It's like there's a wave building," said 22-year-old backstroker Jesse Vassallo of the pre-Olympic momentum evident at last week's Phillips 66/U.S. Swimming Indoor Championships in Indianapolis. "This meet is like halfway up on that wave. Everybody's expecting a big drop [in times] to come when the wave breaks. And come June, it'll break."
Surf's up, so to speak, and the indoor nationals—sort of a five-day warmup for the U.S. Olympic Trials to be held June 25-30 in the same 50-meter pool—were awash with waves of young and old talent. Eyes were on fresh-faced kids named Tiffany, Dara, Cha-Cha and Pablo and several venerable members of what world-record breaststroker Steve Lundquist dubbed "the gray liberation army." Among the senior citizens were former UCLA star Bill Barrett, 24, who swam the second-fastest 200-meter individual medley in U.S. history (2:03.05); Vassallo, the 1978 world backstroke champion and onetime 400 IM world-record holder, who continued his comeback from reconstructive knee surgery with a victory in the 200 back; and Rowdy Gaines, 25, who swam his fastest 100 free (49.92) since setting the world mark in the event (49.36) in 1981. Vassallo's ascent to the victory stand, it should be noted, was facilitated by the absence of world-record backstroker Rick Carey of Texas, who, like several other top college swimmers, skipped the meet because he'd concentrated on the recent NCAA championships.
At the nationals, the focus was squarely on the Trials and the Summer Games. Finalists were made to sit in a waiting room for several minutes before being marched out to the starting blocks—such is Olympic protocol—and all swimmers faced qualifying heats that started at (yawn!) 8:30 a.m., the hour at which heats will be swum in Los Angeles. "If someone can't swim well enough early in the morning, we don't want him on the team in L.A.," said U.S. Olympic coach Don Gambril. That put a special burden on the 23-year-old Lundquist, a sluggish morning swimmer who's also trying to come back from a shoulder dislocation suffered while water skiing last September. Lunk failed to reach the finals of any of his three events—the 100 and 200 breast and 200 IM—qualifying 26th, 24th and 27th, respectively.
One swimmer who shone by dawn's early light was 21-year-old Nancy Hogshead, the latest addition to America's deep corps of women sprint freestylers. Hogshead, a three-time national butterfly champion from Jacksonville, Fla. who quit swimming in 1980 but returned to the sport in 1983, had never swum a 100 free at any of the 17 indoor and outdoor nationals she'd attended. But in Wednesday morning's qualifying, she won in 56.05 in her first try at the event. It was the second-fastest time in U.S. history. "I just switched to a new coach [1968 and 1972 Olympic backstroker] Mitch Ivey, and he likes my freestyle," said Hogshead, who's taking time off from her studies at Duke to train with Ivey in Concord, Calif. Hogshead is cheery and ambitious, an aspiring lawyer, but back in '80 she needed a mental break from swimming. "And I had planned to quit after the Moscow Olympics anyway," she says.
While retired, says Hogshead, she "didn't 'touch' a pool for at least a year—except once, at 11 o'clock at night, when we were all partying and we sneaked into a pool for a swim." Now she's in better shape than ever and fast in the water at any hour: In winning the late-afternoon finals of the 100 free on Wednesday, she swam a 55.99 to become the second American woman to break 56 seconds in the event; the first was Cynthia Wood-head, who set the U.S. record of 55.63 in 1979.
"Everything's open to me," said Hogshead brightly. "There are no doors closed at the moment." But only two women will qualify for the U.S. team in the 100 free, and the doorstep is crowded. The runner-up behind Hogshead in Wednesday's final was last year's top American 100 freestyler, Carrie Steinseifer, a rosy-faced 16-year-old from Saratoga, Calif. who's tougher than a thorn. Other challengers include Woodhead, now a USC freshman, and Jill Sterkel, formerly of the University of Texas, who at 22 is trying to become the first American woman to make three Olympic swim teams.
Yet another is 16-year-old Dara Torres of Beverly Hills, Calif., the winner of Friday's 50 free in 25.88, a time not much slower than her world best of 25.62. Torres was coming off a month-long sinus infection and failed to reach the finals of the 100; still, her raw speed over the non-Olympic 50-meter distance will make her a factor in the 100 at the Trials. "My 100, except for this meet, is improving," she says, having benefited from 10 months of rigorous training under coach Mark Schubert at the Mission Viejo Swim Club. By moving in with a family in Mission Viejo last June and enrolling as a junior at the local high school—she'd gone to the exclusive Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles—Torres has also begun to escape the spoiled-rich-kid label stuck on her because of her hometown. In fact, she's pleasant, polite and unpretentious, if not exactly impoverished: Her father, who Dara says works "in real estate," is a former owner of the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Torres has thrived under Schubert's demanding regimen, which includes aerobics classes as well as long, two-a-day swim sessions. "We have to keep our body fat under a certain percentage or we have to run too," she says. Even though she doesn't have to, Torres puts in two to five miles every other day on the roads. Some spoiled rich kid.
One of Torres' teammates came to Indy with an unexpectedly low body-fat level. Tiffany Cohen, 17, who's a year ahead of Torres at Mission Viejo High, arrived five pounds lighter than she was at January's U.S. Swimming International in Austin, Texas, where she lost three of four freestyle races (the 400, 800 and 1,500) to her principal Olympic rival, Astrid Strauss of East Germany. "Losing made me a little hungrier," said the 5'9" Cohen, who's noted for her sweet tooth. She'd cut down her junk-food intake right after the International and dropped from 141 pounds to 136. Now she's lean and hungry. And her impressively fast victories in the 400 and 800 frees at Indianapolis left her eager for a rematch with Strauss in L.A.
"I've said all along we'll have a much better chance of beating Strauss if we put two good women against her, not just Tiffany," said Gambril on Tuesday, having just seen a promising candidate for that second slot: 14-year-old Michele (Cha-Cha) Richardson, a spunky 5'6" 112-pounder who trains under Charlie Hodgson at the Hurricane Swim Club in Miami. Richardson placed a strong second in the 800 and later won the women's 1,500—a non-Olympic event Cohen hadn't trained for and therefore skipped—by half a pool length. Richardson, who was born in Managua, Nicaragua to American parents who ran two hardware stores there, didn't come to the U.S. until she was nine. Since then she has picked up English, a liking for the TV cartoon show The Smurfs, and, from a former coach, her nickname. "He said that since I was from Nicaragua I must know how to dance the cha-cha," says Richardson. She doesn't.
As the meet was ending on Saturday night, another young star with a Hispanic connection grabbed the spotlight. Stanford freshman Pablo Morales, whose parents moved from Cuba to the U.S. several years before he was born, won the men's 100 fly in a sizzling 53.91. Morales is a 6'2" 162-pounder who has been drawing rave reviews from coaches for several years. "He's explosive and has very good technique," says Hodgson, who also coaches Morales' main rival, Miami senior Matt Gribble. Last August in Clovis, Calif., when Gribble lowered the world 100 fly mark from 53.81 to 53.44, Morales came in right behind him in 53.71. Just two weeks ago, at the men's NCAA's in Cleveland, Morales got a U.S. mark for himself with a 47.02 in the 100-yard fly.
"My mother started me swimming when I was seven," he says. "When she was little she nearly drowned because she didn't know how to swim. She was out on a raft and fell in the water and barely made it to shore. She vowed then that if she ever had children, she'd teach them to swim." Morales, whose folks now live in Santa Clara, Calif., will teach other swimmers a thing or two before he's through.
"I think Pablo and Matt will be the gold and silver medalists," says Hodgson, looking ahead to Los Angeles. "The only one who could push them is Michael Gross [of West Germany, world-record holder in the 200 fly and free], and I don't think he's concentrating on the 100." Last week's meet made it more understandable why Hodgson and some of America's swimmers are sounding confident. As the song says, "Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world."