Parting the Waters With three world records, breaststroker Ed Moses was a commanding figure at the NCAAs

April 02, 2000

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. After breaking
his third world record in two days at the NCAA men's swimming
and diving championships last week, Virginia's Ed Moses roamed
the University of Minnesota's Aquatic Center in search of agua.
Hmm. None in the media room. "Try down the hall," said an
official. Moses, the sensational sophomore breaststroker, sought
not to slake his thirst so much as prime his pump. He owed two
urine samples to FINA, swimming's international governing body,
and another to the NCAA. "If I don't get some fluids in me," he
said, "I'm not going to get out of here till midnight."

Officials were handing out more plastic cups than usual in
Minneapolis. Seven world records and 20 American records fell at
this three-day event. That's just what the NCAA hoped for when,
in an uncharacteristic spasm of common sense, it decided to hold
the races at this year's championships in meters rather than in
yards. The NCAA has long touted its men's meet as among the
fastest in the world. The problem was, no one could tell, because
the flat-earth Yanks were the only people on the globe still
racing in yards.

George Mason associate athletic director Kevin McNamee is a
meter advocate who chairs the NCAA's swimming and diving
committee. In selling the metric system to his more hidebound
colleagues, he predicted a coming-out party for NCAA swimming.
So it came to pass. The party was kicked off by Anthony Ervin, a
Cal freshman who fairly flew through the 50 freestyle in 21.21
seconds, knocking .10 of a second off the world record (all
marks were "short-course" records because the pool was 25 meters
long instead of the Olympic length of 50 meters) and dropping
jaws in this sport's stopwatch-and-clipboard community.
"Un-frickin'-believable," said Minnesota coach Dennis Dale,
whose inelegant observation Ervin disproved two nights later by
winning the 100 freestyle and swimming a leg on the Golden
Bears' victorious 400 free relay team.

Relay-rich Texas was the championships' dominant team. The
Longhorns scored 538 points, 153 more than second-place Auburn.
The meet's dominant swimmer--after two days, at least--was Arizona
senior Ryk Neethling, a taciturn South African whose victories in
the 400 and 200 freestyles gave him nine NCAA titles. To make it
an even 10, he needed only to win last Saturday's 1,500 free, an
event he had owned since his freshman year. Neethling's rivals
couldn't help noticing that he had not shaved his head for the
meet and did not bother to race in a cap. This was the swimming
equivalent of shooting a rap video the week before the Super
Bowl. Neethling's comeuppance came on Saturday night, when he was
upset in the 1,500 by Southern Cal freshman Erik Vendt.

Neethling's defeat only focused more attention on Moses, a
breaststroker so smooth that everyone else in the pool seems to
be fighting the water. He's a freakish, once-in-a-decade talent
who despite only recently learning how to put his goggles on
right-side-up set a world record nearly every time he jumped into
the water.

Well-mannered as he is--and this crewcut son of an Air Force
colonel is as polite as can be--Moses could not disguise
impatience at some of the questions he fielded during the meet.
Yes, it's true that he has only been swimming full time for three
years. Midway through his senior year at Lake Braddock High in
Burke, Va., when it became clear that he would not be offered a
scholarship for golf, his first love, Moses began training with
an area swim club. Not long after, he caught the eye of Cavaliers
coach Mark Bernardino, who recognized in him a raw but enormous
talent.

Yes, he is a latecomer to a sport whose stars all seem to have
started swimming around the time they began learning phonics. The
point Moses makes is that since he began training seriously, he
has been training as seriously as any swimmer in the world to
make up for lost time. This is a guy who has added ballet
exercises to his stretching regimen to strengthen his kick; a guy
whose idea of a good time is to curl up in front of an old
videotape of his idol, 1992 Olympic champion breaststroker Mike
Barrowman. "Every time he watches that tape," says Moses' mother,
Sissy, "it's like he's seeing it for the first time."

Sissy's son broke his first two world records in one day: On
Friday afternoon, after swimming the first half of his 100 heat
faster than any American had ever breaststroked 50 meters, he
finished the race in 58.05, lowering the world mark by nearly
half a second. That night, in the final, he lopped a half-second
off his own new 100 record.

As long as he was breaking world records on a daily basis, it
seemed reasonable to expect that Moses would swim the
fastest-ever time in his heat for the 200 the next afternoon.
Instead, he glided in .28 of a second slower than the record.
Sure, he broke the American mark, but U.S. records had been
falling like the Dow when Alan Greenspan is overheard
complaining of gas pains. Expectations were higher for Moses,
who, it turned out, had been told by his coach to swim the race
"between 90 and 95 percent."

Moses opened it up in the final that night. With a raucous crowd
shouting "Mo!" each time his head broke the water's surface, he
came in at 2:06.40, trimming nearly a second and a half off the
world record. That effort earned him the meet's outstanding
swimmer award and, he hopes, sent a message to the world's other
top breaststrokers training for the Sydney Olympics this
September. "I want them working hard and worried," he said. "I
want them to know it's gonna be tough to win that [gold] medal.
There's going to be a fight."

Had he raced in yards, that message would have been garbled. In
taking the plunge to meters, the notoriously staid NCAA loosened
up a bit. This was certainly evident last Friday evening when the
crowd rose to honor America. Standing on the 10-meter diving
platform in a dapper tux and black wing tips, a local realtor
named Dan Kuch blew the national anthem on his trumpet, then
executed a reverse somersault into the water. The crowd went
wild, and why not? As Kuch recalled a half hour later while
standing in his still-dripping tuxedo, "I ripped it." (He was
referring to his dive, not his tux.)

It was fun while it lasted. This is the NCAA, after all. The
conversion to meters was an Olympic-year experiment. Next year
it's back to yards.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES "I want them working hard and worried," says Moses of his possible Olympic foes.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)