The NCAA men's swimming and Diving Championships reached a climax last Saturday night with the start of the 100-yard freestyle, the event that would all but assure the home-team Texas Longhorns of their fourth consecutive title. After the eight finalists were introduced, the raucous mood in the Texas Swimming Center in Austin gave way to an expectant hush.
But all of a sudden, Texas senior Shaun Jordan began waving frantically at the starter. The drawstring of his swimsuit had broken. Can you imagine the consequences? Jordan could. Once, in a meet against Cal in his freshman year, he dived into the pool without tying his drawstring, and his loose suit was yanked off by the force of hitting the water. He swam gamely on, one set of cheeks bright red, the other a luminous white. Still, he didn't relish the thought of an encore in his home pool, in front of family and friends. So, with the help of an NCAA meet official, who nimbly tied a knot in the drawstring, Jordan returned to the starting block.
It's not all that surprising when Jordan finds himself in such predicaments. A young man with a flair for the unusual, he used to enliven Longhorn workouts by coaxing his black Labrador, Zeus, into the pool to swim laps with him. And last year he helped form the Student Athlete Coalition, a group dedicated to promoting racial and cultural understanding on campus. "He's really bright," says Texas coach Eddie Reese. "You can't find a comeback line Shaun can't beat."
Or many freestyle sprinters. At the starting beep of the 100 free, Jordan jumped into the lead, with Alabama's Jon Olsen on his tail. "Olsen scared me out," Jordan said later, "and he scared me home." What Olsen could not do was catch Jordan, whose winning time of 42.45 made him the third-fastest ever at that distance, behind Olympic champions Matt Biondi and Rowdy Gaines.
Jordan was the kind of under-achiever in high school that Reese has a knack for discovering. At first only one college, South Carolina, actively recruited Jordan, a fact that didn't surprise him. "I was not good," he says. "I was not even all right."
"I like guys like that," says Reese. "It's easier to make them swim faster. It makes me look good."
At Highland Park High School in an exclusive neighborhood in Dallas, Jordan had no work ethic. Instead of going to morning practice for school and club teams, he would detour to the local doughnut shop and stuff himself silly. On the way home he would stick his head under a hose to trick his parents into thinking he'd been swimming. Jordan's high school coach, Mike Sorrells, lectured him about wasting his talent but still tipped Reese off about Jordan's potential. Reese studied him closely at the state meet. "I saw a kid six feet tall who weighed 139 pounds," recalls Reese. "He had a great flutter kick and hands so big he couldn't get them through the water. They were like paddles." Jordan finished third in the 100 free, and later Reese decided to take a risk, offering him a partial scholarship.
With one glaring exception, their collaboration has been fruitful. Jordan won an Olympic gold medal for swimming the prelims of the 400-meter free relay in Seoul, and he also has played a big role in each of the Longhorns' three previous NCAA titles. But at the world championships in Perth, Australia, in January he finished a disappointing eighth in the 100-meter free. That performance baffled him, since he had been swimming faster in practice than ever before. It didn't baffle Reese, however. "Shaun's coach blew his world championships," he says, referring to himself. "Shaun didn't get a quality taper. We just did too much work."
But Jordan hit it right at last week's NCAAs. He won the 50 free as well as the 100 free, and his time in the prelims of the 50 was the third-fastest ever (19.20). He swam on four Longhorn relays, three of them victorious, and helped set American records in the 200 free relay (1:17.89) and 200 medley relay (1:26.34). He also finished fourth in the 100 butterfly, which was won by Anthony Nesty of Florida. Other than Jordan, Texas had just one individual champion, Jason Rhodes, who won the three-meter springboard diving title. The Longhorns' strength was depth—14 swimmers and two divers scored points for them. Texas ended up with 476 points to runner-up Stanford's 420, duplicating the order of finish in the NCAA women's meet a week earlier in Indianapolis.
Of course, Jordan wasn't the only swimmer who excelled. Tennessee junior Melvin Stewart swam the 200 butterfly in 1:41.78, shattering the four-year-old American record of 1:42.60 set by Stanford's Pablo Morales. David Wharton of USC won the 400 individual medley (3:43.28) to become only the sixth swimmer in NCAA history to win the same event four years in a row. Artur Wojdat, an Iowa junior from Poland, took the 200, 500 and 1,650 freestyles. Florida senior Martin Zubero won the 200 IM (1:44.01) and 200 back (1:42.88)—both times being the fastest ever swum in those events.
The meet's most courageous effort came from another Stanford man, back-stroker Jeff Rouse. Rouse, a 6'3", 190 pound junior from Fredericksburg, Va., looks anything but fragile. However, he is the Humpty Dumpty of the swimming world. Last spring he fractured a rib when he fell and hit the corner of a chair. He broke the rib again doing bench presses and then in December suffered yet another fractured rib while wrestling with teammates. After winning the world title a month later in the 100-meter back, Rouse returned to Palo Alto only to fall down some steps and break the navicular bone in his left wrist in early February. As a result, Rouse had to go five weeks without using his arms in practice. Nevertheless, on Thursday night, he clocked 46.63 in leading off the Cardinal's 400 medley relay team, .39 under the NCAA record set two years ago by Harvard's David Berkoff. The next night Rouse won the 100 back in 46.99.
But Stanford didn't have the manpower to overtake Texas, and Jordan in particular. The prolific Longhorn saved his best effort for his anchor leg on the Texas 400 free relay, the last event. Starting a body length behind Wharton, Jordan caught him at the halfway point as the crowd came to its feet. Jordan's split was 42.02, and he touched in 2:53.11 for the win, .72 seconds ahead of Wharton.
Afterward, Jordan spoke not of his future, which is guaranteed to be intriguing, but his past. "I'm so thankful I got to swim for Eddie," he said.
The feeling is mutual.