On Monday afternoon, when triple-gold medal hopeful Janet Evans of the U.S. touched the wall after the opening butterfly leg of the grueling 400 individual medley, she was in fourth place, more than a second behind Kathleen Nord of East Germany. But those in the know at Seoul's Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool were aware that the race was over. The fly was Evans's weakest leg, and since she stayed so close to the leaders in those first 100 meters it would be only a few minutes before the 17-year-old high school senior from Placentia, Calif., would provide the U.S. with its first gold medal of the Games.
Oddly enough, Evans, who holds the world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 frees, was expected to have her best gold medal shot in the 400 IM, in which she had only the American mark (4:38.58). Even if she swam a perfect race, she would have trouble bettering the magnificent world record of 4:36.10, which was set by Petra Schneider of East Germany in 1982.
Evans was set to give it the old high school try. She had come to Seoul from a training camp in Hawaii, where she had to work out in a lane with the U.S. men because none of the women could keep up with her. "She's just amazing," said her coach, Bud McAllister.
After hanging near the leaders in the opening 100 on Monday, she zoomed to the front on the second leg, the backstroke; pulled away in the third leg, the breaststroke; and after the freestyle leg won the gold by more than a body length, in a new American record of 4:37.76. "However happy you can be, that's how happy I am," she said afterward. Having won the IM by a whopping 1.7 seconds over second-place Noemi Lung of Romania, the 5'5½", 102-pound American seemed set for equally strong assaults on this week's 400 and 800 frees.
September 25, 1988
The first two days of Olympic finals produced mixed results for other U.S. swimmers and divers. The pressure on Matt Biondi of the U.S. to win seven gold medals—to repeat Mark Spitz's 1972 feat—ended early Monday afternoon in the finals of his first event, the 200 freestyle, when he finished third behind Anders Holmertz of Sweden and the surprise winner, Duncan Armstrong of Australia. U.S. divers Michele Mitchell and Wendy Williams exceeded expectations by winning the silver and bronze medals, respectively—America's first medals of the Games—in the women's platform competition. But Greg Louganis, who came to Seoul trying to become the first man to win gold medals in the springboard and platform in consecutive Olympics, had a brush with disaster in the three-meter springboard preliminaries when he smacked his head on the board, opening a cut that required five stitches.
Armstrong's win was one of the most delightfully shocking upsets in Olympic history. "Lucky Lane 6!" cried Australian coach Laurie Lawrence in the bedlam that followed Armstrong's victory. To the astonishment of everyone who was watching, the 6'2", 176-pound Armstrong, 20, of Brisbane, competing in Lane 6, blasted home in the last 50 meters to chop down an international forest of world-record holders: the 6'6" Biondi; Michael Gross of West Germany, the 6'7" defending Olympic champ; and 6'5" Artur Wojdat of Poland, the top qualifier in the previous day's heats. Not only that, Armstrong shattered Gross's world mark of 1:47.44 with a 1:47.25 clocking. "Anything's possible, mate, if you've got an Australian hat on!" hooted Lawrence.
Anything did seem possible as the Olympic aquatics competition opened at two superb pools nearly 3½ miles apart. The first 12 medals awarded at the swimming pool went to competitors from 10 different countries—perhaps a death knell for the sport's fading U.S. Soviet-East German axis.
But nothing was as startling as the men's 200, in which Gross, Biondi, Wojdat and Holmertz had figured to fight for the title. No one paid any attention to Armstrong, who came into the Games ranked 46th in the world with a best time of 1:51.18. The only thing that set him apart was that he liked to surf.
But you know those Aussies. In Los Angeles in 1984, unknown Jon Sieben—also coached by Lawrence and also swimming in lucky Lane 6—had run down Gross on the last lap of the 200-meter butterfly to claim the gold medal and the world record. Could lightning strike twice? Lawrence thought it could. When he got up Monday morning he began concocting a gold medal strategy for Armstrong.
Several hours before the finals were to start, Lawrence broke into a locked videotape room at the pool by removing a glass pane and watched replays of the 200-free heats. He decided that Armstrong should stick to the shoulder of Biondi, who, as the world-record holder in the 100 free, would surely go out fast. Armstrong could then slingshot past Biondi in the homestretch. It sounded good. Just for luck, Lawrence tossed a penny into the pool.
Biondi, glad to be racing at last, took the 200 out at record pace. He had been under intense pressure since deplaning to a crush of media a week earlier at Kimpo Airport. "I've never seen anything like it," said his U.S. swim coach, Nort Thornton.
Biondi had been trying not to dwell on the daunting field he would face in the 200, the toughest of his seven events. "It's like the old golf saying," said Thornton. "You don't worry about all the sand traps and water hazards, you just try to get the ball in the hole."
Little did Biondi know as he hit the wall at 150 meters, still on record pace and a meter ahead of Holmertz, that this day's water hazard was in Lane 6, surging powerfully. With 25 meters to go, Armstrong was with Biondi stroke for stroke. Then he was past him. Armstrong touched first, followed by Holmertz in 1:47.89 and a slowing Biondi in 1:47.99. Australian hats flew off.
"I didn't die where I usually die," said the quietly elated Armstrong afterward, referring to the 150-meter mark. His victory brought his country its 100th Olympic swimming medal (not including Frederick Lane's victory in 1900 in the obstacle race, a one-time-only event), and Lawrence had good reason to grab a radio mike and declare, "Hello, Australia! We just won the gold, and it's a bloody enormous feeling!"
Monday's two other swimming events brought no more U.S. medals, but did offer a certain poetic justice. Tall, lanky Kristin Otto, 22, of East Germany, one of the great woman swimmers in history with seven world-championship titles, had missed the '84 Games because of the Eastern bloc boycott, but she came through in Seoul with a wire-to-wire triumph in the women's 100 free. Her time of 54.93 was just .20 off her 1986 world record and boded well for her bid to win as many as six Olympic medals.
Men's 100-breast winner Adrian Moorhouse, 24, who took up swimming as treatment for severe childhood asthma, made up for his disappointment at the 1986 world championships in Madrid. There the Englishman had been disqualified and stripped of the 100-breast title on a questionable illegal-kick ruling. Here he stormed home in the final 50 to outtouch Karoly Guttler of Hungary by the narrowest of margins, 1:02.04 to 1:02.05.
Across town at the Chamshil diving pool, there was also drama. It was on his ninth dive of Monday's springboard prelims, a reverse 2½ pike, that Louganis banged his head. He was lucky to come away with five stitches and the No. 3 qualifying spot. Louganis, who had a similar accident during a platform competition in the Soviet Union in 1979, nailed his next dive, one of his most difficult, a reverse 1½ somersault with 3½ twists, for 8.5s and 9.0s, the highest score of the day by any diver.
A more pleasant development for the U.S. was the showing of Mitchell and Williams, who seized medal opportunities in the stumble-filled women's platform finals on Sunday and finished second and third, respectively, behind China's 17-year-old Xu Yanmei.
"I just wanted to end my career on a good note," said Mitchell, 26, who also took a silver at L.A. in '84. Since then she has had to come back from shoulder surgery and a psychological block on one of her key dives, an inward 3½ tuck, which had been destroying both her confidence and her Olympic hopes until she scrapped it two months ago in favor of an easier inward 2½ pike. "I would have been happy with any medal," she said later.
There didn't figure to be any medals left for Mitchell or Williams if a kiddie corps of tiny Chinese and Soviet acrobats performed up to expectations on their high-degree-of-difficulty dives. All eyes were on Xu, her 14-year-old, 4'11" teammate Chen Xiaodan—the top qualifier in Saturday's preliminaries—and 4'8", 71-pound Elena Miroshina, also 14, of the U.S.S.R.
But high-degree-of-difficulty dives are risky, especially for young teens competing in their first Olympics. Under the fierce pressure of Sunday's 10-meter finals, Chen and Miroshina fell apart, more crash than flash. "It shows we still have many shortcomings, like psychological training," Chinese coach Xu Yiming said.
Not that anyone had to apologize for the shy, 5'4" Xu Yanmei, who displayed terrific body control for someone once labeled the "least promising" gymnast at the spare-time sports school in her native Nanchang City. "I thought if I did well, they might clap for me," she said of the U.S.-heavy crowd, which responded to her splash-free, rip entries with roars of approval.
The divers had endured a rather strange week in Seoul. They had trained at the Chamshil pool amid the din of blaring Korean music, P.A.-system tests and shouts and whistles from water polo practices going on in the adjacent swimming pool. Sunday's finalists had to deal not only with a slippery platform surface—Williams sportingly lent Xu her towel to use as a mat for better footing—but also with the distracting sounds of spectator chitchat and water slurping noisily into the side drains of the pool. The most noticeable commotion came from the photographers' section whenever the 21-year-old Williams—a blonde University of Miami junior whom the July issue of Mademoiselle declared "The Great American Body"—performed. "Every time Wendy goes, it sounds like a machine gun going off from all the motor drives," said Mitchell.
As Chen got ready for the final dive of the competition, Xu and Mitchell had their medals virtually wrapped up, but Williams stood teary-eyed on the pool deck. "I figured I was going to get fourth [behind Chen]," she said later. But when Chen flopped badly on an extremely difficult back 3½, Williams cried tears of joy. Behind her in the stands, Anis Mitchell, Michele's father and a Korean War vet who had once vowed never to return to the country, joyfully waved a large U.S. flag. "It's kind of neat that by being here, I've changed his perspective on an entire region of the world," said his daughter proudly.
The final standings showed Xu first with 445.20 points, Mitchell next at 436.95 and Williams third with 400.44. Chen finished fifth and Miroshina sixth.
"I am getting very homesick now," said Xu, adding that she hoped "to go home as quickly as possible." Her American rivals, by contrast, couldn't wait to dig into the remaining two weeks of their Olympic experience—at the diving pool and elsewhere around Seoul. "I didn't train all these years just to do 16 dives and go home," said Mitchell. "This is where the fun starts. I'll be here right to the end."
"My goal is to see the best in each sport," added Williams. "I want to see that 6'8" Chinese woman basketball center, and I want to see Matt Biondi swim. I want to see the greats."
As last week's competition showed, the greats at these Olympic Games could come from anywhere.