Vladimir Salnikov has reduced competitive swimming to its essentials. "I like to swim fast," he says. "I like to go as fast as I can and then see whether it turns out to be a record or not. With that kind of an attitude, I am never disappointed."
Salnikov disappointed no one, much less himself, last week at the Moscow Olympic pool. He swam fast—fast enough, it turned out, not only to set a world record but also to break through an aquatic barrier, the 15-minute 1,500 meters, that had been considered as unassailable as the four-minute mile had been on land. There were swimmers who appeared capable of it. Brian Goodell of the U.S., who set the world record of 15:02.40 in the Montreal Olympics, was one of them. But no one had succeeded. Salnikov, a 20-year-old student at the Leningrad Institute for Physical Culture, had never done better than 15:03.99—until last week.
It seemed apparent from the start that he would have an extraordinary swim. He was a full second ahead of the field with a 58.53 first 100 and only .48 off the minute-per-hundred pace at 800 meters, at which point the crowd sensed that he had a chance for the record. A velvet Soviet flag appeared in the balcony and a Misha bear was tossed high in the air.
As he approached the final 100, the arena was a cave of echoing cheers. He was at 14:00.22 for 1,400. A final burst would send him through the barrier. He would have to do it on his own, though, for his nearest competitor, teammate Aleksandr Chayev, was more than 14 seconds behind him. Exhorted by his countrymen, Salnikov turned the last 100 in an amazing 58.05. Briefly he stood at the end of the pool, waving to the crowd. Finally the winning time was flashed on the scoreboard: 14:58.27.
The 6'6", 157-pound Salnikov, the son of a sea captain, is no dour Russian. He is gregarious, and he wears his emotions on his face, which looks to be that of an American college boy, vintage late '50s to early '60s.
In fact, he and several other Soviet swimmers trained in Mission Viejo, Calif. for three weeks in 1976 and again for two weeks in 1978. "He and the rest came to my house for New Year's Eve," recalls Coach Mark Schubert. "It's a very big holiday in Russia, too. Salnikov spent most of the time translating to the other kids what was being said on TV.
"The biggest difference between the way they train and we do is that we do more quality swimming—emphasis on times—while his coach goes by pulse rate. In other words, instead of asking them to do a specific time, they'll do it by keeping predetermined pulse rates throughout a workout."
Unlike Schubert, Salnikov's coach, Igor Koshkin, works in concert with a psychiatrist, one Gennady Gorbunov, who tends to the inner workings of the Soviet swimmers. Salnikov likes the idea of having a poolside shrink. "Before every competition our coach and our psychiatrist pay special attention to us," he says. "Some swimmers need to read a book, others need to listen to music. Some need a conversation with Gorbunov, whose voice has a calming effect."
Psychiatrist or no, Salnikov has acquired considerable mental toughness since he finished fifth in the 1,500 at Montreal as a shy and callow 16-year-old. American male freestylers, especially those competing in the longer distances, had long enjoyed an easy dominance of the sport until Salnikov surprised them by winning both the 400 and the 1,500 in the 1978 World Championships in Berlin. In 1979 he was named Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine, a unique honor for a Russian.
Salnikov is also the first swimmer to break eight minutes in the 800 meters, and he had, in fact, broken 15 in the 1,500 once before, but in a 25-meter pool, where the swimmer has the advantage of more catapulting turns than in the 50-meter Olympic pool. Last January he set the "short course" record of 14:52.06 at Bremen, West Germany, surpassing the record of 15:01.86, held by Bob Hackett of the U.S. He went for the regulation-pool record in the spring of 1979, but for once he swam too fast for his own good. He was clocked at 7:56.49 at 800 meters, breaking the record for that distance by almost five seconds, but the effort had drained him and he finished in 15:24.89.
Salnikov won three gold medals at Moscow, the others coming in the 400 free, in which he set an Olympic record of 3:51.31, just shy of his own world mark of 3:51.20, and as a member of the victorious Soviet 4 x 200 freestyle relay team.
His achievements are scarcely diminished by the absence of American swimmers in Moscow, although Salnikov believes he might have swum faster if they had been there. But he did well enough without their help. "I have swum 1,500 meters under 15 minutes," he said quietly. "Nobody has done that before."
Salnikov has the look of a Yalie, Class of '58.