At the Rome Games, under circumstances that hardly seemed
propitious, the U.S. swim team launched the first in a
succession of triumphs that is unprecedented in Olympic history.
It was the year the 4x100-meter medley relay, an event that
includes the major swimming strokes (back, breast, butterfly and
freestyle), was introduced into Olympic competition. And an
American team that had suffered setbacks both physical and
psychological not only won the first gold medal but also set a
world record. In every Olympics since, excluding the 1980 Moscow
Games, which the U.S. boycotted, American teams have won this
event--always in a time that bettered or equaled the world record.
Butterfly specialist Pablo Morales was the only swimmer to race
on two teams, and remarkably enough, his appearances were eight
years apart--in 1984 and '92. The latter team was the only one
that didn't establish a record; it merely tied the '88 team's
existing world standard of 2:36.93.
Tonight the U.S. will try to make it nine golds in nine tries,
when the medley relay is held at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.
This 32-year run of success in the medley relay had a most
unpromising beginning. Six days before the start of the 1960
U.S. Olympic Trials, in Detroit, America's premier 100-meter
freestyle swimmer, 23-year-old Jeff Farrell, awoke with a pain
in his side. An emergency appendectomy was performed, but
Farrell seemed a certain scratch from the Olympic roster. Still,
because of his unquestioned value to the team, U.S. Olympic
officials offered him a chance to qualify a week after the
trials when he presumably would have been in better shape.
Farrell refused the offer, vowing to make the team under the
same guidelines that applied to his fellow swimmers. His
recovery had been quicker than expected, he said, so he would
compete in the trials on schedule.
July 25, 1996
And so he did. But with his sutured abdomen tightly taped, he
failed to qualify in the 100 free, missing by .1 of a second.
However, a fourth-place finish in the 200 free earned him a
place on two relay teams, the medley and the 4x200 free.
With Farrell out of the 100 free, U.S. hopes in that event
rested with Lance Larson, a 20-year-old predental student at the
University of Southern California. Larson's best event, though,
was the 100 butterfly, a race not included in the 1960 Games. He
was given only an outside chance against the 100 free favorite,
world-record holder John Devitt of Australia. But Larson swam
the race of his life, finishing in a virtual dead heat with
Devitt after a dramatic closing finish. The six judges were
equally divided over who had actually won, but the unofficial
electric timers had clocked Larson at 55.1 seconds, Devitt at 55.2
Devitt, believing he had lost, congratulated Larson and left the
pool. Larson, presuming he had won, swam an ecstatic victory
lap. But with the judges still undecided, chief judge Hans
Runstrumer of Germany took charge, declaring Devitt the winner
and ordering Larson's time reduced to the same as Devitt's.
Devastated by this unexpected and unprecedented turn of events,
Larson realized that his only chance for a gold medal was in the
medley relay, where at least he would swim his specialty, the
He would not be disappointed this time. Backstroker Frank
McKinney Jr. and breaststroker Paul Hait gave the U.S. team a
slight lead after the first two legs of the medley final. Then
Larson swam a blistering 58.0 butterfly leg, increasing the
Americans' lead to seven meters. And Farrell, by then fully
recovered from his surgery, sped through a 54.9 anchor leg, the
fastest 100 free in those Olympics and just .3 of a second
slower than Devitt's world record. The U.S. won by 15 meters
over the Australians, bettered the world record by nearly four
seconds with a time of 4:05.4 and began the victory chain that
would extend into four decades.