Anita Nall, Pink-Cheeked and smiling, was doing something no 14-year-old should ever be required to do. She was talking seriously about her future, which, after last week's U.S. Swimming Spring Championships in Federal Way, Wash., looks long and bright. "I want to improve," she said, "and I have a lot of time to do so."
This is an article from the April 15, 1991 issue
Nall does not have to improve much to become the finest female 200-meter breaststroker in history. On Thursday she swam that distance in 2:27.08, the second fastest time ever. For that she was unanimously voted the winner of the Phillips Performance Award, given for the best individual swim of the meet. These championships were not lacking in notable occurrences—the only U.S. swimmer ever to be suspended for a positive anabolic steroid test made a comeback; armed guards stood watch over piles of cash; the backstroke was conducted under new rules (again)—but Nall was a particular revelation. "Boy, she's got a beautiful breast-stroke," exclaimed former 100 freestyle world-record holder Rowdy Gaines, who now manages a health club and does commentary for Turner Broadcasting. "She rides real high in the water and gets a lot of extension."
Nall's exploits provided a delightful diversion from the dull business of debating the NCAA's new restrictions on practice time. The legislation, which is scheduled to take effect this August, limits the practice time a college coach can require of an athlete to 20 hours a week during the season and eight hours during the off-season. Everywhere that swimmers and coaches gathered—in hotel lobbies and on the pool deck at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center—they tried to figure out exactly what that will mean. They might as well have been wrestling with the meaning of the Upanishads, so little could they agree.
Janet Evans, however, will wrestle no more. Last week, after easily winning the 800 freestyle in a ho-hum 8:30.75, the Stanford sophomore announced that she would pass up her last two years of college eligibility. "Because of the new NCAA rules, I'm giving up my eligibility and taking time off to train," said Evans, who earned a 4.0 grade point average last fall, despite training 35 hours a week.
"It wasn't an absolute surprise," said Stanford coach Richard Quick. "I don't think Janet was real happy with her results at the World Championships [in Perth, Australia, last January] or at the NCAAs [held three weeks ago]. She didn't swim faster than she ever has, and that's always her goal."
Evans has not so much been slipping—last year, for the third time in her career, she was named Swimming World's female World Swimmer of the Year—as treading water. She hasn't lowered her best time in any of her Olympic gold medal events (the 400 and 800 frees and 400 individual medley) since Aug. 20, 1989. Especially frustrating have been her recent swims in the 400 IM, particularly at the worlds, where she came in fourth.
Evans was planning to announce where she would train for the Olympics sometime this week. Her confidants have no doubts, however. "Janet will be in Austin," said one. There, she would work with University of Texas coach Mark Schubert, who, while coaching the Mission Viejo (Calif.) Nadadores from 1972 to '85, turned out a number of top distance swimmers, including world-record setters Shirley Babashoff and Brian Goodell.
Evans was the meet's only quadruple champion, winning the 400 IM (4:44.07), and the 400 (4:09.11) and 1,500 (16:11.22) freestyles, as well as the 800 free. That will make her an even hotter commodity in the endorsement market, now that she is liberated from the NCAA's ban on earning money. But she may choose not to cash in. "I'm not doing this for money," she said emphatically. "To make money, you have to travel a lot, make speeches, be in New York one day and Florida the next. I want to concentrate on training."
Melvin Stewart of Tennessee is another world-class swimmer who has given up his eligibility. He too cites training as his main reason. But Stewart sees no harm in making money at the same time, especially now that Las Vegas casino owner Bob Stupak is offering $100,000 to any member of Stewart's club, Las Vegas Gold, who sets a world record. Throughout the meet, the money—a thousand $100 bills-sat on a table in the natatorium lobby. Though Stewart probably did himself no favors at the world championships when he lowered the world record for the 200 fly to 1:55.69, breaking it again did not seem out of reach as he went to the blocks last Thursday night. Five nights earlier, at the NCAA men's meet, Stewart had smashed the American record for the 200-yard fly.
Pressure? Naaah. Pressure is what Stewart had felt a day before the U.S. championships when the masseuse at his hotel ordered him to take off all of his clothes, pointing out that he seemed to have a lot of stress in his butt muscles. "I was a little concerned," he said. "I wanted to keep my swim trunks on."
But Stewart survived that ordeal and started well. His split at the 100 mark was 55.50, a tenth of a second ahead of record pace. But when he set the mark, Stewart had had the German star, Michael Gross, to push him. Last weekend he had only the $100,000 to spur him on, and he discovered that money is no substitute for competition. He faded in the last 50 meters, touching in 1:56.83, nearly a second off the record and :02.12 ahead of Dave Wharton. "You can't think about money while you're swimming," said Stewart. "When winning has been your motivation for 17 years, it's hard to change your thinking."
It's also hard to imagine what must have been racing through Angel Martino's mind at this meet. While competing at the 1988 Olympic trials under her maiden name of Myers, Martino had won three events, two of them in U.S.-record times, only to test positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. Her records were disallowed, and she was suspended for 16 months. Last summer, feeling "fat and out of shape," she began swimming again. When she clocked an encouraging 26.04 for the 50-meter free at the Georgia state meet, Martino decided to take her comeback more seriously. Sunday night she won the 50 free in 25.88. That was .64 slower than she'd swum the event in '88, but, she said, "It's a positive first step. It makes me feel better about my swimming and about myself."
Joe Hudepohl could feel pretty good about himself, too. At the Ohio high school meet in early March, he scored a shocking triple. Though he had shaved only from the knees down and tapered for just 10 days, Hudepohl, a 17-year-old junior at St. Xavier High in Cincinnati, established national high school records in three events—the 50-(20.01), the 100-(43.54) and the 200-yard (1:34.96) free-styles. While he did not match those heroics last week, he won the 200 free (1:49.71) and finished third in the 100 (49.90, behind Shaun Jordan's winning 49.61) and the 400 (3:55.77, behind Lawrence Frostad's 3:53.33). He is the youngest swimmer ever to break 50 seconds for the 100 free.
"It's amazing a kid that age can go that fast," marveled Gaines. "He's strong for his age, but I don't think he's touched the surface of what his muscle power is going to be. He's going to be America's next sprint star."
Janie Wagstaff is already America's top backstroker. A 5'11" junior at Shawnee Mission (Kans.) East High, Wagstaff dominated the women's backstrokes last week. On Thursday night, she won the 200 in 2:09.09, the second-fastest time in history behind Betsy Mitchell's 2:08.60. Two days later, in the prelims of the 100, she clocked 1:01.10 to break Mitchell's U.S. record by a tenth of a second. Wagstaff won the final in 1:01.22.
Obviously Wagstaff's times are fast, but it's difficult to put them in perspective, because for several years now the backstroke rules have been in a bewildering state of flux. "I feel I'm the one who created all the problems," says David Berkoff, the world-record holder in the 100 back, who developed the extended underwater start, in which the swimmer remained submerged for the first third of the race. That prompted FINA, swimming's world governing body, to add, a week after the '88 Games, a rule specifying that a backstroker's toes had to surface within 10 meters of the start. In January, FINA rewrote the rules again. Now a backstroker must surface within 15 meters of the start—and it's the head, not the toes, that must emerge. Muddling things further, backstrokers are no longer required to touch the wall with a hand before turning; that permits them to do a freestylelike tumble turn, in which only the feet touch. "It is faster," said Wagstaff, "and it's also not nearly as tiring."
But neither Wagstaff nor Hudepohl could match Nall's precocity. On Thursday morning, in the prelims of the 200 breast, Nall, a freshman at Towson (Md.) High, clocked 2:27.89. That hacked 1.69 seconds off Amy Shaw's four-year-old American record and made Nall the sixth-fastest woman ever; that night she swam 2:27.08 and jumped to second, behind only East Germany's Silke H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árner, who was 23 when she set the world record at Seoul. Two nights later, Nall won the 100 breast in a strong 1:09.83.
Nall arrives at a perfect time. For a decade now, the breaststroke has been the weakest of strokes for American women: the last to set a world record in the breast-stroke was Catie Ball in 1968. At the Perth championships (for which Nall didn't qualify), U.S. women finished 10th and 15th in the 200 breast. Elena Volkova of the Soviet Union won the gold medal in 2:29.53, a time that would have left her two body lengths behind Nall last week.
Though they delighted everyone, Nall's swims came as no surprise. Since finishing seventh in the 200 at this meet last year, Nall has grown four inches, and now stands a slender 5'5½". At the U.S. Open meet in December, she swam unshaved, yet won the 200 easily, in 2:30.53. That was :03.47 lower than her previous best of 2:34.00. Her halfway split in Thursday night's 200 final was faster than she had ever swum the 100 breast. "We've been talking about a world record [in the 200] for at least a year," says Murray Stephens, who coaches Nall at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "She has a tremendous physical sense of what she's doing. She knows exactly when her stroke is on or off and will get out of the pool and tell you."
Nall grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., where she competed for the East Shore YMCA. Two years ago, she was the top 12-and-under breaststroker in the country. When her father's work as a labor relations manager took him to Baltimore, Nall joined North Baltimore, for which she trains 10 times a week under Stephens's tutelage. "Swimming is not like a normal life," she says. "You can't do what your friends do." Still, Nall's life does not sound so terribly abnormal, although she does claim to like Algebra II, and admits, a little sheepishly, that she gets "all A's, mostly."
No one seems more excited by the prospect of watching Nall's progress than Mike Barrowman, the men's world-record holder in the 200 breast. "I was so lucky to see that swim," said Barrowman. "She's got a wonderful stroke. It's smooth and it's powerful in the right places. She's got the guts of a great swimmer."