The Coach of the Seacoast Swimming Association of Dover, N.H., explained about the town's indoor pool. The pool is not too big, you see, because it was built inside a converted municipal garage. The garage was not so big, so the pool is not so big. Twenty-five yards long. The swimmers have to churn back and forth, turning twice as often as the big-time swimmers in the big-time pools. There is an outdoor 50-meter pool, Olympic length, at Guppy Park in Dover, but New Hampshire is New Hampshire, and spring arrives late.
The coach explained how the training sessions have to be crammed into the schedule of the indoor pool, his swimmers stuffed into slots between the senior-citizen and the youth-group sessions. He didn't complain as much as explain. He explained how far Jenny Thompson had come to be here, at the natatorium in Indianapolis last Friday night, winning the outstanding performance award at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials.
"She was 12 years old and qualified for her first national junior meet in Tuscaloosa, Alabama," Mike Parratto said. "We didn't have any money to send her, so we drove. We put her brother and her in the backseat of my old Datsun 210, and my wife and I drove her to Tuscaloosa."
The 12-year-old is now 19, a sophomore at Stanford. On Friday she sat behind a table and talked into a microphone about how she collects American flags and all products—telephones, rugs, wastebaskets—that have images of American flags. People were writing down her words. She had become the world-record holder in the women's 100-meter freestyle with a time of 54.48, breaking the record of East Germany's Kristin Otto that had stood for almost six years. Thompson is the first American to hold that record in 59 years. In Indy she also set the American record for the 50 free at 25.20 and qualified for the Olympic team in the 200 free. (The first two finishers in each event made the team.)
Small pool in New Hampshire. Big pool in Indianapolis. Biggest pool of all in Barcelona. She was on the team.
"I did Hollywood Squares," Matt Biondi said. "Do you know they write out all the jokes for you? All you have to do is read them. I read mine...nothing. A real bomb. Then I watched the show. They had the laugh track turned up. It sounded like I was hilarious."
He charted the things that had happened to him in the four years since he had won five gold medals, one silver and one bronze at the Olympics in Seoul. He said he took the typical American celebrity tour: He was in the Superstars competition. He was in the Slam Fest basketball dunking competition (he's 6'7", 210 pounds). He gave motivational talks for IBM. He endorsed mineral waters, bathing suits and sunglasses. He did all right.
"I think a lot of things were working against me," he said. "A lot of other stories developed. The Ben Johnson story. The boxing incident. The basketball. These things pushed me off the page. The time zones hurt, too. More people told me, 'Matt, I stayed up to watch you win. It was really a chore.' Everything was happening at 5 a.m. in the United States."
He wasn't going to swim again. That was the plan. He was going to become a water polo player. Somewhere in the middle of his water polo career, though, the swimmer took control again. He came back, training for one more shot at the Olympics. At 26, he supposedly was old in the old-line thinking about his sport, but this was a new time. Weren't more swimmers staying in the water? A good swimmer could earn more than $50,000 a year under the U.S. Swimming Athletes Assistance Program. Biondi, with his other opportunities, earned much more than that.
He was nervous at the start of the six-day meet and doubly nervous after the men's 100-meter butterfly on March 2 when he finished sixth. Had he made a mistake? He ended his worries the next day when he won the 100 freestyle. He finished first again in the 50 free last Thursday.
"After the butterfly, I was pretty scared," Biondi said. "I look back now, and maybe it's best. I can concentrate on the freestyle."
He will not have a chance for the seven medals of Seoul, but he will have a chance for four, by also swimming on two relays. Good enough. He was on the team.
"The first question always is, 'Were your parents hippies?' " Summer Sanders said. "The answer is no. The second question always is, 'Do you come from California?' The answer is yes. The third question always is, 'What's your brother's name? Winter?' I hate the third question. It's so stupid."
Her brother's name is Trevor. Yes, he was born on the first day of summer, and her parents had decided that if he were a girl his name would be Summer. A girl arrived two years later, in October. The name still sounded great. So why not? These are the basics that the 19-year-old Stanford sophomore will have to cover again and again during this Olympic summer. Might as well start now.
"I want to have a good time," she said. "I want this to be the best experience of my life."
She became the ascendant star of U.S. swimming when she won the women's 200 and 400 individual medleys and the 200-meter butterfly, and finished second in the 100 fly. Summer Sanders. Could there be a name that is more American? More golden? She will swim five events in Barcelona, including the medley relay. She will be a contender in all of them.
"This is the payoff for all the tears, the pain, the frustration," she said. "You work so hard. You sit in a little room and wait for your coach to come in with the workout cards, these blue cards that tell what you have to do, and you're scared about what the cards will say. You see the cards, and you know the pain that is in them. You need the payoff somewhere."
This was the payoff. On the team.
"The butterfly is the hardest stroke," Melvin Stewart said. "I have debates about this all the time with breaststrokers, but look at those commercials for Paul Tsongas. He's a breaststroker in competition, yet the stroke they show him doing is the butterfly. That's because they want to show the power and the effort. He looks pretty good, too, Tsongas, but I guarantee there's a good Republican out there who can beat him."
In Indianapolis, Stewart won the men's 200 butterfly and finished second in the 100 fly. He also earned a spot on the 800 free relay. His time in the 200 fly, 1:55.72, was only .03 off his world record. Twenty-three years old, he gave up his eligibility at Tennessee a year ago when the NCAA restricted athletes' practice time to 20 hours a week. He wanted more time. His motivation was the memory of Seoul, of finishing fifth behind West Germany's Michael Gross and seeing Gross wave to the crowd. He said some people fantasize about sex. He fantasizes about winning at the Olympics.
"Are you a Republican?" he was asked.
"Yes, I am," he replied.
"Would you swim against Tsongas? What kind of handicap would you give him?"
"If he swam 100 meters...I'd swim 150 meters. No, how good is he, anyway? I'll have to do a little scouting before we talk a deal."
On the team.
The two friends seemed stunned by the race they had swum against each other. Roque Santos was the winner of the men's 200 breaststroke. Mike Barrowman was second. They had raced each other about a billion times in the past, and Barrowman had won about all billion races. Santos won this one by .04, in 2:13.50. This was the best time in his life but was well off Barrowman's world record of 2:10.60.
"My goal was to get second," Santos said. "Mike, in my mind, is the greatest swimmer ever. He's like the guy who broke the four-minute mile. He's done all the times. The first summer I trained with him, I raced him every day. I beat him three times."
"This will rekindle a fire in me that had done its best to dwindle down," Barrowman said. "This will burn into me, and I won't forget it. For some reason it's been hard for me to get motivated. In 1988 I put all of my focus into the trials, won, and then finished fourth in Seoul. This time all I have been thinking about is the Olympics, not the trials. This is what's important."
Barrowman, runner-up for the Sullivan Award for U.S. amateur athlete of 1991, was U.S. swimmer of the year for the past three years. Santos, a onetime swimming walk-on at Cal, had to canvass local businessmen in Chico, Calif., for money simply to head east to train with Barrowman in Washington, D.C. Both men said they were happy the training and competition between them will continue.
On the team.
The average age of the men on the U.S. Olympic team is 22.88. The average age of the women is 20. The obvious theme, fit for a Cosmopolitan headline or a Geraldo discussion group, is "Older Men and Younger Women." But with swimmers competing longer because of better financial support, everyone is older. This is the oldest U.S. Olympic swimming team ever selected; there are 25 men and 15 women.
Janet Evans, the teenage sensation of 1988, now a 20-year-old swimming diva, won the women's 400 and 800 freestyles, but in quiet times, 4:09.47 and 8:27.24, far from her world records in those events. "I think I could have gone faster than I did here," she said. "Now I know what I have to do. I'm ready to go home and go to work and go fast for the Olympics."
Nelson Diebel, a 21-year-old freethinker from Princeton, had an impressive performance, a 1:01.40 in the men's 100-meter breaststroke, to set an American record and make the team. "You'd better lock him up," said Nathalie Martin, the mother of Diebel's coach, Chris, knowing the exuberant ways that Diebel likes to celebrate....
Pablo Morales, 27, once as good as any swimmer in the world but a disappointment when he failed to qualify in any of three events for Seoul, won the men's 100 butterfly in Indy....
Nineteen-year-old Royce Sharp set an American record of 1:58.66 in the men's 200 backstroke....
Seventeen-year-old Janie Wagstaff of Mission Hills, Kans., set an American record of 1:00.84 in the women's 100 backstroke and also won the 200....
Crissy Ahmann-Leighton, 21, and Jeff Rouse, 22, won with the second-fastest times ever swum in the 100 butterfly (58.61) and 100 backstroke (54.07), respectively....
Eighteen-year-old Joe Hudepohl of Cincinnati, whose supporters wore boxes on their heads for some reason, won the men's 200 free....
All on the team.
"I can't find my medal," Anita Nail of Baltimore said. "I lost it."
"It has to be around somewhere," her mother, Marilyn, said.
Anita, 15, was the teenage sensation this time. She was the other swimmer to break an East German world record, swimming the women's 200 breaststroke in 2:25.35, 1.36 seconds faster than the 1988 mark set by Silke Hoerner. She also won the 100 breast in 1:09.29. She is a sophomore at Towson Catholic High School, where she was excused from classes for the week to participate in the trials.
"She's a different sort of kid," her mother said. "She's from the '60s. The clothes she wears...the Birkenstock sandals, the tie-dyed shirts. She's concerned about the environment, won't eat red meat, very big on recycling. She brings home leftover paper from school so we can bring it to the recycling center. She sleeps on a water bed. She's different, her own person."
Her own person now was looking here and there for the medal, going to the training room, going to the room where the press conference was held, even looking on the stand where a full band called Indy Express played the Eddie Money song Two Tickets to Paradise for every pair of qualifiers when they were announced. Finally, she looked in her gym bag. She smiled. The medal. Her mother told her not to lose it.
"Best breaststroker in the world," Marilyn Nail said. "But sometimes very forgetful."
On the team.