There was still a touch of bewilderment the next morning. The
fastest swimmer in the world had been the fastest swimmer in the
world for slightly more than 12 hours. This was all new. Bill
Pilczuk was not sure how to act. "I never thought I could beat
Popov," he said. "Popov. I never thought...."
The yellow digital display on the scoreboard from the night
before was a photograph, seen once and now lodged in his head,
unforgettable and unimaginable, as if it were the picture of a
UFO spotted in the cloudless western Australia sky:
PILCZUK, USA, 22.29
POPOV, RUSSIA, 22.43
What? "It took a few seconds for everything on the scoreboard to
register," Pilczuk said. "I looked at the times first. To see
that Popov was behind me. Popov."
This was an upset straight out of a scriptwriter's cliche book.
Was Gene Hackman available to play the role of the coach? The
unknown American had come along last Saturday, on the
next-to-last night of the World Swimming Championships in Perth,
to beat the unbeatable Russian champion in the glamour event of
the seven-day meet.
The Russian was the grand athletic millionaire, as tall and
handsome as mortal sin. He was the true capitalist, endorsing
anything that might get wet, living and training in Australia
but still swimming for the motherland, bilingual and suave,
untouchable since he sent the last great American swimmers in
the event, Matt Biondi and Tom Jager, off toward retirement at
the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, then beat the next great
hope, Gary Hall Jr., at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The American was
this 26-year-old nobody from Cape May Point, N.J., and Auburn,
who describes his career as "crap swimmer in high school,
mediocre in college and getting better and better."
The all-powerful Russian versus the unknown American. Wasn't
this the morality-play matchup that supposedly died with the
cold war? Here it was again, playing one more time.
"I'd never swum against Popov before," Pilczuk (pronounced
PIL-zuk) said as he sat in the sunshine outside Challenge
Stadium, signing occasional autographs with a bold stroke that
he had perfected in obscurity, before anyone had ever asked for
it. "I'd never even talked to him. I was in the same room with
him once before, at the worlds in 1994 in Rome, but I'm sure he
never noticed me. I didn't even make the finals in Rome. I was
looking at him and saying, That's Aleksandr Popov, right there."
In a sport filled with pubescent phenoms attending prep schools
with high-powered swim programs, then moving along on full
scholarships to high-powered college programs, Pilczuk followed
a different path. Public high school in Erma, N.J. No state
championship ribbons, no state records. No scholarship offers.
Went to Miami-Dade Community College for two years because he
would have been a Prop 48 student at a Division I school.
Scholarship for a second year, but still no scholarship offers
from four-year schools. Walked on at Auburn. No titles. Left off
the roster for the SEC championships in his senior year in favor
of a freshman. Graduated magna cum laude. Kept swimming.
"I wasn't a great swimmer, but I was good enough to get
compliments for it," he said. "You know how everyone has some
quality or some thing they do that gets compliments, maybe the
way they smile or something? Well, swimming was the thing that
people complimented me on. I liked the compliments. I'm a
focused kind of person anyway, so I just decided that I was
going to become the best swimmer I could be."
His breakthrough came after his senior season, when he qualified
for the worlds in the 50 free in Rome, a surprise to everyone
except himself. His next goal was to make the Olympics in
Atlanta. Living on a tight budget, almost no budget--sharing a
$5,500 yearly rent with two roommates in Auburn, eating at Ci
Ci's Pizza, a $3.21, all-you-can-eat buffet, driving a 1991
LeMans, the transmission balky, smoke coming out the back--he
became a full-time swimmer.
In late 1995 his parents helped run a benefit night in Cape May
to finance his Olympic dream. A hall was donated. Food was
donated. Beer was donated. A band played. Tickets were $10
apiece, and more than 500 people came. The money from the Bill
Pilczuk Olympic Fund paid for the rest of his training and
provided more than half his income for the year. Then at the
trials he missed the Olympic team by .05 of a second. The money
was gone. The Olympics were gone. What could he do?
"To miss by so little, it made me sick," he said. "I went skiing
in Colorado for a week, just to get away. Then I came back and
started swimming again."
Even now, money is tight. ("I'd endorse a watch for the watch,"
he said.) In December, Pilczuk won $6,000 for first place at a
professional meet, and that freed him in his thinking for the
worlds. He knew he could live half the year on $6,000, so he
didn't have to worry about how much he would win in Perth.
"I was thinking silver, at best," he said. "I honestly never
thought about beating Popov. To tell the truth, I was thinking
most of all about just making the finals. I'd never been in the
finals in a meet like this."
He was shaky and out of sync when he qualified fifth in the
morning heats. Popov was tied for first in those heats with
Michael Klim of Australia, the local hero on his way to seven
medals, including four golds. The buzz was Popov and Klim, no
one else. This was supposed to be a repeat of the 100, in which
Popov was first and Klim second.
Pilczuk's strategy was the same as always. His strength is his
reaction time, so he would jump out first with a strong start,
power as hard as he could for 25 meters, then swim for survival
in the last 25 meters. The field would have to try to catch him.
There were no subtleties involved.
When Popov was caught flat-footed at the start, the race played
out just as Pilczuk had planned it. Popov said that at 25 meters
he could see Pilczuk a body length ahead of him. Popov said the
race was lost. He finished second, while Klim and Ricardo
Busquets of Puerto Rico tied for third.
"Do you know what I win for first?" the newest fastest swimmer
in the world, the American, said with a Publishers Clearing
House kind of amazement. "I figure it's going to be--between
money from U.S. Swimming and Speedo, my only sponsor--about
$36,000 [$20,000 of it for the gold]. In Auburn I could retire
There were other success stories at these worlds. The U.S.,
powered by Jenny Thompson's four gold medals and one silver, won
the medal count, and the Australian men, led by Klim and Ian
Thorpe, a 15-year-old with size-16 feet, were strong. But there
was no success story as improbable as Pilczuk's. "I've thought
for the last six years that I was a champion," he said. "It's
just been a question of my body catching up with my head."
He shook that head. Fastest swimmer in the world. Winner over
Aleksandr Popov. Winner at the worlds. Too bad Burgess Meredith
isn't still around. He might have been just the guy to play the