Delicate questions of protocol marked the first gathering of swim teams from East Germany, the Soviet Union, the U.S. and the People's Republic of China last week at the U.S. Swimming International meet in Fayetteville, Ark. Was it proper for the East Germans, having lost their luggage somewhere between Berlin and Tulsa, to temporarily use swim gear with little Razorback emblems printed on it? Was it tasteful for a vendor at the University of Arkansas' shiny new natatorium to sell red-and-white T shirts for $7 apiece (no rubles, please) emblazoned in Cyrillic lettering with IDITE SVEN IDITE, the Russian equivalent of Go Hogs Go? "In our country," said Chinese coach Chiao Yuan, "we do not have these Razorbacks. But I think I like them."
In all, 350 swimmers from 16 nations found their way to the rustic hills of northwest Arkansas for four days of short-course competition that turned out to be a mixture of international comity and comedy. Only the Olympic boycott-stung East Germans arrived in peak condition, hoping to knock off as many of last summer's medalists as possible, and they succeeded grandly, winning 15 of 28 individual events with a team of only 11 swimmers. "If I were tapered and shaved, maybe I'd feel more pressure," said University of Florida sophomore Mary Wayte, Olympic champion in the 200-meter freestyle, after placing fifth in that event on Friday night. Still, as noted by triple gold medalist Mary T. Meagher, whose 100 and 200 butterfly triumphs in Fayetteville gave the U.S. two of its paltry seven individual-event victories, "If the East Germans had been swimming like this at this same time last year, I think that it would have scared a few of us."
Consider the East German lineup: 20-year-old Dirk Richter, for example, a part-time electric-motor mechanic from Dresden who was all tuned up to race Olympic champion Rick Carey and Soviet world-record holder Sergei Zabolotnov in the 100 and 200 backstrokes. When Carey (bad back) and Zabolotnov (ill) didn't show up, Richter nonetheless set a world best (the short-course equivalent of a world record) of 54.34 in the 100 and a U.S. Open record of 1:58.75 in the 200. "I wish that Carey had been here," he said afterwards. "I wanted to measure myself against him." Like many of his teammates, Richter had huddled around a TV set last summer at a training camp outside Berlin to watch a videotape of the Olympics. His disappointment at not having been in L.A. obviously ran deep.
Then there was the G.D.R.'s Astrid Strauss, 16, who would have challenged gold medalist Tiffany Cohen in the women's distance freestyle events in Los Angeles. She beat Cohen handily in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 last week. A strapping 6'1", 167-pound East Berliner with sheep-dog bangs that hang down over her nose, Strauss exploded into such powerful last-lap kicking that, as one wag noted, "She ought to have EVINRUDE stamped on her cap." Strauss has now won seven of her last eight finals against Cohen. "Tiffany did some heavy training over Christmas," said her coach at the University of Texas, Richard Quick, in her defense. "She's just tired." But the drama is already building for a showdown between Cohen and Strauss at the 1986 world championships in Madrid. "These races are not so important," said Strauss in Fayetteville. "At the world championships, then we shall see."
January 14, 1985
Shy, dark-eyed Sven Lodziewski, 19, another East Berliner, took care of the men's freestyle events with victories in the 100, 200, 400 and 800—an astonishing range of performance. His 3:45.34 in the 400 lopped more than a second off the U.S. Open mark held by the Soviets' incomparable Vladimir Salnikov, who was not in attendance. Lodziewski, who has overcome surgery on both knees in the last three years, should be another swimmer to watch at the worlds.
While the East German swimmers were in Schwein Himmel (Hog Heaven), the Soviets and Chinese were struggling. It wasn't surprising that China's top showing was a fourth-place finish by Shao Hong in the women's 100 breast; the P.R.C. is a novice in international swimming. But the Soviets—who, to be fair, had to make five plane changes in three full days of travel en route to Fayetteville—performed sluggishly and far below expectations, winning but one event. "Just now is three o'clock in morning in Moscow," said delegation chief Yuri Moslachkov before Friday evening's finals. "Is it not hard to work well at three o'clock in morning?" The disqualification of breaststroke ace Dmitriy Volkov for using an illegal dolphin kick in his 100-breast heat provoked some tension, but in the spirit of the meet the Soviets swallowed their anger. "This competition," said coach Anatoly Pimenov, "is for friendship."
Only about one-third of last summer's U.S. Olympic swimmers were on hand, many of the missing having retired after the Games. But two cornerstones of what figures to be a swift rebuilding process shone brightly. One was high school senior Jenna Johnson of La Habra, Calif., an Olympic silver medalist in the 100 butterfly, who set an American women's record of 54.80 in Saturday's 100 freestyle final and also won the 50 free. Johnson, who rose to prominence last July by upsetting Meagher at the Olympic trials, is tall (6'1") and thin (145 pounds) and still building stamina. "I have to get out front early because I always die in the last 50," she says. Indeed, in her record-setting 100 she covered the first 50 meters in 26.35 seconds, about a second off the world best for that distance. "I heard some of the coaches say I'd gone fast," she said later. "I didn't know it was that fast." In Sunday's 100 fly final against Meagher, she finished second to Mary T.
A possible successor to the retired Tracy Caulkins in the individual medleys is 15-year-old Michelle Griglione of Alexandria, Va., who won the 200 and 400 IMs in impressive fashion. Michelle is slight of build, but at 5'9" and 129 pounds, she hasn't stopped growing, especially not with a 5'11" mother and a 6'2", 220-pound father, John Griglione, a rugged defensive lineman at Iowa State in 1968-70. "He talks to me about how to handle competition and things like that," says Michelle. "It helps a lot."
Griglione put away the Soviet Union's rising IM star, 15-year-old Elena Dendeberova, with ease in Friday's 400 and won again in Sunday's 200. Before long she may start claiming some old Caulkins fans—and maybe one or two of Tracy's world and American records.
It was interesting to note in the parade of flags on Sunday night that the meet did survive one protocol gaffe. A premeet comparison had shown the Soviet flag to be—gasp!—several inches smaller than the American. When no larger Soviet flag could be found in Fayetteville, a smaller U.S. banner was introduced. "They're all supposed to be the same size," said a meet volunteer. Not quite. The East German flag turned out to be larger than either the U.S. or Soviet flag. Fittingly so, it seemed.