On the opening night of last week's United States Long Course Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif., Tracy Caulkins pulled quickly away from the field in the 100-meter breaststroke, the first Olympic event contested in the meet. When she neared the wall for her turn at the 50-meter mark, the P.A. announcer told the crowd, "The gold-medal split is 33.79. The world-record split is 33.68." Caulkins made her flip and all eyes in the crowd jumped to the scoreboard high above the Heritage Park Aquatics Complex. There, frozen for an instant, was Caulkins' race-leading split—33.03. The crowd roared, then rose to its feet cheering madly.
Atop the scoreboard were now displayed the times set by the three medalists in Moscow, led by East German Ute Geweniger's gold-medal-winning 1:10.22. Urging Caulkins toward that goal, the crowd chanted louder and louder, "Go! Go! Go!" Caulkins made a last lunge at the finish, then quickly looked up at the scoreboard. For a second the numbers scrambled, then her winning time suddenly stopped clear. It was the fastest that Caulkins, America's best all-round woman swimmer, had ever recorded in the event. Her time set meet, American and U.S. open records. But instead of raising her arms in triumph, Caulkins slumped on the lane ropes. The crowd groaned in disappointment. Caulkins' 1:10.40 was good enough for an Olympic silver but .18 of a second short of the Moscow gold-medal time still displayed for all to see.
As Caulkins' frustration demonstrated, American records and American titles were not what last week's U.S. championships were all about. Technically, the meet was a combination of the national championships originally scheduled for mid-August and the Olympic Trials originally scheduled for mid-June. When the boycott took effect, these two meets were merged and switched to the week immediately following the swimming competition in Moscow. The result was a mock Olympics. The theme in Irvine: BEAT MOSCOW.
United States Swimming, Inc., the sport's governing body in this country, did its best to dramatize the notion of an Olympic showdown. The scoreboard at Heritage Park normally has eight lines for results, corresponding to the eight lanes for swimmers in the championship pool. Last week three more lines were added to the top of the scoreboard to accommodate the times of Moscow's gold, silver and bronze medalists, three ever-present ghosts in the water at Irvine. As the swimmers headed into each turn, the upcoming split of the gold medalist would appear at the top of the scoreboard as a standard to be compared with the split that would flash below when an American swimmer touched the wall. Throughout, the P.A. announcer exhorted the crowd to cheer ever louder to bring the Americans home. "We're going for gold!" he would say.
The stage was set for the Americans to shatter the record books, rewrite swimming history and blow the Commies clear out of the water. And every once in a while they did just that. In the men's 200-meter butterfly, for instance, the first three finishers all surpassed the Moscow gold-medal time, and the rest of the eight finalists bettered the silver-medal standard. The winner, Craig Beardsley, a 19-year-old Florida junior with the Oriental features of his Chinese mother, set a world record of 1:58.21, though he did it in the preliminaries. In the women's 200 butterfly final, 15-year-old Mary T. Meagher, a high school sophomore from Louisville, lowered her own world record to 2:06.37, which was more than four seconds faster than the winning Olympic time. In swimming, four seconds ranks somewhere between an eon and an age. That's showing 'em, Mary T.
As often as not, however, the Americans didn't live up to expectations. Something was missing in Irvine. "I could guarantee you that if this were the real Olympics, 90% of the swimmers here would go faster," said Mike Bruner, who won the award as the meet's top male performer but lost the 200-meter butterfly world record he had set at Montreal. "Our officials did everything they could possibly do to build up this meet, but this isn't an Olympics. I know. I've been there." In the end, the best that could be said for Irvine was that the Americans had proved what everyone had known all along—as a nation the U.S. is still No. 1 in the world in swimming.
By the time the five-day meet came to a close last Saturday with a visit from Ronald Reagan and a red, white, blue and—you guessed it—gold fireworks display, the scorecard showed six new American and three world records. And then there was the ongoing count of Olympic medals, a bogus exercise in the eyes of most of the swimmers. "Beating the Olympic time doesn't really prove anything," insisted another Florida swimmer, Rowdy Gaines, whose winning times in the 100 and 200 freestyles were good enough for a gold in the former but only a silver in the latter, an event in which he holds the world record. "I know I could have won the 200 in Moscow, and that's not bragging. There's no substitute for head-to-head swimming."
Right you are, Rowdy, but everyone kept adding up the medals anyway. In the 11 individual Olympic events swum by both men and women, a comparison of times indicates our men would have won six gold, eight silver and three bronze medals: our women, four gold, four silver and two bronze.
Those totals may seem disappointing to swim fanatics who recall that the American men won 10 of 11 individual golds in Montreal and the women, while shut out of Olympic gold, took seven individual titles at the 1978 world championships in West Berlin. But the bottom line is that the swimmers at Irvine would have produced more golds and more overall medals than any other nation at Moscow.
Beardsley's and Meagher's world-record swims in the 200 butterflys were voted the outstanding male and female performances of the meet. The third world record, UCLA junior Bill Barrett's 2:03.24 in the 200 individual medley, may have been overlooked because it isn't an Olympic event.
Both Beardsley and Meagher represent a new trend in the coaching of the butterfly. Traditionally, the stroke has been considered so strenuous that in practice it has been swum only about 10% of the time. Last week, however, Meagher admitted that she does the fly as much as 40% of her time in the pool, and Beardsley revealed he has devoted 60% of some practices to butterflying.
Beardsley didn't start the intensive butterfly training until this spring, when he and his coach, Randy Reese, decided that the stroke offered him his best chance of making the Olympic team. Even though Beardsley had won the 200 fly at the Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico last summer, he was beginning to develop the reputation of being a perennial runner-up. In each of his first two years at Florida, he finished second in the 200 butterfly at both the NCAA meet and the indoor nationals. At last year's outdoor championships he qualified first in the event in the preliminaries and then, to use his word, "choked" in the finals, finishing fifth. No wonder that after his world-record performance in the preliminaries last Wednesday, he was still nervous about the final. "I had to prove to myself that this time the morning swim wasn't a fluke," he said. It wasn't. Beardsley won the final in 1:58.46, once again bettering Mike Bruner's 1976 record of 1:59.23, while holding off the fast finish of the former record holder, who also improved on his old mark.
Reese thinks Beardsley can keep improving now that he is concentrating solely on the butterfly. "Someday he'll be a 1:56 flyer," the coach predicted. "He really maintains his stroke well. I've never seen anyone swim fly tired like he does. He's an unreal worker."
"That's a Chinese gene," said Beardsley's father, Russ, who owns an audio-equipment store in New York City but was on hand in Irvine as a spectator. "Give his mother an eight-hour job and she's looking for more work." From his mother, Jeanne, a librarian and piano teacher, Craig has also inherited a love of music. He is a cellist, with six years of lessons behind him. Now he is hoping to meet his mother's side of the family, which still lives in the Shanghai area. The winners at last week's meet could choose between going on to an international competition in Hawaii or to an exhibition tour of China. "If Craig doesn't choose China, he'll be disinherited," said his father.
Meagher's family was also represented in Irvine. One of 11 children, she had 14 relatives poolside at the championships. They were clearly discernible by their green shirts which read:
THIS is A
and by the racket they made whenever their heroine did anything. They had plenty to cheer about. In addition to her world-record swim in the 200 fly, Mary T. also took the 100-meter butterfly, missing her own world record of 59.26 in that event by a mere .15 of a second but winning another would-be Olympic gold medal. She also came in a surprising third in the 200 freestyle and swam such a fast lead-off leg for her club team, the Pepsi Marlins, in the 400 freestyle relay that under the normal conditions of an Olympic Trials she would have earned a spot on the U.S. relay team. Meagher wound up as the high point scorer for the Marlins, who won both the women's and overall team titles at the championships. When Reagan presented her 100-butterfly medal on the final night of the competition, the green T shirt crowd unrolled a banner: MARY T FOR PRESIDENT!
She, too, will go to China, though Mary T. is perhaps more anxious to return to Louisville. She has been away from home since January when, dreaming of Moscow, she moved to Cincinnati to train with Denny Pursley, who had been her original coach but had left Louisville to take over the Marlins. Pursley is a strong advocate of long-distance butterfly training. In the past, few butterflyers swam the stroke for more than 400 meters without stopping. Even Beardsley, who has the reputation of being able to hold his stroke, has never gone more than 1,000 meters at a clip. Mary T., by contrast, has done 3,000 meters nonstop and regularly swims sets of 800.
Meagher also won the 200 fly at last year's Pan Am Games, where she swam 2:09.77 to set her first world record, at the age of 14. At the time, the world record of 2:09.87 was held jointly by Caulkins and East Germany's Andrea Pollack. Although no other swimmer has ever bettered that record, Meagher continues to push the standard lower and lower. Until recently, the 2:07.01 she swam at last year's long-course championships in Fort Lauderdale was not only a world record for women, but also a national age-group record for boys. "When athletes make breakthroughs in sports, like, say, Roger Bannister, then usually a flock of others follow," notes Pursley. "Once they see it can be done, they believe they too can do it. But no one's followed Mary T."
Now that she's on top, Mary T. is thinking of retiring from swimming, of taking up field hockey, of getting involved in school and "having a good time." Asked for an opinion in Irvine last week, her mother said, "She's kind of tired of it. There's a lot of long hours. She's thought of giving it up at the end of other summers, but she's always been persuaded that the Olympics were coming up, and she'd be awfully sorry if she missed them."
For Mary T. Meagher, like so many others, the boycott was painful. "I'll always feel disappointment about it," she said at the end of last week's meet. "When they played the Olympic song here, I had tears in my eyes. But there was nothing I could do except look up at that scoreboard and compare my time."
In this year of the Olympic boycott, that was all any American swimmer could do.
400 individual medley
P. Schneider, G.D.R.
**Set a world record in the preliminaries