He looks like a baseball veteran. Baseball was Tom Jager's favorite sport in the beginning, and now he looks as if he has played at least a half dozen years in the big leagues. A pouch of chewing tobacco, perhaps, should be sticking from a back pocket on his racing briefs. What do you think about these Olympics in Barcelona, Tom? Spit. Think we'll do just fine. Spit. He is 27 years old with a hairline that is moving backward on him in a hurry. He does not appear to mind. He has seen some 50-meter free-styles in his time, seen some 400-meter freestyle relays, too. Backup catcher. Utility infielder. Well, maybe a little better than that. After all, he does have four gold medals back home in Tijeras, N.Mex., and a silver medal to keep them company. Now he is going for more. He is a professional, and this is his job. Swimming. Going for gold medals. This is different.
"I figured it out last year," he says. "I made more money than the minimum salary in baseball [$109,000]. Not a lot more, but more. That made me happy. I always remember saying that my ambition was to be a professional athlete, and now I guess I am. Nobody likes to hear the word professional, but it's true. Swimming is my job, and I enjoy getting paid for what I love to do.'
In another time he would have been no more than a name in agate type in a list of former Olympic champions. He would have been an interviewer in a blazer—or an interviewee, perhaps, talking about old times at his ranch. For this Olympics, though. he is back on the block, ready to go. The men's swimming team finally is filled with men.
A quiet financial revolution has taken place in his sport, fomented mostly by Jager and by fellow veteran Olympian Matt Biondi, but benefiting everyone. A man can now make a buck in a chlorinated pool without wearing a whistle around his neck and saving five-year-olds who have wandered into the deep end. Not a lot of bucks, but a buck. Enough to...O.K.... stay afloat. For the first time the U.S. will send a team filled with veterans instead of acne-faced kids who have to unplug their Walkmans and step off their skateboards before the big race. Swimmers have been able to keep swimming.
July 21, 1992
"In the past a male swimmer basically had one shot," Olympic men's coach Eddie Reese says. "Maybe he didn't even have one shot. If you were born at the wrong time—say the Olympics came around in your sophomore year in college—you might not get a shot when you're at your peak. A swimmer just couldn't keep at it. College ended, he had to get out in the job market meet his financial needs. Now he can stick around. People mature at different rates. We've got people on this team now who've set world records, who are going to their third Olympics who have been training just for this. We don't have but three college athletes on the team who swam this year for their school in the NCAAs."
The average age of the U.S. male swimmer on the first day of the Games will be 23.85, far and away the oldest team in U.S. history; in 1984 and '88 the average age was about 21. Jager will be back. The 26-year-old Biondi, winner of five golds, one silver and one bronze in '88 in Seoul, will be back. Breaststroker Mike Barrowman, 23, backstroker David Berkoff, 25, butterflyer Melvin Stewart, 23.... Ten men on the 25-man roster are veterans of either 1984 or '88. Twenty-seven-year-old Pablo Morales, in the 100-meter butterfly, is back from 1984 after unexpectedly failing to make the team in '88. Second chances are everywhere. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now comes a second and even a third time.
"That's important," Reese says. "It's a scary proposition, swimming in the Olympics. I had freshmen from my team at the University of Texas at the Olympic trials, good freshmen, had a chance. Not one of them made it. They were all about to throw up. Now you have a second chance. A guy like Barrowman, he went a little slower in Seoul than he expected, finished fourth, now he can swim again."
Much of the reason is the bucks. Back in 1985, abandoning its insistence on simon-pure amateurism, FINA, the world governing body for swimming, began allowing swimmers to defray some of their expenses by accepting endorsement money and limited-assistance funds from their national federations. At first the money involved was peanuts, but endorsement opportunities started growing, and U.S. Swimming, the sport's governing body in this country, gradually increased its outlay to potential Olympians. The trend accelerated following a weak showing in Seoul, where Biondi was the only American man to win an individual gold medal.
Under U.S. Swimming's assistance program an athlete can now eat and swim at the same time. The amount of money paid out is based on world rankings, meet results and so on. Last year, for instance, a world record earned American swimmers a $5,000 bonus; achieving a time in the top eight in the world was worth $3,000; and making the top four was rewarded with what amounted to a salary—$1,500 a month. In this Olympic year the rules have changed a bit: Everyone who made the team for Barcelona receives $1,500 a month plus a onetime bonus of $1,250.
The influx of dollars has kept older women in the sport, too; the average age of the '92 U.S. women's team is 21.08, compared with 19, four years ago. Distance ace Janet Evans, 20, a triple gold medal winner in Seoul who made the '92 team in the 400 and 800 free, has cashed in nicely since dropping out of Stanford last year, and another Barcelona-bound Stanford swimmer, butterflyer—individual medleyist Summer Sanders, 19, recently gave up her NCAA eligibility, the better to chase endorsements. But it's the men, who tend to peak later than the women, who are hanging on longer—and cashing the bigger paychecks.
At the top of the money heap are Biondi and Jager, who besides everything else have earned modest riches swimming a number of match races against each other. As Jager calculates it, "I got about a third of my income from U.S. Swimming. I got another third from endorsements and speaking. I got another third in appearance fees, swimming in meets in Europe."
Seventeen of the 25 men who would make the '92 Olympic team received money from U.S. Swimming last year. Biondi was tops at $54,970—and, like Jager, he probably earned several times that from other sources. From there the list goes down to 18-year-old high school freestyler Joey Hudepohl of Cincinnati, who received $1,608. (College swimmers and high school swimmers bound for college could receive up to $2,500 for the year and still retain NCAA eligibility.) Dave Wharton, who made the Olympic team in the 400 individual medley and 200 butterfly, received $39,721; Stewart, $34,832; Jager, $32,041.
"The program worked so well we ran out of money," says Jeff Dimond, U.S. Swimming's director of information services. "We put the carrot out there, and more people went out and reached it than we anticipated. There was $800,000 available to men and women swimmers this year. We wound up $80,000 in the hole."
Jager and Biondi—especially Jager—lobbied for all of this and more. Why did U.S. swimmers have to retire young? Some athletes mature late. In other sports, in fact, most mature after their college years. What is the best age for an American swimmer? No one knew, because no one had ever kept on swimming. Not full-time. Other countries kept their swimmers active. Why couldn't the U.S.? These were the questions Jager and Biondi asked.
"I saw the potential of older swimmers," Jager says. "The Europeans were getting older and older and winning more and more. They were keeping their champions active while we were replacing ours every four years with high school kids. I swim the 50 meters, where a hundredth of a second is important. Wouldn't experience be important in that kind of race? It seemed logical."
"If you've been around the block, you know how to go around the block," Biondi says. "And this way, I think our sport has much greater appeal for the public. You get a name, and you keep it. Before, people had to learn a whole new set of names every four years. This way you can keep the names in the sport."
Biondi remembers seeing Peter Rocca, a personal hero of his and the silver medalist in the 100-and 200-meter backstrokes in 1976, trying to come back in 1984. Rocca was out in the world, working a job, trying to train at the same time. At a dual meet at Cal, unattached, he was forced to start along the wall, not from the blocks, swimming in the extra lane that is used to accommodate the backwash. What was this? Was this the way to treat a champion?
"There's still a lot that has to be changed," Biondi says. "They still have rules that are the same for an Olympic champion and a 14-year-old, who has nothing else in his or her life except swimming. They will say, for example, that a swimmer has to swim in meets A and B if he wants to swim in meet C. The rule is the same for me as it is for the 14-year-old. What if I only want to swim in meet C? That happened to me in Bonn. I wasn't allowed to swim because I couldn't make the other two meets. They say, 'The rules are the same for everyone.' But here I am, doing the interviews and all of the rest, and the 14-year-old doesn't have to do any of it. Are we the same now? It's been a shock to me."
Biondi worked the celebrity circuit for 16 straight months after his '88 triumphs, traveling everywhere, speaking to youth groups and businessmen, opening supermarkets and endorsing what was available to be endorsed. He eventually moved into those exhibition races against Jager. He hustled. Jager also hustled. Jager thinks that because of the economic changes in the sport, the next generation of swimmers may not have to hustle as much.
"I think by 1996 the sport will be really changed," says Jager. "I think it will all be very professional and the money will be a lot better. The money now—if you can make $25,000, it can take you off the edge. If you don't have the times, the performances, though, to make the money, it still can be very hard. Ask Roque Santos."
Santos, a 24-year-old breaststroker from Chico, Calif., is a look at how hard it still is for an older swimmer to make the Olympics. Last year he received no money from U.S. Swimming, not qualifying under any of the standards in his event, the 200 breaststroke. His initial move toward Barcelona was to drop out of the University of California so he could devote all of his time to training. His second move was to beg. He printed up a flier, topped by a picture of himself standing next to Biondi. The flier requested donations to help a local boy join Biondi in the Olympics. He sent it to as many friends as he could find, then sent it to strangers. His mother was embarrassed. He told her not to worry. He raised $5,000 from 32 people, sending them all thank-you notes and promising to keep them apprised of his progress.
Santos has moved to Washington, D.C., to train with Barrowman, the world's fastest breaststroker and his top rival, at Curl-Burke Swim Club. Luckily his college roommate is going to Georgetown Law School, and he is able to share an apartment with him virtually rent-free. Luckily another friend has an uncle who gave Santos a 1976 Volvo station wagon. Luckily the station wagon has stayed in one piece.
All this was done with Santos having no sure place on the team, just a chance to qualify. At the U.S. trials in Indianapolis in March, Santos finished first in the 200 breast, at 2:13.50, nipping Barrowman and qualifying for the $1,500-a-month Olympic assistance dole. "I started thinking this was great," he says. "I said I could live like this for a long while. I was rich. Then I started thinking about kids I had gone to school with. They were out in the world, making a lot more than $18,000 a year. I'm still down there near the poverty level.
"You know, though, you don't do this for the money. You do this for the Olympics. I'm just glad I'm going. It's what I wanted to do. There are a lot of people I know who did all this and didn't make the team. And they still owe a lot of money."