Cal senior Matt Biondi roared into the final lap of the NCAA 200-yard freestyle in Austin, Texas, on Friday night a tick faster than his own American-record pace—yet with a pesky Florida freshman named Troy Dalbey right on his tail. "I knew the only way I would be able to beat him would be to get out in front and hang on," Biondi said later. "I just put my head down and hoped I'd reach the end before he did."
What? Biondi, the multiple U.S.-and world-record holder and, with Stanford senior Pablo Morales, the spectacular costar of this NCAA men's swim championship, spooked by a freshman? "I've been watching Troy for several years and I knew one day he would really bust out," said Biondi. "This was the meet."
Indeed, in a meet full of odd and historic happenings—six American records, a possible revolutionizing of the backstroke, a team championship for a Stanford squad that came bearing kitchen gear, poetry and weird nicknames—the Biondi-Dalbey 200 was a particular highlight. Dalbey, the nation's top high-school swimmer last year, from San Jose, could be a Biondi in the making. Born cross-eyed and legally blind in one eye, he was unsuited for sports involving hand-eye coordination, so he took up swimming instead. Seeing Dalbey's raw talent, Florida coach Randy Reese worked on his turns and put him (along with other Florida swimmers) on a milk shake-like muscle restorative called Gator Go, invented by Dr. Robert Cade, the man who created Gatorade. In Friday's 200, Dalbey indeed proved to be a Gator on the go.
But Biondi was determined to finish his college career with flair. Despite having missed six weeks of serious training in early winter because of a nagging flu, he had already lowered his American record for 50 yards twice on Thursday, with swims of 19.16 in the prelims and 19.15 in the finals. In the 200 final he told himself to stay smooth and try not to turn his arms over too fast.
April 12, 1987
Biondi touched the wall in 1:33.03, .19 under his old American record. Dalbey, charging at the finish, came in at 1:33.28. "If the race had been any longer, he would have had me," said Biondi. Reese immediately speculated that Dalbey would crack the 1:30 barrier within the next few years.
Biondi's third title of the meet—and fourth American-record-breaking performance—came on Saturday when he blasted through the 100-yard free in a scorching 41.80. Only Biondi himself, in 1985, had lowered U.S. records four times at one NCAA meet. Yet not even his extraordinary performance could overshadow that of Stanford and its world-record butterflier, Pablo Morales. By Saturday evening the Cardinal had virtually locked up its third straight team title, and Morales was on the verge of becoming the most accomplished collegiate swimmer in history.
Morales stepped to the blocks of the 200-fly final on Saturday tied with former USC star John Naber in NCAA career titles with 10. Already Morales had swum away with both the 200 individual medley (1:45.42)—"I just saw the whites of his feet," said runner-up Doug Gjertson of Texas—and the 100 butterfly (46.47) in Austin. He had also clocked history's fastest 100-yard fly relay split (45.99) in helping the Cardinal to victory in the 400 medley. What stood between him and a record 11th title was, as luck would have it, teammate Anthony Mosse of New Zealand—Morales's toughest rival in the world next to West Germany's Michael Gross.
The crowd was abuzz, especially the 50-odd-member Stanford cheering and card section, which spelled out KIWI and PABLO. Every Cardinal swimmer had at least one parent in the stand, even Mosse, whose folks had arrived from Auckland after five flights and 30 hours in the air. Morales's dad, Pablo Sr., had left his wife, Blanca, back home in Santa Clara, Calif. "She gets emotionally involved, especially after the race, when Pablo stays half-dead in the pool," he explained.
That's about the only time Morales ever causes any worry. He is his sport's self-polishing diamond, a driven young man who studies hard (GPA: 3.2), does endless volunteer work in a Big Brother-type program and swims as many hours a day (four) as he sleeps. One of the Stanford parents, Bruce Louden, composed a team poem in Austin that said of Morales: Respect for his records and ability I But more for him as a person of humility. "You say you'd love three Pablo Moraleses," said Stanford coach Skip Kenney. "But you're damn glad you have one."
Morales dived into the 200 and came to the surface leading by more than a foot. Halfway through the race, he had opened two yards on Mosse. The gap never narrowed. Morales's winning time of 1:42.60 pared .25 off his old American record. Mosse finished second, three yards back.
The Stanford team poured out of the bleachers, cheered and gathered by Morales's starting block while Morales and Mosse embraced over a lane divider. "I thanked Anthony for training with me," said Morales later, softly, "and he in turn thanked me."
Crowding the deck were the others who had contributed to Stanford's overwhelming team victory (374 points to USC's 296 and Florida's 293). Sophomore Jay Mortenson had established a U.S. 100-yard backstroke record of 47.94 while leading off the medley relay, then placed second in both the 100-fly and 100-back finals. His backstroke record was 2.75 faster than his best time last year—due in part to an old technique taken to new extremes. Mortenson, like some other backstrokers at the meet, covered much of the first pool length while underwater, where there is less turbulence; for propulsion he employed a dolphin kick (as in the butterfly) rather than the usual flutter kick. "It's going to change the whole idea of the sprint backstroke," said 100-back champ David Berkoff of Harvard, who has experimented going a length and a half of a 25-yard pool underwater.
Some Stanford swimmers tend toward different strokes in and out of the pool. Senior Jeff Kostoff, for example, the diet-conscious winner of both the 400 IM and 1,650 free, arrived in Austin toting a juicer, a Belgian-waffle iron and a saucepan for cooking oatmeal. Members of last year's team wore NCAA championship rings inscribed with such nicknames as FAT CHANCE (backstroker-IMer Matt Nance), SPUD (backstroker Sean Murphy) and BLOW (Morales, short for his aqua-musical moniker, Blow Squidley). "Most of the names are just silly stuff," said Kostoff.
Kenney, 44, who led the charge out to greet Morales after the 200 fly, is an unlikely but effective mentor for the Blow Squidley gang. A former age-group diver, he never swam competitively but did teach "combat swimming" for a year with the Marines after serving in Vietnam. "We taught them to swim with all their equipment on," he says. Eventually he became an assistant to former U.S. Olympic coach Don Gambril at both Long Beach State and Harvard. Academics are a priority of his: In his eight years at Stanford, his teams have had a graduation rate of 100%.
That number, alas, will soon include Morales and Kostoff; Biondi will finish up at Cal after a final season of water polo next fall. As a result, next year's NCAAs will be wide open. "I may send Pablo a graduation present," said Florida's Reese with a smile.