The image came to Pablo Morales on the victory stand. The gold medal was hanging from his neck, the Star-Spangled Banner was being played and the American flag was being raised on the middle pole at the other end of the Bernat Picornell swimming pool, but in the image in his mind he was sitting with his mother in Santa Clara, Calif., in the family living room. They were watching television.
This is an article from the Aug. 3, 1992 issue
How long ago was that? They were watching one of those Bud Greenspan documentaries about the Olympics, a tale about athletes and their dealings with the fickle gods who control these Games. How long ago? He remembered how he was touched and how she was touched by the stories they saw.
Now his was the best story of all. Winner and loser. Both. He had experienced all there was to experience, had been touched by all the gods had to offer. If only his mother could see this, if only.... Who knows? Maybe she could.
"At the finish I looked at the scoreboard, and it had such an unreal quality," Morales later said about his win in the 100-meter butterfly on Monday, completing a comeback at 27 years old that at one time seemed only a faint prayer. "Once something like this happens, you wonder if it really happened. You wonder the same way if you win or if you lose. Did it really happen?"
He had felt the same odd silence at the end of this race that he had felt in 1984, at the Olympics in Los Angeles, when he was the best butterfly swimmer in the world, expected by everyone to win the 100. That time he had turned to look at the scoreboard and learned that he was second to West Germany's Michael Gross. Unreal. This time he turned and held his breath, and in the quiet he saw that he was first. Eight years—with a big disappointment in the middle when he overtrained and failed to make the '88 team—brought two moments together.
Was this not a Bud Greenspan story? Morales was a smiling, restrained, elegant face on the screen that he and his mother had watched so often. If only she could see. If only....
His race was on the second day of the competition at Bernat Picornell, an outdoor arena built on the mountain called Montju‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤c, the stands high and close to the pool, the heat of the early evening covering everyone. His American teammates were experiencing mixed results. Expected gold medalists, the ones who had those tidy television biographies shown before their races, were ending up with lesser positions on the victory stands. Other Americans were doing better than anticipated.
Where did he fit? He had fallen into the first category, the disappointments, in '84 and again at the '88 trials. Was it better to be in the second category, an unknown quantity, a question, a possibility rather than a probability? He could only wait to see where his story would fit in the string of stories. "I had no idea what to expect," he said. "All I knew was I was going for the gold medal. That was the dream."
The biggest positive surprise had been 21-year-old Nelson Diebel of Hightstown, N.J., a winner in the second race of the meet, the 100-meter breaststroke. Diebel wore an American flag bandanna on his shaved head, three earrings in his left ear, had a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his right hip and told stories of being a reformed juvenile delinquent. He had predicted his win to his coach, Chris Martin, after the latest of their confrontations in his six-year changeover from bad kid to good swimmer.
"We were at training camp in Narbonne, France," Martin says. "There was a giant water slide. Nelson wanted to go down it. He has a history of injuries [he was in car crashes, he once fell from a railing while trying to jump into a nearby pool, etc.], and I told him he couldn't do it. Not so close to the Olympics. It wasn't worth the chance. He got mad. He climbed to the top of the slide and wouldn't come down. He just sat there. We yelled at each other."
"I was up there for, oh, 15 minutes," Diebel says. "Then I came down. We argued some more, then we were all right. I told Chris I was going to make all of this worth it. I told everyone I was going to win. If you do, it's just confidence. If you don't, I guess it's arrogance."
Diebel edged Hungary's Norbert Rozsa at the wall by .18, in an Olympic-record time of 1:01.50. Martin was asked if he now knew what it took to become an Olympic champion. "I thought I did," the coach said, "until Nelson won."
The biggest negative surprise for the U.S. team had been the second-place finish of world-record holder Jenny Thompson of Dover, N.H., in the 100-meter free-style to open the meet. She was beaten, beginning to end, by Zhuang Yong of China and said afterward, "I choked big-time." On the stand, accepting the silver medal, the 19-year-old Thompson looked as if she wanted to strangle the bouquet in her hands. In the 200 free the next day she failed to qualify for the final. She said she hadn't been able to put herself back together in time for the race.
The eventual winner of the 200 freestyle was 19-year-old Nicole Haislett of St. Petersburg, Fla., the third U.S. gold medalist. She outlasted 14-year-old phenom Franziska Van Almsick of Germany, taking advantage of the fact that Van Almsick swam too close to her in the next lane, inches ahead, creating a draft for Haislett. Another 14-year-old, Kyoko Iwasaki of Japan, surprised 16-year-old Anita Nall of Towson, Md., in the 200 breaststroke. Nall was the world-record holder in the event and went the first two legs at record pace before faltering and finishing third, behind Iwasaki and Lin Li of China. Tamas Darnyi of Hungary took the 400 individual medley with an Olympic record of 4:14.23. Eric Namesnik of Butler, Pa., took the silver.
And then there was Pablo. He was voted the captain of the U.S. swim team not only because of his age and not only because of his experience, but also because of his stature. Is that the word? Stature? His grace. His quiet, Joe DiMaggio sense of style. In a sport traditionally populated by the young and confident, by teenage boys and by young girls putting down favorite teddy bears to set a world record, he was a different sort of figure. The bruises of love and failure and endurance were worn with dignity.
Was there any swimmer on the team who did not know how difficult a trip he had undertaken? Gone from the sport for three years, retired, totally out of the water, he had traveled east to tackle law school at Cornell. He was eating cheeseburgers and reading torts. Gone. His decision to try a comeback had come upon him last summer in a growing rush. Could he do this? His mother, Blanca, was dying of cancer in Santa Clara, and then in September she was dead. He was thinking of her and he was thinking of himself and he was thinking of the Olympics. He went off on his own little crusade, perhaps riding toward a creaky windmill, off on a fool's errand, but perhaps not. There were no shoe contracts or seven-figure deals being offered. He simply was giving a year of his life to see how well he could do.
"It was not unfinished business, trying to do something I never had done," he says. "I never looked at it like that. I think all parts of your life are experiences. You experience one thing, then move to another. These were separate. I suppose you could say I was going toward the windmill, but I never thought that. I didn't know what to expect. I just wanted to see."
When he started training, there were only seven months until the Olympic trials in Indianapolis. He worked with his college coach, Skip Kenney, the men's coach at Stanford. They set out a program. Kenney told a lot of fat jokes, about how his new client had contracted "a case of 'furniture disease,' his chest falling into his drawers." The heavy emphasis was on speed work. If he was injured, just once, there would be no second chance, because there was not enough time.
He was not in terrible shape. Not compared to the rest of the human race. But against that elite group of swimmers that would be competing in Barcelona, he was a slow-moving boxcar. He had swum once during the last year of inactivity, diving into the Cornell pool on a study break. He had to get back into the water now, with almost no competitive activity, appearing in only two dual meets before the trials.
Was it enough? He had no idea. He went to the trials thinking anything could happen. Anything good. Anything bad. "I hadn't even raced hard twice in a day very much," he says. "To swim 100 meters hard in the morning, then 100 at night in the finals—suddenly I felt it."
He qualified as a sentimental surprise, a long shot. He won the trial race with a time of 54.05, more than a second slower than his world record. Was that good enough to win the Olympics? He said he did not know. He had plotted out his comeback in stages. The team was the first stage. The Olympics were the next.
"People were affected by the comeback," he says. "I looked at going to the Olympics as a chance for glory and fulfillment. That is what every athlete is seeking, a chance to prove himself on one day against the best competition in his sport. That is the ultimate."
His plan was to go out fast in the race. Early speed was his asset. That was what he always had thought. His big worry was Anthony Nesty of Surinam, the winner of the 100 fly in Seoul in '88. Nesty's strength was staying strong for the sprint at the end, keeping his stroke together. Morales wanted to use his speed to make Nesty work. "He's been a terrific champion," Morales said. "He's defended his title against everyone. I was hoping if I could get out front, maybe I could make him make some mistakes."
The race Nesty won in Seoul was one Morales didn't watch. On other days during those Olympic Games, he had watched the races of his friends on the U.S. team he did not make. On the day of the 200 butterfly, his event, he went outside and fiddled with a Windsurfer. The idea of sitting and watching was out of the question. Some things are too sad.
Funny, he would not see Monday's race either. A swimmer moves in a tunnel, often not knowing where he stands in a race. What would happen? Nesty would be out there. And Rafal Szukala of Poland could be trouble. What would happen? Morales did not know. An Olympic swimming race is different from other swimming races. More emotions are clicking in the head.
"I still don't know what happened," Morales said after his win (Szukala was second by .03 and Nesty third by .09). "Did I make a good turn? I don't know. I just swam to the end and waited. I didn't want to get too emotional. I turned around and looked."
His control lasted as long as he was in the pool. As soon as he moved to the locker room and saw his friends, he started to cry. He cried when he made an immediate phone call to Stanford and Kenney. He probably would cry some more when he saw his father and his sister in the stands. What else could he do? This was his Olympic story, as touching as any that ever had touched him. "I haven't cried this much," Morales said softly, "since the day my mother died."