Matt Biondi had some tough days at the Boneyard last week. In the mornings and evenings, the lanky sprinter was the sensation of the U.S. swimming world championships team trials in Orlando, Fla., but in the afternoons and at night, Biondi literally had his hat handed to him at the card table, where he and his University of California teammates played a game of their own devising. "It's crazy eights with more wild cards," Biondi says. The deck is lovingly called "the Boneyard."
Early in the week Biondi had to don the ceremonial scuba gloves that are worn by the player with the worst hand. He had held, in the parlance of the 'yard, "a fistful of yen." For most of Tuesday afternoon, before his 100-meter freestyle final, Biondi had the worst score and wore a cardboard Burger King hat that crowns the King of the Boneyard.
At the nearby Justus Aquatic Center, where Biondi was also king, the U.S. was being dealt its hand for the world championships next month in Madrid. The team that American coach Richard Quick will take to Spain set four world and five American records in Orlando. Not since the 1978 long-course meet had a U.S. championship produced such a pool of records. Quick drew a number of new-face cards, but he also held four aces: Biondi, Pablo Morales, Mary T. Meagher and Betsy Mitchell.
Biondi started the week by winning the 200-meter freestyle in 1:49.04, then broke his own world record of 48.95 in the 100 free with a 48.74 clocking two days later. He still had the 50 free to swim on Thursday, but no one had ever swept the three freestyle sprints—50, 100 and 200—in one national long-course meet.
July 6, 1986
Biondi had come close at last summer's meet in Mission Viejo, Calif., where he won the 100 and 200 before losing the 50 by .08 to UCLA's Tom Jager. "Tom showed up, beat me, packed his bags and went home," Biondi recalled. "I was humbled by it quite a bit."
On Thursday, Biondi stepped onto the Lane 4 starting block for the 50-free final. "Keep your stroke long for the first 25 meters," he told himself. "Get a good start and don't look around."
The temptation to look around was great. In Lane 8, coiled and ready to spring, was the six-foot-three Jager, the world-record holder in the event at 22.40 seconds. Biondi had qualified in a searing 22.65. Jager, coming back that morning from a 100-backstroke prelim with only 18 minutes rest, had barely made the finals in 23.50. But after five hours in bed, he was rested. And he liked the outside lane, where, with only one swimmer next to him, he would get less turbulence.
Biondi, too, was happy with Jager's lane assignment. Jager had beaten Biondi in the 50 free at the '85 NCAA meet when Biondi had looked over at Jager from the adjoining lane. "Him being over there allowed me to concentrate on myself," Biondi said.
Jager, as expected, started well. Biondi, who had poor-mouthed his abilities as a sprinter all week by saying his 6'6¼" frame took longer to come out of the crouch, also got out fast.
As the two sprinters crossed under the backstroke flags five meters from the finish, they were even. Then Biondi exploded to the wall. "Before I saw the time," Biondi said, "the crowd took off and I knew it was good." It was very good, indeed: a world-record 22.33. Jager finished second in 22.57.
"My last three strokes were a little shallow," Jager said. "My strokes were close to my body without much depth, not much power. He beat me at my specialty [the finish], something I can say won't happen 9 out of 10 times."
For the week, Biondi had earned seven spots on the world championships team—four individual and three relay—two world records and a two-room suite, the last goodie courtesy of the Radisson Hotel, which operates the aquatic center. Each swimmer who set a world mark at the trials won a lifetime complimentary use of a suite any night there's a vacancy. Each of the $200-a-night suites, which naturally feature wet bars, was named for a swimmer.
Morales had put his name on suite 1500 by winning the 100 butterfly in 52.84, taking .24 of a second off the two-year-old world mark of West Germany's Michael Gross. The next night Biondi claimed suite 1400 with his 100-free record. On Friday it was Mitchell's turn to taste suite victory.
Mitchell is a Texas junior who transferred from North Carolina in 1984. She was unhappy with the program at Chapel Hill and wanted to escape the shadow of Sue Walsh, a teammate who then held the U.S. record in the 100 backstroke. Mitchell won a silver in the 100 back in the Los Angeles Olympics, and last December at the U.S. Open set American marks in both the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes. That, of course, is a minor accomplishment in a stroke so dominated by the East Germans. When Mitchell beat world-record-holder Cornelia Sirch and a teammate over 200 meters last December, it was the first time in seven years that an American woman had won a backstroke competition against an East German.
But Mitchell wasn't satisfied, and Quick, her coach at Texas, felt that she, ahem, displaced too much water. So in April, Mitchell started running for half an hour after her daily double workouts and gave up ice cream and Snickers bars. She lost 10 pounds, to 150, and found she more easily held a pace in workouts.
Proving that less is more, the newly tapered Mitchell started the week in Orlando by winning the 200 free. (She won't swim the 200 in Madrid; Meagher and '84 Olympic gold medalist Mary Wayte will represent the U.S.) She then trimmed her U.S. record in the 100 back from 1:01.79 to 1:01.20. On Friday, the final day of competition, she cut nearly two seconds off her U.S. record in the 200, finishing the morning prelim in 2:09.96, only .05 off the world record.
The question before the final that night was whether she had left it in the pool. Neither Mitchell nor the sparse but fired-up crowd thought so.
She churned through each of the first three legs faster than she had in the prelim. "I heard an incredible roar at 150 meters," Mitchell said. She made her final turn at 1:35.43, more than a second faster than her morning pace, nearly one-half second ahead of Sirch's world-record pace. Arms whirling, Mitchell furiously brought it home. She hit the wall in 2:08.60, lopping 1.31 seconds off the world mark. "She killed it," said Morales admiringly.
Mitchell swam a leisurely lap to the other end of the pool, where she was hugged by Meagher, the last U.S. woman to set a world record. Meagher's two marks in the butterfly still stand, virtually unchallenged, five years after she set them. Madame Butterfly qualified in four events for the world meet, and, on a women's team thin in the breaststroke and longer freestyle events, Meagher and Mitchell will serve as stoppers.
The men's team will be weak in the breaststroke and the backstroke, where the absence of Rick Carey will be acutely felt. Carey, a triple L.A. Olympic gold medalist, bypassed the world trials after several recent defeats had apparently rattled his confidence. However, the wake kicked up by Biondi and Morales will somewhat obscure the team's shortfalls. "Matt is the cleanup hitter for our team," Quick said. "He's the heart of our team."
If that is so, then the soft-spoken, personable Morales is its soul. When Morales set his world record in the 100 fly, he was merely reclaiming a world mark he set at the '84 Olympic trials and lost a month later to Gross at the Games. Morales also won the 200 fly at Orlando and set a U.S. record in the 200 individual medley, finishing in 2:02.23, .45 of a second better than Bill Barrett's three-year-old mark.
The U.S. should do well in Spain. It's in the cards. Almost nothing beats four aces, except maybe three aces and a King of the Boneyard.