On Saturday night, 10 minutes before the final session of the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships at the University of Texas in Austin, the Lady Longhorns' premier breaststroker was on crutches and their best back-stroker was recovering from the flu. But, hey, these were not bum steers. With a 93-point lead, nothing short of a mass drowning was going to deprive them of the title. And so the Horns thundered out to the 25-yard pool and three hours later clinched their fifth consecutive national title, defeating the University of Florida 661-542.5.
Before the meet, the Longhorns had figured that second-ranked Stanford (which finished third, with 419 points) would be the team to worry about, but it was the third-ranked Lady Gators—led by the triple individual gold medal performances of Tami Bruce (200-, 500- and 1,650-yard frees) and Julia Gorman (200 and 400 individual medleys, and 200 butterfly)—who snapped at their heels during the opening session on Thursday night. Florida won the first three races—the 200-yard medley relay, the 500-yard freestyle and the 200-yard individual medley—then, in the 50 free, Texas freshman Leigh Ann Fetter tied Florida's Dara Torres for first in 22.38, a pool record.
Florida ended the first evening by setting an American and U.S. open record of 7:06.56 in the 800 free relay, .42 of a second better than its own 1984 mark. In spite of the Gators' efforts—they had won four of the events and tied for first in the fifth—Texas, with only a first-place tie, still led by 37 points, thanks to the Longhorns' deep bench.
"We can't outscore Texas on points," said Florida coach Randy Reese on Friday morning, "but if we can win a lot of events, we can beat them, if you know what I mean."
March 28, 1988
By that night the championships seemed like a two-school affair. First, the Texas 200 freestyle relay team set an American and U.S. open record of 1:30.21. Then Florida took the next two races, the 400 IM and the 100 butterfly. But Texas came back when Tracey McFarlane, a Canadian living in Palm Springs, Calif., bettered by .17 her own U.S. open record of 1:00.68 in the 100-yard breaststroke. "I wish it could have been an American record," said McFarlane, who left Canada nine years ago and hopes to become a U.S. citizen in time for the Summer Games in Seoul. Texas women's coach Richard Quick hopes so, too; he's also the U.S. Olympic swim coach.
Texas's Betsy Mitchell, the world-record holder in the 200-meter backstroke, won the next event, the 100-yard back, though her time of 54.11 was .13 slower than her American record. After the race, Mitchell, who has been fighting the flu for nearly a month, said, "I'm not swimming as fast as I know I can. I can't generate power. My muscles just won't give me the extra bit I'm known for. I feel tired and weak. It's so frustrating."
Though Florida won four of the evening's seven finals, the overpowering Lady Longhorns led in team points, 474-381. On the last day the Lady Gators took four of six events, including the final race, the 400 free relay, in which they set an American record of 3:16.89. Torres swam the anchor leg in 47.37, which was the fastest short-course freestyle split in history. "I do pretty well under pressure," said Torres, who was voted NCAA women's Swimmer of the Year.
Texas won only one of Saturday night's events—Mitchell took the 200 back—and its chances to win the 200 breaststroke faded when McFarlane, who pulled a groin muscle on Friday, was unable to compete. She could only lean on her crutches at poolside and watch as Cal's Hiroko Nagasaki set an NCAA-record 2:11.65.
So the Longhorns won the war, but Florida won most of the battles, taking 12 of the meet's 18 events. When asked how the nationals stacked up against other competitions of the season, Reese said, "It was probably the best meet—for losing."
"Ours was a tremendous team effort," said Quick. "We've had illness and injury. And Florida swam really well. I'm just glad that there weren't more of them."