Bob Sanders had the pool built in back of his house in Roseville, Calif., in one of those moments of inspiration that come to all of us. Cheap air-conditioning. That was his thought. Why pay all that money for those machines that churn and chill the air around us? Forget the artificial nonsense. Build the pool in the backyard. The pool would be an air conditioner and a recreational facility and maybe a neighborhood gathering place. That was the thought. Wait a minute...what if one of his kids drowned in the air conditioner?
"That was my worry," Sanders says. "I wanted to make sure my kids could swim. The older one...he really knew how to swim pretty well, so I wasn't too concerned about him. My daughter was a baby, though. I wanted to get her lessons before the pool was finished."
Her name was Summer—Summer Sanders, a melodious, California-sounding sort of name and she was a year and a half, maybe two years old when the pool was built. The swimming lessons turned out to be an ordeal. She cried. She fussed. She did not seem to pay attention. Like all kids who cannot swim, she had to be watched around a pool. The rule was that she had to wear those little floater things on her arms, those orange artificial biceps that would keep her bobbing and safe on the surface of that chlorinated pond. Bob and his wife, Barbara, prepared to watch closely. Just in case.
"Then...Summer was playing with her brother and a bunch of older kids," Bob says. "I'm not real sure about the age. We hadn't had the pool long. She just took the floaters off. Just like that. She jumped into the water and swam like she had been swimming all her life. It turned out she had been paying attention all the time. She just hadn't let us know. She could swim. Just like that."
Just like that. Summer Sanders. She is 19 years old now, and she could win medals in five events at the Olympics in Barcelona—the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, the 100 and 200 butterflies and the 4x100 medley relay—and replace 1988 Olympic sensation Janet Evans on the covers of all those swimming magazines. And there is a tendency to package the whole tale in an easy, convenient, American suburban frame. Just like that. Backyard to Barcelona. But this is real life. Nothing happens exactly like that.
"California is a community-property state, so when the divorce came, everything was split down the middle, 50-50," Bob says. "I went to Barbara and said that 50-50 applied to the kids, too. We were sensible. We worked it out. If we couldn't get along as husband and wife, we still could get along as parents."
Summer was eight and her brother, Trevor, was 10 when their parents split up. Barbara moved into a house a mile and a half from the house in Roseville, where Bob continued to live. The agreement was that each parent would have custody of the kids for half of the year. The traveling began. Every October 1 and April 1 were moving days. The car would be filled to the top with the possessions of the two kids. A different bedroom would await, musty from six months of vacancy. A different sort of life would await, a subtle change from living with a mother to living with a father, and vice versa.
"I hated it," Summer says now. "When I was younger, I just didn't understand why all this had to be. I'd become accustomed to living with one person, and then I'd have to start all over again. I loved them both, but I couldn't have them at the same time. Each time, it felt like a part of me was being ripped out. I'd cry. I seriously couldn't talk for a day."
Bob, a dentist, had to develop the skills of a single parent. He had to learn how to cook. He had to wash a lot of clothes. He found, in a curious way, that he became closer to his kids than he ever had been. Barbara, an airline attendant, worried about the difference in her life-style and Bob's. She did not have the home or the money her former husband had. Was she compromising her kids' welfare by having them with her? Was she being selfish?
"The hard part was that from about seventh grade on, I simply didn't have any time for the parent who was not in the house," Summer says. "Where I was, I lived. I had so many things going on—the swimming, alone, took so much time—that I didn't have time to go anywhere else. So even though I lived really close, I'd only see the other parent once in a while for dinner or a movie, something like that. The ones who probably became the closest were my brother and I. He's still my most amazing supporter. He knows me best as a person."
The swimming, of course, was one of the constants through all the moving. The backyard pool had led to bigger things. At three Summer could swim a lap in a 25-yard pool. At four she was racing against seven-year-olds. She was hooked into the age-group swimming scene, swimming for the Roseville Sugar Bears against the Fair Oaks Dolphins and on the way accumulating certificates and ribbons. Trevor also swam, presenting a challenge.
Bob found that the swimming made his job as a parent easier. Was this the world's best-kept secret or what? Competitive swimming tells a kid where she or he has to be at a certain time. It tells a kid when to sleep, what to eat. It condenses the day so much that a kid has to prepare, make sure to do homework on time. Twelve months a year. Why don't all parents have their kids swim? Life would be so much easier. Barbara found a different lesson. She found that she also liked to swim.
"I've never been one of those parents who wants to live her life through her children," Barbara says. "I think that's so easy to do with swimming. I'd swum as a child in Nebraska, but there weren't any teams or anything out there back then. One of Summer's first coaches encouraged me to start swimming. I found that I had a little bit of ability. I liked it. I never moved into age-group swimming because I don't like diving into the water, but I've clone a lot of the open-water swims. I've even thought about swimming the English Channel, which would be fine if I had the time to train and the ability to put on some weight. You have to put on a lot of weight for the English Channel."
Barbara became a part-time swimming coach. Bob became a meet official and a social chairman, somehow making fun out of those long hours he spent at swimming meets. Trevor moved along to other sports, other interests for a while before returning to swimming in college. Summer became...well, Summer.
The breakthrough, everyone agrees, came in the 1988 Olympic trials in Austin, Texas. She was 15 years old. Her times had qualified her for the 200 and 400 IMs and the 100 and 200 breaststrokes at the trials, but no one thought she would be on the team that went to Seoul. She didn't think she would be on the team. The trials were supposed to be a time for her to learn. Swim in the morning, then watch the bigger names at night in the finals. Surprise. She qualified for the final in her first event, the 400 individual medley, then finished eighth and last in the final with the best time of her life.
Four days passed. Surprise again, this time in the 200 IM. Her best strokes are the butterfly and the breaststroke, the first and third legs of the IM. Her races in that event were constructed on gaining an early lead and holding it all the way through the last leg. which is the freestyle, her worst stroke. In the 200 IM final she took a small lead in the butterfly and backstroke, flew farther ahead with the breast and was leading by at least a body length as she went into the final leg. Leading? She was going to make the Olympic team? At 15? She never, until that week, had even qualified for a national final.
The result was a mixture of sadness and elation. She finished third, nipped at the end by Mary Wayte and Whitney Hedgepeth for the two spots on the team. She missed going to the Olympics by .27 of a second. How close is that? The elation somehow won the battle of emotions. If she could come that close...she was a different swimmer. She became dedicated to making the team the next time.
"I have tapes of most of her races, but that tape is still my favorite," Barbara says. "It's the first race where you can see she really wants it, she really wants to win. She has wanted to win ever since."
"I used to play the tape for everybody who came to the house," Bob says. "It's so dramatic. Finally, Summer told me to give her a break. She was sick of seeing herself lose so many times. So the tape is back in the pile somewhere. Probably next to the E.T. movie or something."
Summer Sanders is in Flagstaff, Ariz., for high-altitude training on this early-spring day, and she is a star waiting to be hung in the Olympic sky. There is no other way to look at her situation. She is a sophomore at Stanford, a leading performer on an NCAA championship team. She has made the U.S. Olympic team in four individual events, qualifying first in three of them. When she finishes the high-altitude training at Northern Arizona University, she will go to the U.S. Olympic Training Center at Colorado Springs and be put through more tests than a car being prepped for the Indianapolis 500. She is a shining hope on a U.S. women's swimming team filled with hopes. She also is a flat-out likable kid.
On the little finger of her left hand there is a blue plastic ring with a star on top. It looks as if it came as a prize from an arcade game. She says it is her "power ring." So far, she says, the ring has met with mixed results. On the top of her left hand, coordinating nicely with the power ring, is a sticker from a Chiquita banana. "It's something to talk about," she says. 'Why do you have a banana sticker on your hand?' It's a starting point."
Her coach at Stanford, Richard Quick, who is also an Olympic assistant, talks about her cardiovascular capabilities, her ability to overcome resistance, her great feel for the water. He compares her to Charles Barkley, the basketball player, as a multipurpose talent. Not a long-distance swimmer. Not a sprinter. Just a terrific swimmer. She talks about hard work and the approach of fame. She has put in a lot of hard work and will put in some more before the Olympics in July. Fame? She will take it if it comes but will see it for what it is worth.
"I've seen how fame can be with Janet Evans," she says. "The same people who rush to you are the ones who rush away. I'm ready for it, but I know it goes away."
Evans, the winner of three gold medals in Seoul, left Stanford and gave up her NCAA eligibility to train at Texas a year alter Sanders arrived. Evans's body had matured, her magic times seemed to be gone, and she was having trouble with her 400 IM. All this before her 20th birthday. It's tempting to assume that Sanders had triumphed in some kind of Dodge City showdown, and the loser had to leave the pool. Sanders says that was not the case. She calls it a joke. "Janet and I get along fine," she says. "I just don't think she was very happy at Stanford. If you're not happy someplace, you should leave."
Two weeks ago Sanders announced that she too was giving up her NCAA eligibility, to pursue endorsement opportunities, but she plans to return to Stanford next winter. "I wanted to do it now, because that seemed fairer to my coach," says Sanders. "Stanford can give my scholarship to someone else."
Sanders talks about roaming around Europe for a little bit after her Olympic events are finished. She talks about friends. She talks about family. She says that she hated moving from one house to another, but that it probably made her stronger in the end. She can handle whatever she has to handle.
Trevor is swimming at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, where he qualified this year for the men's senior nationals. Bob is in the house in Roseville. Barbara, remarried, now lives in Lincoln, Neb. Everyone will be going to Barcelona. "My sister and I are going together," Barbara says. "In fact, it's kind of funny. The apartment we're staying at...we're sharing the apartment with Bob."
Backyard to Barcelona.