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Original Issue


Gregory Buckingham is tall, dark, handsome and, suddenly, a star of American swimming. In the NCAA title meet his record-breaking victories lifted the Indians above strong Southern California and Indiana

Last Saturday's breakfast was not a-happy meal for the Indiana University swimming coach, Dr. James Counsilman. It was the morning of the third and final day of the NCAA championships, and things were going badly for the usually well-stocked Hoosiers. "Our divers are doing fine, of course," he said grumpily, "but, outside of a couple of standouts, we don't have the swimmers. Stanford has all the stars, and Southern Cal isn't going to win an event, but they're nickeling and diming both of us to death."

Dr. Counsilman was wrong. The five-and-dimers had their moments in the meet at Michigan State, but in the end Counsilman and Southern California's Peter Daland were both dollared to defeat by the shiniest new coin out of Stanford's mint.

His name is Gregory F. Buckingham, and he suddenly is the dominant swimming personality in the U.S.—quite possibly the world, as well. Not incidentally, Stanford is the new NCAA champion, breaking into the cozy club to which only Michigan, Ohio State, Yale and Southern California have belonged since the NCAA began keeping track of such things way back in 1937.

Buckingham, a wanderer who attended San Jose State and San Mateo Junior College before landing at Palo Alto, won two individual events, the 200- and 500-yard freestyles. Then he anchored Stanford's triumphant 800-yard freestyle relay team with an amazingly swift clutch performance in the meet's last event, assuring the Indians the team title over the Trojans and the Hoosiers. He set American records of 1:41.3 in the 200 and 4:37.0 in the 500 and shared in the unprecedented 6:54.5 for the relay, overshadowing not only that bemedaled Olympian, Don Schollander of Yale, but also stars of the magnitude of Michigan's Carl Robie.

Buckingham also could have won a contest for the most memorable name had it not been for the presence of one Zach Zorn, a UCLA sophomore. It was a sad Zach who won the 50-yard freestyle. "So I won," Zach shrugged. "I wanted the record, and I wasn't within two-tenths of it."

The surprising thing is that until three years ago nobody, except a few people in the Bay Area, had ever heard of Buckingham. At Menlo-Atherton High School he had been an All-America swimmer, but his scrapbook was thin. He was not a prodigy (he is actually older than Schollander by a few months), did not come up through the well-publicized age-group swimming programs, as have so many Olympic and national record-holders, and he had a tendency not to train very seriously.

Then he sought out George Haines, coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club and the developer of Schollander, Steve Clark and Donna de Varona. The encounter took place in the locker room of the Santa Clara High School. "I went to George and said I wanted to swim for him," Buckingham said. "I didn't know it at the time, but Schollander was in the room and quickly left. He told me later that he couldn't bear to be around when George told me no."

Well, George said yes, and the second son of a California coffee packer was on his way. "I owe my whole life to Haines," Buckingham said.

Buckingham is 21 and dark-skinned, with sparkling blue eyes, scraggly sideburns and, except for a heavy intake of protein supplements and wheat germ, is reasonably normal in his habits. The only thing kooky about Greg is his exuberance over swimming. In this age of kid champions a man of 21 should be jaded and near retirement.

"I think I have an advantage over a lot of the other guys," he explained. "Swimmers like Schollander have been competing for years at the top. You can take it physically, but after awhile it burns you out mentally. I'm even looking forward to the day when I can give it up."

Buckingham's greatest moment at East Lansing came in the 200-yard freestyle Friday night, when he defeated Schollander—for the first time in his life at any distance—and took Schollander's American record to boot. (Because the meet was held over a short, or 25-yard, course, no world records could be set; these must be established in a 50-meter pool.) "That last length was like a dream," Buckingham said. "I knew when we came out of the last turn I had him. When I first met Don three years ago I was awed. He was way up here and I was way down there, but I found out he's human after all."

Schollander has the reputation of setting a relatively slow pace through the first 100 yards, then going all out in the next 50 and burning out the competition. "In earlier races," Buckingham said, "I'd let him set the pace. When he'd make his bid all I could do was say, 'There he goes.' This time I set my own pace, and it worked."

Buckingham's emergence eclipsed several other outstanding individual performances. His Stanford teammate and an Olympic veteran, Dick Roth, won both individual medleys and had a hand in the 800-yard freestyle relay victory. Ken Merten of Southern Methodist took both breaststroke events, wiping out records set by Indiana's Chet Jastremski back in the dark age of swimming, which by today's standards is approximately four years ago. And Charlie Hickcox of Indiana won both backstroke events from Michigan State's formidable Gary Dilley, heretofore undefeated in collegiate meets.

Schollander, although he was fighting two recent flu attacks, was nevertheless disappointed that he failed to win anything. But for real low-down misery one could not surpass North Carolina State's Steve Rerych, the 6'7" freestyle sprinter who had hoped to win two races (SI, March 27). Rerych got a bad start, made a worse turn and finished sixth in the 50. He was eighth in the 100. At the start of his leg in the 400-yard freestyle relay he jumped too soon and got his team disqualified. "It's been a damned lousy week," said Rerych.

And for two of the meet's three days it looked as if Southern Cal might buy its dime-store victory. History was on the Trojans' side. Southern Cal had tied Stanford in their only dual meet of the season, and in the conference meet just three weeks ago the Trojans overwhelmed the Indians by more than 60 points. The Trojans, of course, were the defending national champions, and although the individual stars of the past were absent, Southern Cal could count on tremendous depth in every event. After the first two races, in fact, Coach Jim Gaughran of Stanford must have wondered what the whole thing was about. Buckingham won the 500-yard freestyle and Roth won the 200-yard individual medley but there was Southern Cal ahead by three points. The next night Roth pulled down his second medley win, and sophomore Peter Siebert finished fifth, but SC had five finishers in the top 12 and a five-point edge.

Going into the meet's concluding 800-yard relay, Stanford led by only 243-234 and faced a Southern Cal relay team that had set an American record in qualifying trials that afternoon. If SC won, Stanford needed at least third place to win the NCAA title by a point, and when Buckingham took over for his 200-yard leg, it looked as if that was exactly what would happen. Southern Cal had a one-length lead, and Buckingham had not had much rest after an exhausting 1,650-yard grind earlier in the afternoon. "I was dead tired," he said, "but we had come so far I was determined not to lose." In the last 50 yards Buckingham pulled even with SC's Bill Johnson and actually won going away with a brilliant last leg of 1:40.8. The time was half a second faster than that of his victory over Schollander in the 200 the night before.

Almost immediately after the relay Buckingham was experiencing his first real autograph party, and all 18 Stanford swimmers, plus one very wet Jim Gaughran—who had been tossed into the pool—were sporting T shirts that read: STANFORD U 1967 NCAA SWIMMING CHAMPIONS, the optimistic gift of William Lee of Palo Alto, a swimming outfitter and Stanford baseballer back in 1942.

"We had these made up three weeks ago," Lee said. "It was a calculated risk. Nobody would ever have seen them if we hadn't won."

Greg Buckingham didn't exactly specify the retirement date he was looking forward to. Chances are, though, that the chief instrument of Stanford's dollar diplomacy will be legal tender at least until after the Mexico City Olympics next year.


Buckingham grins in Michigan State pool after victory over Yale Olympian Don Schollander.