Nancy Wharton nervously turned a video camera over in her hands before the start of the 400-yard individual medley at the 65th NCAA men's swimming championships in Indianapolis last Friday night. "My son Doug knows how to work it," she said of the camera, "but I'm not as sure of what to do." The youngest of her three sons, Dave, a freshman at USC, was about to swim, but Doug, the middle son, was nowhere to be seen. This could have been a calamity, because Dave's 400 IM would prove to be not just a race worth watching, but one worth watching over and over.
This is an article from the April 18, 1988 issue
By the time Dave stepped up for the start, Doug had arrived and rescued the camera from his mother. As the starter said, "Take your marks," Wharton bent over to grab the block for leverage. That brought his head closer to the little speaker—there's one in each block—that sounds the starting beep. Dave, like his two brothers, was born with a partial hearing loss. He wears a hearing aid out of the water.
With the beep, he burst out of his crouch and moved quickly to the front. Wharton had said earlier he was going after the U.S. open record of 3:43.04 set last year by Tamas Darnyi of Hungary. Over the first 300 yards he built a lead of over two body lengths, but he was still .12 of a second off Darnyi's pace. Nancy, who had driven 11 hours from Warminster, Pa., to be at the meet, raised her right fist and yelled, "C'mon, Dave!" as her son began the freestyle leg. As if in response, Wharton picked up the tempo and, with the crowd on its feet and cheering, beat runner-up Matthew Rankin of Arizona by half the length of the 25-yard pool. But after reaching the wall, Wharton had to wait an agonizing 11 seconds for the rest of the field to finish before the scoreboard posted his time. Finally, it flashed—3:42.23. World records can be set only in a 50-meter pool, but he had broken Darnyi's U.S. open record by .81 and Jeff Kostoff's 1985 American mark by more than four seconds. "Oh, my God," gasped Nancy, who then turned to Doug and said, "I hope you got all that."
"I did," he said.
"That 3:42.23 has got to be at least the equivalent of Bob Beamon's long jump," said Texas coach Eddie Reese, slightly overstating the case. "In a metric pool, he breaks the world record."
"He does everything right," said Stanford's Jay Mortenson. "You look at every stroke, every turn, he's wonderful to watch." Mortenson knows a bit about strokes. On that same night the Cardinal junior won an unprecedented double—the 100 butterfly and the 100 backstroke—29 minutes apart. The last person to win two individual events at the NCAA meet on the same day was George Kojac of Rutgers in 1930.
Wharton was the biggest nom de flume at the Indiana University Natatorium. The U.S. swimmers with the most marquee value, world-record holders Pablo Morales and Matt Biondi, had both graduated since last year's NCAA meet. Furthermore, this year's team title was won by a troop of self-proclaimed no-names from Texas who broke Stanford's string of three straight victories. Good thing there was a new star on the NCAA starting blocks.
Wharton, who was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year, also won the 200 IM on Thursday, in 1:45.04, with another scorching freestyle leg, and placed second to Stanford's Anthony Mosse in the 200 fly on Saturday to become the meet's top point-getter, with 57. Despite such heroics, the big prize, the team championship, slipped through the hands of the favored USC swimmers.
The title went to a scrappy group of Longhorns who typify the overachieving teams Reese has regularly turned out in Austin. At Indianapolis almost all of Reese's pieces fell into place as 15 of his 19 athletes scored points. Texas beat USC 424-369.5 to become the first school to win the NCAA men's and women's titles in the same year. (Last month the Lady Longhorns won their fifth straight NCAAs.) Stanford was third, with 276.5 points. "We've got a lot of guys nobody's ever heard of," Reese said. "The good thing is, they've never heard of anybody, either."
"You can liken our team to Kansas versus Oklahoma [in basketball]," said Texas sophomore Doug Gjertsen on Saturday, the last day of the three-day meet. "Maybe we've got one key person to fall on, and maybe that's me. USC has four American-record holders on their team. But I think we're giving them a run for their money."
It's probably fair to compare Gjertsen's role with that of Kansas basketball star Danny Manning. Gjertsen, at 6'5", is the big man on his team. At Indianapolis he won the 200 free in 1:34.51 and finished second in the 200 back and the 200 IM. Like Manning, Gjertsen is a money guy—the one you want on the block when a relay comes down to the last leg.
On Friday night he was there. Swimming anchor in the 800-free relay, Gjertsen entered the water half a body length behind USC's Mike O'Brien, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500-meter free. Texas had a 19.5-point lead over the Trojans going into the event, and O'Brien, swimming the last meet of his career, was fired up. "I was scared to death," Reese said. Gjertsen gradually gained on O'Brien, finally catching him with 25 yards left and pulling away to win the event for Texas, a demoralizing loss for the Trojans. On Saturday night in the 400 free relay Gjertsen anchored Longhorn teammates Chris Jacobs, Shaun Jordan and Keith Anderson to a U.S. open, American and meet record of 2:52.01.
At last year's NCAAs, Gjertsen won the 200 back as a freshman. Then his life went into a tailspin. His parents' marriage faltered, and Doug stayed home in Dunwoody, Ga., last fall. In September his teammate and best friend, Ren Patterson, was killed in a car wreck. It was a lot to dump on a 20-year-old.
But he did return in January, although not before, as he later told The Dallas Morning News, he received visits from Patterson on three successive days. He couldn't explain these visitations, Gjertsen added, but he didn't believe they were dreams or hallucinations. "A lot of things happened last year with me," he said last week. "I call last summer and last fall My Lessons in Life. I'm a different person now. I try to rub off on everyone as positively as possible."
Wharton, too, stayed home last fall, though his reason was to prepare for the '88 Olympics, training in Fort Washington, Pa., under his high school and club coach, Dick Shoulberg. "There wasn't another NCAA swimmer who did the training he did," said Shoulberg, who had Wharton swimming as many as 12½ miles a day.
Still, Wharton had trouble getting to the NCAA meet. At the airport in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning he and teammate Brad Bailey wandered off to get something to drink. When they came back, their plane had left. "Dave will get some big Willis points for that," said O'Brien. Willis points go toward the Willis Award, presented annually by the upperclassmen on the USC swim team to a freshman, usually the one who has proved the most obnoxious. Though O'Brien noted that Wharton is probably the least obnoxious guy on the team, he also said that some of Dave's USC teammates like the ring of "Willis Wharton."
If Wharton doesn't win the Willis, it will be one of the few swimming awards to have passed him by recently. At the Pan Pacific championships last August in Brisbane, Australia, he set his first and only world record with a 4:16.12 clocking in the 400-meter IM. Darnyi broke the mark five days later at the European championships with a 4:15.42.
"I was a little upset the record didn't last longer," Wharton said last week. "But now I see it in a different light. I have someone to push me. The battle between us is not yet finished."
When the battle with Darnyi is rejoined it will definitely be worth watching. More than once.