Skip to main content
Original Issue

Down under he went way under

The world's best swimmers tend to vanish as quickly as they appear, a phenomenon that recurred just last month with Shane Gould's unexpected retirement at the ripe age of 16. Before it is too late, then, meet another Australian teen-ager, skinny, unheralded Stephen Holland (right), who flung his 5'10", 132-pound self into Brisbane's Valley Pool last week to smash two world records in what an Australian swimming official, Syd Grange, called "the greatest swim of all time." Echoing that encomium, Al Schoenfield, editor of the Los Angeles-based magazine Swimming World, labeled the swim "the most fantastic performance I've ever heard of." And considering that he is barely 15, it may even be that Holland is still a few months away from his dotage.

It is not easy to stir up excitement in swimming, a sport so inured to excellence that the oldest men's world record dates back only to August 1972. Holland's heroics came in trials to select the Australian team for next month's world championships in Belgrade. Competing in the 1,500-meter freestyle, he splashed into a quick lead over countryman Brad Cooper and pulled away to reach the 800-meter mark in 8:17.6, fully 6.2 seconds better than Cooper's world record at that distance. Cheered on by the crowd of 1,000, Holland lowered American Mike Burton's 1,500 world record of 15:52.5 to 15:37.8, the 14.7-second improvement calling to mind Bob Beamon's prodigious long jump at the '68 Mexico City Olympics. "Steve swam 61.4 for the first 100, a remarkable rate," said Lawrie Lawrence, Holland's coach. "But it's not the first 100 that counts, it's the last. He was so consistent in his pace that there were only three 100s when he went over 63 seconds and his last 100 was 61.1. He did 29.5 in the last 50. That shows how fresh he was."

If Holland's clockings were the stuff of legend, so was his technique in achieving them. Inevitably nicknamed Toothpick by his teammates, he was further distinguished in the Brisbane pool by a furious windmill-like arm action, even faster—61 strokes per 50-meter lap—than that of most other Australians, who as a group tend to have a quicker, shallower arm entry than Americans (U.S. distance star Rick DeMont averages around 40 strokes per lap). Holland also displayed a singular kick, one that benefits from a remarkable flexibility of ankle, best demonstrated when he sits on a chair and extends his legs; where toes point up in most people, his hang down.

After the race the value of this flexibility was discussed by Lawrence in understandably breathless terms. "His ankles give him something like a dolphin kick," the coach said. "It gives him drive that lifts his entire back out of the water, so that he's planing like a motorboat. You could stand on his back and not get your feet wet."

Besides these physical attributes, it no doubt helped that Holland hails from a swimming family. His father Roy, who owns a swimming pool and squash-court complex in the Brisbane suburb of Carina, started giving Steve lessons at four, then turned him over to another coach when the boy reached 11. "We were afraid that training him ourselves might hurt family relationships," Mrs. Holland recalls. "If his father ticked him off at the pool, it could cause hard feelings around the dinner table." In 1971 the Hollands arranged to have Steve trained by what amounted to a correspondence course, eliciting weekly letters of advice from Sydney-based Don Talbot, When Talbot, Australia's 1972 Olympic coach, moved to Canada, his club was taken over by Lawrence. With Steve showing dramatic progress in Brisbane, the Hollands two months ago sent him to Sydney to work under Lawrence,

The move forced young Holland to miss so much classwork at the Carina Church of England Grammar School that he will have to take his 10th-grade year over again, but Steve decided at the-time, "I want to give swimming everything." Doing his part, Lawrence resolved to put some muscle on his prodigy's frail frame by having him work out with weights and pulleys, and he also polished the teen-ager's turns and breathing. To prepare him psychologically for last week's race, Lawrence invoked the inspirational story of Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila, who won the '60 and '64 Olympic marathons and, crippled in an auto accident, grittily came back to compete in the Paraplegic Olympics. "When you get into the; race, you're going to feel bad," the coach told Holland. "It's going to hurt after 400 meters. It's going to take guts to keep going. Think about Bikila."

The pep talk obviously worked. After his swim, which lowered his personal best in the 1,500 by nearly 39 seconds, a grinning Holland said, "I was desperate to, go to Belgrade. I thought about that paraplegic fellow and just kept going."

Now with Holland bound for his first foreign meet, two things seem likely. One is that he will sooner or later put on some weight, especially since, as his mother confides, "He eats all the time. It's really one meal all day long." Another is that the spectacular drop in swimming times will continue indefinitely. "It's one of the amazing things about our sport," ays Peter Daland, the U.S. Olympic men's coach at Munich. "We've made graphs, and charts and we get down to zero sometime in the middle of the 23rd century."

Whatever Steve Holland's further contribution to the trend, he may have already filled a psychic need among the sports-loving Australian public caused by Shane Gould's retirement. As one Sydney sports fan, sounding very much like a proud new father, put it the day after Holland's swim, "Looks like we've got another one—and this time it's a boy."