The U.S. Is Back...And How!

As Americans dominated the first full week of the Olympics, nowhere did they make a splashier splash than in swimming
August 12, 1984

Amid splashing water, charged emotions and deafening cheers, Bruce Hayes launched himself into the Olympic pool, ready for the swim of his life. It was late on the afternoon of July 30, and Hayes, a toothy UCLA senior, was anchoring America's 4 X 200-meter freestyle relay team in its Olympic final. He came up from his dive with a nine-foot lead (1½ seconds), normally a safe margin—except that the man closest to him was 6'7½" Michael Gross of West Germany, the Games' most feared swimmer. After 60 meters of his leg, Hayes glanced to his right and saw Gross virtually at his side. He was stunned. The Albatross, as Gross is known, had gained nearly nine feet on him in just over one length of the pool. "I thought, 'Oh God, I'm in trouble,' " Hayes would say later. "I felt like I was turning my arms over three times as fast as he was, but all I could see beside me were these long smooth strokes, keeping him right there."

Building was the most frenzied and dramatic race in a week full of frenzy and drama. If this was America's best week ever of Olympic swimming—and it just might have been, with U.S. swimmers not only winning gold medals in 20 of 29 events, but also tying or lowering seven American records and setting five of the 11 world marks established at the Games—the Olympics were also a showcase for Gross, the 20-year-old from Frankfurt. He would leave L.A. with two world records and four medals, more than any other male swimmer. But Monday's relay was threatening to be his comeuppance. And a fervently pro-American crowd of 10,923 was aching for just that.

In Monday's first final, the 100 butterfly, Gross had upset gold-medal favorite Pablo Morales of the U.S. and taken away Morales' world mark by .30 with a 53.08. A day earlier Gross had won the 200 free in a world-record 1:47.44. "Whenever you see a human being who's unique, there's a kind of aura about him," said Morales, 19, who had obviously seen one. Morales seemed almost glassy-eyed, realizing that his 53.23, well under the old world standard, had earned him "only" a silver medal. Gross had passed him in the last 10 meters, stretching to the wall with loooong arms that spread to a 7'4‚Öù" wingspan. "It's pretty hard to outtouch him," said Morales.

The strategy of America's relay team was to avoid a touch-finish against Gross by running away from his West German teammates on the first three legs. "We wanted to get ahead early and swim through clear water," Jeff Float, the U.S.'s third leg, would say later. "We wanted them to catch our waves."

An American B team had already washed away West Germany's world mark of 7:20.40 in the morning preliminaries with a 7:18.87. But the final race would be faster. Much faster. America's leadoff swimmer, Mike Heath, 19, the silver medalist behind Gross in the 200 free, blazed a 1:48.67 leg against West Germany's Thomas Fahrner to give the U.S. a seven-foot lead. Already the Americans were more than a second under world-record pace. The crowd was up.

Into the water went David Larson, 25, one of 16 U.S. Olympians from the boycott team of 1980 who had hung on to make the '84 squad. Until last week it had been difficult to measure the pent-up frustration of '80 boycott victims; in Los Angeles, however, 11 of the 16 American swimming holdovers won medals—a total of 21—and nearly all competed with astonishing intensity. In Larson's case he was all too eager; he blasted through his first 100 in 51.29 and then crawled home in 57.72. For his part, Dirk Korthals, Larson's West German pursuer, trimmed three feet off America's lead with a 1:48.75.

That brought up Float, 24, the inspirational U.S. team captain. Rendered almost totally deaf as an infant by spinal meningitis, Float, a many-time national team member, had helped pull together the American squad with his calming advice and readings from both his daily journal and books on positive thinking. He told his teammates of having lived just a block from the site of the Olympic pool while a USC undergrad and of watching the facility rise from a muddy hole in the ground. Since January, he said, he had been "eating, sleeping, dreaming, living, laughing and loving" thoughts of the Games. As he came to the blocks, he was fighting off tears.

Float's 1:49.60 leg against Alexander Schowtka added three feet to the U.S. margin. The crowd, which all week would be hailed by swimmers as the noisiest they'd ever heard, was in full roar. Now Hayes was in the pool. And then Gross.

When Gross quickly ate up the American lead, Hayes told himself: Don't panic. Ever since the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June, Hayes had trained solely for this event, the only one in which he'd qualified. A ferocious finisher, he'd worked on every fine point of a relay leg, from start to touch. Here he stayed with Gross through 100 meters, holding as much in reserve as he could. Then Gross gradually moved ahead.

When Gross turned for home with a lead of two feet, the crowd grew quiet. Having seen Gross's earlier performances, they assumed the race was over. Heath and Larson weren't sure themselves. "I said to Mike, 'We're going to get the silver! That can't happen!' " Larson recalled later. He and Heath tried to revive the crowd with windmilling arms. And suddenly there was life. Hayes, with 30 meters to go, surged back and caught the Albatross. With 20 to go, Hayes was ahead.

Gross was tired. He was swimming almost on top of his right lane line and was wobbling. Still, he came back at Hayes. With 10 meters left the two were about even, and Gross's long arms figured to give him the edge. But the six-foot Hayes kept his head down and his arms reaching to their limit. Somehow, he touched first. The Olympic swim stadium exploded in celebration.

The Americans had achieved an incredible 7:15.69—nearly five seconds better than the world record that had stood coming into the Games. Hayes, whose best non-relay 200 ever is a 1:49.82, had turned in a 1:48.41 anchor, the third-fastest relay split in history. The four gold medalists hugged deliriously, jumping up and down on the pool deck. Float turned to the stands and blew a kiss. "I love you," he mouthed. The next morning's Los Angeles Herald Examiner ran a front-page photo of the winning U.S. team with an inset shot of Gross, his grimacing face canceled out with the familiar red slashed-circle. The headline read GROSS BUSTERS.

An L.A. Times headline put the race in clearer perspective: IT TAKES 4 AMERICANS TO FINALLY STOP GROSS. Gross had anchored in 1:46.89, which was even more phenomenal than the 1:47.21 he'd attained in his country's world-record relay performance of last summer. He'd entered the water 1½ body lengths behind, yet had lost by only four inches. West Germany's time of 7:15.73 had been two seconds faster than the clocking Gross had hoped for.

"I only expect to go fast," said Gross, a refreshingly independent-minded young man who swims for nothing more than fun and self-improvement. "Sometimes I win. Unfortunately, we finished second in the relay with a time we never expected to get. That's life." Uncomfortable with all the media attention that has been given him in L.A., Gross seemed almost happier to have been pushed out of the spotlight.

As for the four Americans, they were basking in their new celebrity. They learned they would be flown to New York to pose for the cover of Vanity Fair with Raquel Welch. Larson, who plans to enter local politics back home in Jesup, Ga. suddenly had enough support to win that town's mayoral election. Float, eager to use his fame to advance the cause of the handicapped, was looking around for an agent. Heath and Hayes, former high school teammates in Dallas, were new Texas heroes. It all was more than any of them had dreamed. Float, for one, didn't take his gold medal off all week, except to shower. "No way," he said. "It attracts women like a magnet."

U.S. teammate Nancy Hogshead—a woman who drew medals like a magnet—had watched the relay on a TV in the USC Olympic Village. "We were screaming our lungs out," she said the next evening. "Bruce swam such a smart race." Hogshead, 22, was in the process of closing in on Shirley Babashoff's and Kornelia Ender's Olympic record for swimming medals won by a woman at a single Games. To equal that mark, she needed five. Hogshead had tied teammate Carrie Steinseifer for the 100 free gold on July 29 and anchored a U.S. victory in the July 31 400 free relay. When asked if she had been planning to challenge Babashoff's and Ender's record, however, Hogshead replied, "What record?" She started thinking more about it on Friday night after finishing second in the 200 IM and anchoring the 400 medley relay team to a gold medal. A team press release was issued noting the historic feats of "The Amazing Nancy Hogshead." Hogshead, easygoing and sensible, was finding all the commotion rather diverting.

Which made it easier to take when she finished fourth in her last event, the 200 fly, on Saturday and had to settle for "just" four medals—still more than any other woman swimmer at the Games. "I didn't come here thinking, 'Wow, I want to make history,' " she said. "Maybe I'm disappointing other people, but I'm not disappointing myself." Hogshead, a 1980 Olympian who retired for 16 months, beginning in '81, was most enthusiastic about having helped the U.S. women to a record haul of gold medals (12). Of course, that number likely would have been halved had East Germany's powerful team competed in L.A. "I don't think you can ever know that," said Hogshead.

A year and a half shy of her degree in political science and women's studies at Duke, Hogshead hopes to work in behalf of more serious women's issues someday as a lawyer. In L.A. she let her races serve as the closing statement on her swimming career. "Every one of these," she said, "has been a highlight of my life."

Her teammates from '80 shared that spirit. Forty-eight-time national champion Tracy Caulkins, 21, in what may have been her final competitive swims, won her second and third gold medals of the Games, beating Hogshead in the 200 IM in 2:12.64 and contributing a breast-stroke leg to the victorious medley relay. Caulkins, like many others, seemed especially to enjoy the slow march in front of the stands after each medal ceremony. It was a time of shared appreciation between athlete and fan. Winners from every nation were greeted with equal warmth. "You look up and wave to someone special," marveled Caulkins on Friday, "and everybody waves back."

Caulkins left little doubt that she'd have fared just as well without the help of the Eastern bloc boycott. Her winning times in the 200 and 400 IMs, both American records, were easily the fastest in the world this year. "Is she the greatest woman swimmer of all time?" asked U.S. coach Don Gambril after Caulkins' last swim. "I think you'd have to call her that."

Without question the greatest woman butterflyer of all time is 19-year-old Mary T. Meagher, who would have swept the Olympic 100 and 200 flys in '80 had she been allowed to go to Moscow. But to prepare for her 100-200 double in Los Angeles, Meagher needed to make some adjustments. After losing to 16-year-old Jenna Johnson in the 100 at the U.S. trials, Meagher went to the month-long American team training camp in Mission Viejo, Calif. and learned the same track-sprint start—right foot forward, left foot back—used effectively by Johnson. She also concentrated on keeping her head lower and her hips higher in the water, and changed her hand motion. "She'd been pulling straight back instead of skulling out and pulling back," said her coach, Mark Schubert. "She wasn't catching much water." After she arrived in Los Angeles, Meagher had one other problem, a mild case of bronchitis aggravated by the diesel exhaust from generators located near the Olympic warmup pool. "You'd think there's already enough smog to worry about out here," grumbled Schubert.

Still, Meagher had plenty of breathing room as she swept to a pair of easy fly victories. Her 59.05 in the 100 preliminaries was the No. 2 time in history, behind her Beamonesque world record of 57.93 set in '81; the 59.26 in the finals was the fourth-fastest performance ever. In the 200, Meagher had her best time in nearly three years, 2:06.90, nearly a second faster than any other woman's time. Meagher also broke open an otherwise tight 4 X 100 medley relay final with a sizzling fly leg (58.04).

No one was happier about Meagher's three gold medals than the nine sisters, one brother, two parents, four brothers-in-law and assorted friends who had come to watch, most of them wearing MARY T T shirts. "I can say all their names real fast if you want," offered Meagher. She said she will continue her swimming career in low-key fashion at Cal, where she's a sophomore, but "I don't know about hanging on until 1988. That seems so far away." As for these Games, Meagher said, "I guess I'll always envision them as a kind of heaven, sort of a dreamworld. Only this dreamworld was real." As real as gold.

The American male swimmer most torn by the '80 boycott was Rowdy Gaines, now 25, who almost certainly would have won two individual and three relay gold medals in Moscow. Gaines crashed mentally in '82 and '83, losing all confidence in his freestyle sprinting. Before the July 31 100, his first Olympic final, Gaines was still having doubts. "I was prepared not to win," he would say later. "Afterward I was going to say I was real honored and proud to swim against the guy who won. I was going to say I was proud of my career."

After a calming afternoon talk with Caulkins—"I was bouncing off the walls; she's so soothing," Gaines said—he went to the pool. He'd been given one piece of advice by his longtime coach, Richard Quick. "I'd noticed that the starter in the men's events had been pulling a pretty quick trigger," said Quick. "I told Rowdy to get right down on the blocks and make sure he wasn't rolling back." Indeed, the starter, a Panamanian, had been harshly criticized at other international meets for failing to give swimmers time to set themselves. When the eight finalists in the 100 free lined up, the Panamanian again fired too soon.

Gaines, using a sprint-type start, caught the gun perfectly. His two top rivals, U.S. trials champion Heath and Mark Stockwell of Australia, didn't. "It wasn't a fair start," Stockwell would say later. "I thought the starter would call everybody back." But he didn't. Heath, a poor starter under the best of circumstances, was hopelessly behind before even hitting the water. Stockwell closed to within a foot of Gaines at the 50, but then watched Gaines pull away. He finished in 49.80, his best time in three years, with Stockwell almost half a second back.

Gaines was in disbelief. He grabbed his head with his hands. He was smiling, laughing, peeling off layers of joy. He knew he'd made the right decision, staying with swimming. Whatever he'd been through, this was worth it.

Australia filed a protest over the start, but it was disallowed. Stockwell spoke bitterly. "Do they think that they can change the rules here in America in order to win, or what?" he asked. "I'm trying to be a good sport about this, but I really am disgusted."

Appreciation for Gaines soon overwhelmed any ill feelings. "Rowdy shouldn't be tainted by this," said Gambril. "He didn't shoot the gun." Stockwell, embarrassed by his earlier remarks, apologized to Gaines and said he wished there had been no protest. Before the 4 X 100 free relay later in the week, he would show Gaines a few break-dancing moves. On the 100 victory stand Gaines was still overwhelmed. During the national anthem he was struggling just to move his mouth. "I was trying to sing it...I was just shakin' up there. The words wouldn't come out," he said.

Gaines earned his second and third gold medals with strong anchor legs in the 400-free and 400-medley relays. And the emotions continued to swell. Free relay gold medalist Matt Biondi, 18, whom Gaines said he "hadn't even heard of until the Olympic trials, called Gaines the idol he most hopes to live up to. "Rowdy's just been so helpful to me since the trials," Biondi said. "You wouldn't believe it."

Not all the emotions in L.A. were so heavy. The lightest and liveliest crew in town were the Frisbee-flinging Canadians, whose country hadn't won an Olympic gold medal in swimming since 1912. "We're just trying to get the crowd behind us too," said 20-year-old Alex Baumann after flinging a batch of white plastic discs into the crowd on July 30. Baumann had just ended Canada's gold medal drought with a world-record victory in the 400 IM. "I think after 72 years it's about time," he declared. By the time Baumann followed that up with another world-record win in Saturday's 200 IM, fellow Ontarians Victor Davis and Anne Ottenbrite had also won gold medals in the men's and women's 200 breast-strokes. "I'm very pleased indeed," said chief Canadian coach Trevor Tiffany. "Some nice medals in some good colors." Proclaimed a Page One headline in the Toronto Sun: IN GOLDEN POND.

Baumann, a world-record holder as far back as 1981, had in recent years been unable to attend top international meets because of shoulder ailments and the deaths of his older brother (drowning) and father (cancer). In Los Angeles, however, Baumann removed any doubts about his racing skills: He shaved .12 off his 400 IM world mark with a 4:17.41 that left a superb field well behind, and he lopped nearly a second off his 200 IM mark with a 2:01.42 that only silver medalist Morales (2:03.05) came close to challenging.

Baumann, a Czech immigrant whose family came to Canada in 1969, credits his mother, Vera, once a nationally ranked Czech breaststroker, with encouraging him in swimming. His natural talent, however, as well as years of specific IM training in a scientifically oriented program, has made him the world's most well-rounded male swimmer. Strongest in freestyle and breaststroke, Alexander the Great has no weak stroke.

Baumann's friend Davis, known as the bad boy of Canadian swimming, sliced more than a second from his own world record with a 2:13.34 win in the 200 breast. "I'm a hard customer to satisfy," Davis had snapped in disgust after placing second to Steve Lundquist in the 100-meter breast a few days earlier. In the 200, he said, his goal was to "put the record away for a few years." Silver medalist Glenn Beringen finished nearly 2½ seconds behind Davis, which suggests that no one but Davis himself will soon challenge the new mark.

Away from the pool, Davis, a blunt, aggressive 20-year-old, spoke of trying to clean up his image, which has suffered in the past from his occasional verbal and physical outbursts. "I've seen him break a glass in his hand in a restaurant and then look at his hand and say, 'How did I do that?' " says his coach, Clifford Barry. "He's abrupt with people and he doesn't realize it. People who don't know Victor take it personally, but he's really like a big, friendly dog that comes stumbling in knocking things over." Davis will have to maintain a good image from now on: In honor of his Olympic victory, both a public pool and a city street back home in Guelph will soon be named after him.

The most stunning upset of the competition—perhaps of any Olympic swimming competition—was produced by an athlete from another high-spirited Commonwealth nation. It was the world-record victory of 5'9", 17-year-old Jon Sieben of Brisbane, Australia, who ran down Gross in Friday's 200 butterfly. "He's a Gross-buster all by himself," beamed an Aussie journalist, who like everyone else had seen Sieben—trailing by two body lengths with 50 meters to go—rocket past Gross and two others to finish in 1:57.04, a .01 reduction of Gross's world mark. Gross was second in 1:57.40, and Morales fourth, despite his U.S. record 1:57.75.

Sieben, the world's 25th-ranked 200 butterflyer last year, had never even broken 2:00 until his 1:59.63 in the morning prelims. But he's what the Aussies call a "scrubber"—small but gutsy—and he's been improving rapidly since his country's Olympic trials back in February and March. The earliness of those trials seemed to have helped most of the Australian swimmers; able to focus on the Games for five months, they came through with 13 medals, the most since 1960, when the Aussie team also won 13. And their charming bluster won over the L.A. fans. "We're on our way back," chortled Australian coach Terry Buck after Sieben's win. "With the silvers and bronzes, everyone was waving their arms and saying how great it was, but deep down everyone knew we had to get the yellow one."

The winning of the yellow ones took a few strange twists. World-record holder Rick Carey of the U.S. had no trouble sweeping the 100 and 200 backstroke gold medals, but his failure to lower his world record in either event left him feeling unfulfilled. He is a perfectionist, and he doesn't often hide his displeasure. After his 2:00.23 200, Carey moped to the victory stand, utterly joyless. His hangdog act struck the crowd as nothing more than a childish pout; some fans booed him. "I've gone that fast in workouts," explained Carey. "The Olympics are supposed to be more special."

"The worst thing you can say to a person who's done a bad job is 'good job,' " said 1976 Olympic backstroke champion John Naber of Carey's situation. "That's what the country—that's what the world—was trying to do." Beset by criticism, Carey issued a public apology for his behavior (did he really owe anyone more than his honest reaction?) and then tried to look happy after a 55.79 100 that had clearly disappointed him. One hopes that someday Carey will go easier on himself. He may not retire as had been expected. "I still think I can go faster in both backstrokes," Carey said. "I don't know if I can rest knowing that."

West Germany's Thomas Fahrner will have to rest knowing that he set an Olympic record of 3:50.91 in the 400 free, yet failed to win a medal. Fahrner took his qualifying swim too easy and failed by .19 to make the finals. Shortly after George DiCarlo of the U.S. swam a 3:51.23 to win the gold medal Thursday evening, Fahrner attained his Olympic record in the consolation race. When he saw his time, Fahrner hurled his goggles across the pool deck. "Today I played the fool a little bit," he sighed. "It was my own mistake."

The competition ended on Saturday evening in front of the largest Olympic swimming crowd in history (12,110). Before the men's 4 X 100 medley relay, the final event, Gross and several teammates sent up gold helium balloons on which their national flag was pictured. The fans roared. Gross had ultimately won over both crowd and press, less with his swimming than with his embodiment of the Olympic ideals. After having lost to Sieben, he tossed flowers to Australian fans and said brightly, "To be second in the fastest fly race ever and swim my second-fastest time ever...that's pretty good, I think."

In the medley relay, Carey (back), Lundquist (breast), Morales (fly) and Gaines (free) all swam the fastest relay legs of their lives for a time of 3:39.30. The Games had their 11th world record, all 11 having come in men's events; not since '52 had an Olympics failed to produce at least one women's swimming world mark. Coming closest for the women was 400-and 800-free champion Tiffany Cohen, 18, of the U.S., who missed both of Tracey Wickham's 1978 world marks by fractions of a second.

Afterward the older swimmers reflected on the Games. "This week I kept thinking about all the workouts, all the time, all the pain," said Hogshead. "I thought of the cold mornings. In winter our outdoor pool gets a layer of ice on the deck. I thought of all the times I slipped on that ice. I thought of everything I gave up, all the friends I couldn't socialize with, all the pain I was in during workouts. All of it."

"Rowdy and I just got to thinking how many meters of training we've done," said Lundquist. "We figure it was about three million a year."

"They're going to put Steve and me out to pasture now," said Gaines.

"Or send us to the glue factory," suggested Lunk. Lundquist then unfurled a beach towel that he'd had printed up in preparation for this moment. The printing on the towel read:

AMERICA...
THANK YOU
FOR A DREAM
COME TRUE!

"That says it all," he said.

But Gaines had the final words. "I would have said before this that the only regret I had in swimming was not going to Moscow," he said, "if you can call that a regret. But I can't say that now. Moscow is completely forgotten. This takes all the bad memories away."

At last there are good memories.

PHOTO TWO PHOTOSAfter Steinseifer (above, left) led Dara Torres (center) and Johnson in cheering home Hogshead in the 4 X 100 free relay, she kept on mouthing off on the victory stand. TWO PHOTOSBy outdueling Gross in the last leg of the 4 X 200, Hayes lifted Heath (above, left), Float (kneeling) and Larson to exultation on the deck and ecstasy in the medal rites. TWO PHOTOSBaumann punched out a 400 IM win, Canada's first swim gold since '12. TWO PHOTOSThe Albatross flew in the 100 fly to win his second gold, then settled for two silvers. TWO PHOTOSCarey was sullen after the 200 back, having finished 1.37 off his world mark. TWO PHOTOSTheresa Andrews: a fresh flower in the 100 back. Gaines: a 100 free perennial. PHOTOGreg Fasala (fourth from top) got Australia off to a fast start in the 4 X 100 free relay... PHOTO...but by the time U.S. anchorman Gaines took the plunge, Biondi had given America the lead. TWO PHOTOSCohen wept tears of joy after her U.S. record victory in the 400 free. PHOTOAs in the 400, Cohen was below world-record pace in the 800 until the final 100 meters. TWO PHOTOSDiCarlo got the 400 free gold—and Fahrner got small consolation from an Olympic mark. PHOTOSieben's defeat of Gross in the 200 fly was the biggest swimming upset of the Games. PHOTOThe favored DiCarlo was second to none at the start of the 1,500, but he came in second, 5.39 behind teammate Mike O'Brien. PHOTODavis was jetting from the start as he broke the 200 breast record by 1.24 seconds. PHOTOThe 100 fly gold was one of three Meagher reveled in. PHOTOCarey shook off the ill will borne of his petulance after his 100 back win by issuing an apology and then winning the 200 in his specialty.

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)