thought, 'My God, what am I doing here? Who else in the world is still busting his butt in the water at 24?' "
Well, for three, those candidates for a tar pit, Miller, McCagg and Larson.