He has been called the second coming of Matt Biondi, the most
talented U.S. swimmer since Mark Spitz. His famous father, Gary
Hall Sr., swam for three U.S. Olympic teams, and his notorious
grandfather, imprisoned savings-and-loan baron Charles Keating
Jr., won the 1946 NCAA title in the 200-yard butterfly. Yet ask
Gary Hall Jr. where his sprinter's speed comes from, and he
doesn't mention bloodlines. He smiles raffishly and says,
"Really, it's these webbed toes I have." And he laughs.
This is an article from the April 22, 1996 issue
The 21-year-old Hall is constantly admonished to be more
serious, rein in his blithe spirit, get a little more of his
father's fabled training zeal. But Hall's retort has always
been: Why should I? Let rivals feel as if the Atlanta Olympics
are coming at them, at them, at them, like a truck in the wrong
lane. I'm not going to worry.
Two weeks before the U.S. Olympic Trials began in early March,
Hall lobbied his coach for a three-day training break instead of
the usual two. The mere mention of Hall's short-lived strength
work with a former Mr. Universe for two months last year
launches him into fits of laughter. "I found out Mr. Universe
actually exploded a biceps muscle once trying to bench-press 600
pounds," Hall says. "Not that I had to worry about that."
No. Hall never bothers to remember his daily training sets, but
he recently traded his acoustic guitar for an electric bass and
eagerly set out to memorize Cosmic Slop, the old funk hit by
Bootsy Collins and Funkadelic. He thinks that swimming would be
more interesting if the athletes decorated themselves with body
paint, marketed themselves as personalities ("sort of like pro
wrestlers") and raced "dashes for cash" on which spectators
could bet, as they do on horse races. He breezily calls his
grandfather's federal prison the Big House, refers to Russian
archrival Alexander Popov as the Big Dog and calls the Atlanta
Games the Big One. Hall's affection for garish, '70s-style
clothing--tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottom trousers and leisure suits
the color of lime sherbet--dates from his high school days. He
calls himself "the closest thing to a Deadhead that swimming
has," and he mourned the sudden passing of Jerry Garcia last
August by swimming his next race with a black band drawn around
his arm in felt-tipped pen. "I'd always planned on maybe taking
a year off after Atlanta and just following the Dead around the
country, camping out and stuff," Hall says.
He may still make the cross-country trip, alone and in his
Volkswagen Microbus. When he walked out for his 100-meter
freestyle final at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis on March
8, Hall was wearing brown leather motorcycle pants and a Dead
shirt over his swimsuit. He hadn't swum fast since last August,
but he mugged for the TV cameras anyway. And no one knew what to
Four weeks earlier, in his last tune-up before the Olympic
trials, the U.S. nationals in Orlando, Hall had confounded Troy
Dalbey, his coach of two months, by making the turn home in the
100 free and basically tanking the race. "He quit kicking,"
Dalbey says. "Normally it's like an Evinrude behind him--there's
a lot of water churning. He gets so much propulsion, it's like
God gave him a set of fins. I sat him down and said, 'Did you
just do what I think you did?' He just said, 'What?'"
Hall has a reputation as a training slacker who slogs through
minor races but shoots down his lane like a torpedo when the big
meets arrive, slicing off yards with a stroke that has been
called biomechanically perfect by every coach he has ever had.
At the Olympic trials Hall did it again--winning the 50-meter
free and taking second in the 100 to breeze onto the U.S.
Olympic team in both events.
Hall could win four gold medals in Atlanta, in the two sprints
and as the U.S. anchor in the 400 free relay and the 400 medley
relay. He and Popov, the defending Olympic champion in the 50
and 100 frees and the world-record holder in the latter, could
provide the most riveting duel of the Games. World records could
fall every time they dive in.
Or Hall could fall on his face.
"Other athletes alter their whole lives in an Olympic year, but
I don't think he's changed a thing," says Eric Hansen, Hall's
coach from 1992 through mid-'95. "We have guys who have passed
him in the last year. Yet I really believe the world records in
50 and 100 free are Gary's anytime he wants them." What would it
take to make that happen? "Him needing to have them," Hansen says.
Hall is convinced that his low-thermostat approach to the
Olympics is right for him. He learned that lesson from the
career of his dad, whose blast-furnace intensity took him to the
brink of glory--but no further. "It's not something we talk
about, but I know one of the storylines now is going to be, 'Can
Gary win the gold medal that his father never did?'" says
Dalbey, who earned two golds swimming for the U.S. 4x100-meter
relay and 4x200-meter relay teams at the 1988 Olympics. "Gary
has always had to carry a lot more baggage than the rest of us.
I mean, Matt Biondi's dad is an insurance salesman. My dad's a
Gary Jr.'s career has always had an aura of predestination, as
well as a heavy burden of expectation. He says he has learned
that to succeed he must dwell somewhere between the fear of
losing and the obsession to win. Asked how he swims so fast
despite his relaxed approach to training, he allows himself one
conceit: "I just think I can do it. At the end of every season,
when I need it, the speed has just always been there."
Among the ideas that Gary Jr. has made his father consider is
the mystery of speed--how it materializes when a swimmer hopes it
will, and how it can evaporate no matter how hard he trains or
Gary Hall Sr. is a 44-year-old father of six, a renowned Phoenix
eye surgeon who still competes in masters swimming events. He
has been married for nearly 23 years to Charlie Keating's
second-oldest daughter, Mary, who swam at Xavier University. But
when Gary Sr. looks at their oldest child, he insists that he
and Gary are nothing alike as swimmers, except perhaps for the
ability to surprise.
Gary Sr. was a phenom at 17, a tragic figure by 21 and a phoenix
at 24, when he qualified for his third Olympic team--the 1976
U.S. squad--and rejoiced by hoisting 21-month-old Gary Jr. into
the air in the Olympic trials pool. A picture of the two of them
at the pool became one of the most famous sports photos of the
By then Gary Sr.'s story was well known. He was an almost
painfully shy star with good looks and a 3.9 grade-point
average, and he had broken world records 10 times in butterfly
and individual medley events. Along with Spitz, he swam at
Indiana University for legendary coach Doc Counsilman. Hall had
developed his workhorse reputation while growing up in Garden
Grove, Calif. Not satisfied to swim twice a day with his club
team, he would sneak into the pool at the Disneyland Hotel to
cram in a third daily training session.
Hall's victory at the 1968 Olympic trials surprised
everyone--including his high school coach, Don Gambril. Hall was
a 5'10", 145-pound junior at the time, and he began the meet as
the second-slowest qualifier in both the 400-meter individual
medley and the 200-meter butterfly. Because the events were on
the same day, Hall and Gambril chose the 400 IM by flipping a
coin. Then Hall swam his morning prelim. When the clock froze,
Gambril was so stunned he dropped his stopwatch on the pool
deck, shattering the crystal. Hall had chainsawed seven seconds
off his personal best. He chopped off another two seconds that
night to win the final, and he went on to take a silver medal at
the Mexico City Games.
"But I was just happy to be there," Hall says. "My whole life I
was thinking '72 would really be my Olympics. And going into
Munich, I hadn't been beaten in the 400 IM since Mexico City.
I'd set the world record at our trials. That was considered 'my
Looking back, Hall wishes he had saved energy at the '72 Munich
Games by conceding the 200 butterfly to Spitz. Instead, he gave
the race all he had but finished a distant second to Spitz. "All
of a sudden, it was like, only 48 hours till the 400 IM," Hall
says. "And I hadn't even thought of that race."
He didn't sleep well that night, and when he went to breakfast
the next morning, he didn't feel well. Still, he figured he
would get through the prelims, take a nap and be fine for the
finals. Gambril gave Hall one piece of advice before his heat:
Push the last 50 meters, just to be sure you have your finishing
kick. And Hall tried.
"I swam the first 350 meters with a guy from Sweden, made the
final flip, but when I went to pick it up, it wasn't there--and I
had never experienced that," Hall says. "Normally I could've
beaten this guy in my sleep, and I barely touched him out. And I
remember the thought as I hit the wall, Oh, my god. I'm going to
From then on, Hall couldn't get his hammering heart rate down.
He couldn't eat. He couldn't relax. "I just couldn't get that
thought out of my head," he says. "It was a panic, like an
impending death. By the time the race hit, I was feeling kind of
giddy, kind of spacey, almost numb. I went out like a scared
rabbit--way too fast, no sense of pace. By the time I hit 200
meters, I was paralyzed with fear. It just wasn't there. And
why? That's what I could never understand--why that day? When I
made the last turn, I knew it was over. I think I was fifth.
Tears were flowing from my eyes the whole last lap."
When Gary Jr. is asked for his favorite anecdote about his dad,
he quickly answers, "The story he told me about getting sent
home from a team trip to Japan. I think he broke curfew or
And you liked that? "Well, yeah," Gary Jr. says, and he grins.
"He was always such a perfect guy. Hearing that made me think we
actually have something in common after all."
At that, Gary Sr. laughs. Sitting in his Southwestern-style
mansion outside Phoenix, he can see a life-sized oil painting of
Keating that is hung over a stairwell. "If you want to know who
Gary really takes after," he says, "it's his grandfather."
His pending appeal has a glimmer of a chance--that's the thin
consolation that sustains Charles Keating in prison day after
day after day. He still insists he's innocent, still describes
himself as a "political prisoner" of a U.S. government bent on
making him the fall guy for the biggest banking scandal in
American history. He serves his time at the Federal Corrections
Institution in Tucson, a medium-security prison hemmed in by
15-foot-high fences with shimmering spirals of razor wire atop
them. The cinder-block facility was built to hold 389 prisoners.
It packs in more than 800.
Beyond the prison, with its U.S. flag hanging limply from a pole
out front, the only things that interrupt the desert as it
unfurls toward the horizon are some tufts of scrub grass and an
occasional cactus or mesquite tree. That's what Keating sees as
he does his 10-mile daily walk in the prison yard. He's 72 now.
He says he walks for 3 1/2 hours a day, and he brags, "My blood
pressure is 112 over 70, my pulse rate is 72, the same as the
day I was mustered out of the Navy. To be honest, I think
exercising is what keeps me alive in here." His prison job is
recreation supervisor, a far cry from the days when he cut
megadeals with Mike Milken and Ivan Boesky--when his fleet of
corporate jets all had Dom Perignon chilling in their
It has been three years since state and federal courts convicted
Keating of 73 counts of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy for
business deals related to Lincoln Savings and Loan, the
California S&L he owned. He was ordered to pay $122.4 million in
restitution and forfeit $265 million. But on April 3, Keating's
17-count state conviction was overturned by U.S. District Judge
John G. Davies (a naturalized U.S. citizen who won an Olympic
gold medal for Australia in '52 in the 200-meter breaststroke).
Davies cited "erroneous'' jury instructions from Superior Court
Judge Lance Ito, the O.J. Simpson-case judge who also presided
over Keating's original state trial. Prosecutors immediately
said they would appeal Davies's ruling. Keating remains jailed
on his federal conviction, which he is also challenging. He
isn't scheduled to be released until the year 2002, and he isn't
eligible for parole until 2001. But he still looks and acts like
an unbowed man, cracking feisty jokes about prison life and
recalling the fun he and Gary Jr. had "before the government and
I got into this little disagreement of ours."
Every once in a while a poignant comment slips out. Asked how
long Gary Jr., his first grandchild, has stayed away between
visits, Keating blinks and thinks for about a second. His soft
answer sounds like a surrender: "I don't know how long." Smiling
weakly, he adds, "Time passes differently in here."
He changes the subject. "Did that jerk tell you about the
prairie dogs we used to shoot in our backyard?" Jerk is a
Keating term of endearment. "We started out using BB guns, but
that didn't really kill 'em. So we switched to shotguns."
Keating and Gary Jr. did their shooting inside the walled-in,
12-acre family compound in Paradise Valley, a tony suburb of
Phoenix. Keating and his wife, Mary Elaine, shared their home
with Gary and Mary and their children for three years after the
Halls moved from Indianapolis to Phoenix in 1982. In 1988 Gary
and Mary took over the estate when Keating finished a $2.5
million home next door.
During their years in Arizona, Gary Jr. and his grandfather were
nearly inseparable. Gary Jr. visited Keating at work almost
daily. Keating and his wife took Gary and another grandson,
Bobby Hubbard, on monthlong trips to Europe, hopscotching from
Iceland to Ireland to the continent in Keating's jets. In 1983
the little group, this time accompanied by two other
grandchildren, spent two weeks touring Africa. Keating recalls
baboons sitting on the roofs of their Jeeps at the Cape of Good
Hope in South Africa. In Kenya they walked within 30 yards of a
herd of elephants before coming upon a pool of water that
inspired the kids to beg to go swimming. "The guides said go
ahead," Keating says. "Then one guy says, 'Maybe I should tell
you this. A week ago a couple visitors went swimming in that
pool and crocodiles ate 'em.'" Gary jumped in anyway.
Swimming has always been a big part of Keating's life. His son,
Charles Keating III, finished fifth in the 200-meter
breaststroke at the 1976 Olympics. (He's now free while
appealing an eight-year sentence for fraud and racketeering for
his role in the S & L scandal.) While still living in his native
Cincinnati, the elder Keating bankrolled that city's Marlins
swim club, which placed six swimmers on the 1980 Olympic squad,
including Mary T. Meagher. After moving to Arizona in 1976, he
spent another $3.5 million to buy land for, and build, the
Phoenician Swim Club, for which Gary Jr. now trains.
The elder Keating swam a mile every day after he moved to
Arizona, right up until the day he was taken to jail. He and
Gary Jr. still speak fondly about their impromptu races in the
25-yard pool at the family compound. Keating often regaled his
grandson with stories from his days as a Navy fighter pilot who
flew Grumman Hellcats to his armed services swim meets all
across the U.S. while waiting for a World War II combat call
that never came.
Gary Jr. also gave Keating some stories to tell. One day, when
Gary Jr. was a high school sophomore, he announced to his
grandfather that he knew how to make napalm. "I said, 'You're
nuts,'" Keating says. "So Gary comes back in a half hour.... He
throws something on the ground, lights it, and soon that stuff
is burning everything in sight and I'm screaming, 'Get the
hose!' That was typical Gary. Never say never."
In 1989, when his grandfather's world abruptly crashed down--when
the Feds rolled in and started seizing things, and Keating was
arrested, convicted, and taken away in shackles--Gary Jr.'s
antics took on an angry cant. He began struggling in school and
battling his parents. He and a few buddies were caught blowing
up mailboxes. One night in the family wagon, he was caught
spinning doughnuts on the ninth green of a Phoenix golf course
until the putting surface was destroyed. "Being 15, 16 is tough
enough," Gary Jr. says now. "But trying to block out everything
that was happening then, I just felt helpless.
"It's hard enough to have a person that you're very close to
torn away and put in jail. It's tough to be a kid and have your
own government do this to you. Then the media, the FBI showing
up at all hours, the harassment.... To me, he was a scapegoat.
Looking back now, I realize that swimming was a way to release
that frustration. Swimming has enabled me to give him some
joy.... It's a small thing I can do to help him out."
A few weeks before Gary Jr. traveled to the Olympic trials, he
and his parents visited Keating. Shortly thereafter, a large,
hand-drawn good-luck card arrived at Gary Jr.'s condo signed by
many of the 48 inmates in Keating's housing unit--cons with names
such as Mister Dice, the Columbian Car, Vegas and Big Red. "I
thought, Hey, that's pretty cool, having all the guys in the Big
House rooting for me,'" Gary Jr. says with a laugh. The night
Hall seized his first Olympic berth, with his parents looking
on, Keating got the result by calling his daughter from a prison
pay phone. Keating gave her a message: "Tell Gary if these guys
get out between now and Atlanta, they're gonna break some of his
At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, Gary Sr., the flag bearer of
the entire U.S contingent, earned his final medal (a bronze in
the 100 butterfly) as part of a juggernaut U.S. men's team that
swept nearly every swimming event. Twenty years later, in
Atlanta, Gary Jr. will be among a handful of stars counted on to
save face for the slumping U.S. swimming program. And unlike the
longer events his father swam, Gary Jr.'s bang-bang sprints will
leave him almost no margin for error. But the younger Hall seems
exactly the right person for that role. As his father says,
"Gary loves to go racing. And every time he's had to swim fast
in his life, he has."
At 6'6" and 187 pounds, Gary Jr. has the prototypical build for
a sprinter. He's so long and blade-thin that he seems to skim
the water. Even though his feet churn furiously, his stroke is
so smooth it creates an optical illusion: Hall often looks as if
he's swimming more slowly than the other racers--even as he's
gliding past them.
Gary Sr. says his meditations on the mystery of speed--where his
son's swiftness comes from; why his own speed left him that
awful day in Munich--always lead him to the same conclusion: Some
swimmers have to train their guts out to be great. "And some
just are," Gary Sr. says. Then he tells a story about why Gary
Jr. reminds him so much of Spitz.
"In the fall, when we all played water polo at Indiana, Mark
chose to practically disappear for three months," Hall begins.
"December would come--that's when our dual meets would start--and
Mark would finally show up at the pool, reluctantly. He was
always trying to get out of practice. One year he'd just come
in, and already he wanted to get out. So Doc [Counsilman] says,
'All right. If you break 50 seconds in the 100 fly, I'll let you
"Now, the American record was 49.1 at the time. There were only
two guys who had broken 50 seconds in the world. Mark hadn't
been in the water since August, remember. But he warms up,
stands up and goes 49.6. And we're all going, 'Oh, my god.
That's a time that would've won the NCAAs!' Mark just said,
'I'll see ya later, guys.' And he was outta there."
By all accounts Gary Jr. has been training more dutifully than
that. And he's looking forward to every moment in Atlanta--the
showdowns against Popov, the crowd noise that filters into the
swimmers' prerace ready room, the walk to the starting blocks
and the adrenaline rush as he dives in.
"You know, the ready room is a really interesting place," Hall
says. "I'm usually relaxed, cracking jokes. But there's always
one guy trying to psych someone out, one guy who's rocking in
place and one guy who looks so scared that he's not just white,
he's fish-belly white. Sometimes when you look at the
fish-belly-white guy, you just wanna say, 'Hey, um...are you
Hall sounds as if he's ready. What's more, he has found his
motto for the Games: "It's a line from Woody Guthrie: 'Take it
easy. But take it.'" He doesn't plan to worry about how or why
he swims fast--he just thinks he will. And when his famous father
is asked if he has given his son any advice, Gary Sr. smiles and
says gently, "Sure. The only thing I've told him is, 'Just keep
playing that guitar.'"