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The U.S. Was Out Of Its Class

Less-than-best Americans at the World University Games could not make the grade against the Soviets

Chris Silva stood on the blocks of the Edmonton pool, twitching, slapping his thighs, growling. Below, churning toward him, was Tom Jager, the leadoff man on the U.S. 4 X 100-meter freestyle relay team in these World University Games.

When Silva hit the water, it would be a moment of some social significance. He would then become the first black swimmer ever to represent the U.S. in international competition. But there wasn't time to reflect on that now. The Soviet Union's Sergei Smiryagin in the adjacent lane was swimming to an opening 50.13. When Jager, who's Silva's college teammate at UCLA, touched the wall in 50.75, the U.S. had half a length to make up.

Silva is a powerful 6'3" and 190. "And a fantastic team swimmer," says Bruin Coach Ron Ballatore. "In the 1982 NCAA meet, he improved his 100-yard best from 45.0 to 43.6 in the relay, and that gave us the title."

But Silva is inexperienced in Olympic-size 50-meter pools. His best 100-meter time before the University Games was 52.8. Silva is an emotional soul, however, with a splendid sense of occasion. He had swum his preliminary leg in 50.86, which convinced U.S. Coach Sam Freas of Arkansas to keep him on the team for the final.

Silva had tears in his eyes marching in the Games' spectacular opening pageant, during which 12 huge balloons, each a likeness of an animal native to a Canadian province or territory, were displayed. The proceedings were presided over by the Prince and Princess of Wales. Silva had said right after the ceremonies, "It's been a dream since I was a little kid to stand on an Olympic stadium infield, to feel chills at so many nations coming together in peace for competition. Here, it wasn't the Olympics, but it had the same effect. It was overwhelming to watch the legend come in, Vladimir Salnikov, the Olympic champion, the guy who hasn't lost in at least 37 straight 1,500s, and to really feel that he's a person, just like you. It all has been incredible motivation."

So motivated, Silva made up water steadily in the first 50 meters against Vladimir Tkachenko. "About 15 meters before the turn, he slowed a little," Silva said. "I thought, 'I should go all out to get him,' and then in a split second I decided, no, I'll get him off the wall. So I glided into the turn. I should not have done that."

Silva couldn't get Tkachenko off the wall or in the last 50 meters, though he swam the faster split, 50.63 to 50.65. Next Tennessee's Dallas Kyle took up the chase, doing 50.41 to Sergei Krasuk's 50.58, but still the U.S. was .43 behind.

The anchors were Alexei Markovsky and yet a third Bruin, Bruce Hayes, who had won the 200-meter freestyle. Hayes, too, gained steadily. "I thought 40 meters out I could catch him," he said, and he did. A meter from the end their heads were even, but it was Krasuk's luck to have his stroke deliver his hand to the wall while Hayes's was still overhead. That was the 10th of a second difference between the two teams, 3:21.72 to 3:21.82. The world record is 3:19.26.

That relay stood as a symbol of the swimming competition in the Games, hard fought, not quite a record, and with the Soviets winning. They took 22 of a possible 29 gold medals in swimming, aided immensely by a new star, 20-year-old Irina Laricheva, who swept the women's 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyle events and added a relay anchor for her fifth gold.

Many of the best U.S. swimmers stayed home to prepare for the U.S. Long Course championships in early August, which are the Pan American Games trials. "But there are no Russians in the Pan Ams," said Hayes. "I came for the competition."

He got it, in the form of Salnikov, the most formidable distance swimmer in history. In the 1,500, Salnikov, 23, showed he was near peak form, swimming each of the 13 middle 100-meter laps between 59.97 and 60.83, always taking 44 strokes per 50-meter length, always displaying a relentlessly swift cadence that seems to bespeak a furious concentration. Yet in repose he's mild and funny. Asked about what his frame of mind had been during the 1,500, he said, "It's like the man who picked up an elephant. The big problem is how to put it down." He eased his to earth with a 58.15 last lap to win in 15:02.83, 8.11 seconds from his world record of 14:54.72.

Hayes was third, in 15:37.97. But earlier he had won the 200 with a remarkable burst, coming from fourth off the last turn, switching from a two-beat kick to an outboard motor of a six-beat and finishing in 1:51.19, ahead of Alexei Filonov's 1:51.90 and the 1:51.97 of Canada's Alex Baumann.

"Hayes can come home better than anyone I've ever seen," said Ballatore, so there seemed reason to hope that if he could stay close to Salnikov in the 400, he had a chance to make a run at the finish. But Salnikov has lowered the world 400 record five times since 1978, to its present 3:48.32. He doesn't swim if he isn't ready to do it again.

The Soviets have traditionally put heavy emphasis on doing well in the University Games, which encompass 10 sports and are held every two years. The nearness of the Olympics moved the Soviet central planners of swimming to peak their team for this meet and McDonald's international meet this weekend in the new Olympic pool in Los Angeles, which would accustom Soviet swimmers to winning in North America. By contrast, the East Germans sent no one to Edmonton; their plan calls for a peak at the European championships in late summer.

Hayes started as a distance swimmer and has only recently begun to take to short distances. "He never liked the sprints," said his father, Larry, a Dallas attorney. "He called 'em the 'screaming meemie races.' " Yet in the 400 he led for 50 meters, in 27.49. Salnikov was a foot ahead at 100, in 56.59, and had a body length at 200, in 1:54.97. "Last year in a dual meet he beat me on the third 100," said Hayes. "I knew I'd have to work then." But try as Hayes might, Salnikov pulled inexorably away. His 2:52.50 at 300 was world-record pace, but he fell just short of setting a mark, with 3:49.38.

Hayes was second in 3:54.93 and shook off his distress to go anchor the 4X100 freestyle relay. "Good experience," said Ballatore. "He doesn't have to beat Salnikov until next year."

After the relay, Silva roamed the deck like a leopard, by turns blaming himself for not coming up with that crucial 10th of a second and congratulating his teammates. "If the Russians here are the A team and we're the B team like everybody says, well Lord help 'em when they hit our A team next year," he said.

Of course, Silva, who's from Menlo Park, Calif., has plans to be on that team in Los Angeles. He's a junior majoring in psychology, was a second vice-president of the Northern California Baptist Youth Convention in high school and played classical piano for seven years. He passionately separates myth from reality when asked why, until now, there have been no first-rate black swimmers from the U.S.

"There are the real barriers, like money," he said. "It's not cheap to keep a kid in years of age-group swimming. But the rest of it is psychological. In high school when I got told, 'Hey, you can't swim, you're black,' I went out and kicked butt and gained the respect of my peers. It's that way in everything."

"But physiologically?..." asked an observer.

"Yeah, people say it's been proven that blacks have 'heavy bones.' Well, I say flatly there's no such thing as heavy bones. And if there are, hell, white people can sink, too. If you get to the wall fastest and sink doing it, more power to you."

To all appearances, the power was again with diver Greg Louganis, who won the three-meter springboard and later the 10-meter tower on Sunday. Louganis won his gold medal in the springboard by a wide margin, although he dropped to second place after four dives. "He's trying to give it away," fumed his coach at Mission Viejo, Ron O'Brien.

O'Brien sat Louganis down and yelled at him: "I know you want to be home; so do I. We came here to take on the Chinese. Now get up there and do it right."

Chastened, Louganis produced a lovely program. His most artistically rewarded dive was the eighth, a reverse 1½ somersault layout. It's not a difficult dive, being rated at 2.6, but Louganis did it so slowly that the crowd gasped. It seemed as if he had abandoned himself to fate, but when he ripped a perfect entry, you knew he had been in control all the way. The judges gave him five 9's and two 9.5's. His newest dive, a reverse 1½ somersault with 3½ twists, which is as difficult as they come, a 3.3, earned him four 9's, an 8.5 and two 8's. No other diver got even one 9.

Louganis' approach to competition is different from O'Brien's. "I compete against myself," he said. "I don't want to be somebody who only cares about winning. What I really strive for is to make the difficult dives look easy, like a ballet dancer makes look effortless what it took him years to learn. I'm out there to put on a performance." Louganis should know how to do that. He graduated from U.C.-Irvine with a degree in drama, with a minor in dance.

It may be that the performer's interpretive temperament is exhausted before the coach's competitive one. "Maybe after the Pan Ams I can go on vacation," said Louganis wistfully. "I want to go camping, where there are no people, just to get away and recoup and regenerate so I can start all over again." Then he gave a glimpse of the sort of sacrifice all Olympians make. "I've never been camping. I'm not sure where I would go. I have to rely on the advice of strangers."

The U.S. team in track and field was even thinner than in swimming. Lay that to their preparations for the World Championships in Helsinki. But you can't call Mike Carter thin. Carter, 6'2", 275 and an SMU senior, won the shotput in the rain with a 64'9¼" and confirmed his intention to forgo football with the Mustangs and the professional drafts next year to concentrate on the shot for the Olympics. "I don't mind passing up a lot of money because I never had any," he said. "But, uh, I sure don't know how the SMU alumni will react."

Carter threw in Edmonton "because it's like the world championships of college athletes. An extension of the NCAA." So naturally he won. He has won six out of a possible six indoor and outdoor NCAA shotput championships.

In track the 4 X 400 for men again featured the U.S. vs. the U.S.S.R. As in the pool, the Soviets led after one leg, Evgeny Lomtev beating a tired Elliott Tabron of Michigan State by a couple of yards. Air Force's Alonzo Babers passed Alexandre Troscilo on the second turn, but couldn't hold him in the stretch, so Sunder Nix of Indiana, the TAC 400-meter champion, received the baton in second. He ran right by Sergei Kutsebo on the backstretch. "When I can get a guy, I get him," he said later. His lead at the exchange with Cliff Wiley, a May graduate of Kansas Law School, was five yards. But the Soviet anchor was Viktor Markin, the 1980 Olympic 400-meter champion. Wiley knew all about him. "He likes to gun you down in the last 100," he said. "My race is to get out fast, and then jump out again at 200, and then hang on. It was going to be dramatic."

Markin made up a yard by the 200, at which point Wiley jumped and Markin stopped gaining. But in the stretch, as Wiley strained and moved out to the second lane, Markin moved up threateningly along the rail. "I would have cut him off, sure I would have," said Wiley, who had the right to move back inside as long as he was leading by a full stride. "When you're dying, you do what you can." It wasn't necessary, as Wiley's legs and form held to the line and the U.S. won in 3:01.24 to 3:01.58.

"We had a good mix of seasoned and not-so-seasoned guys," said Wiley, "which is what this meet is really good for. Alonzo ran a little tentatively, which he'll learn not to do in international competition. But Sunder ripped one, didn't he? I hope the country can understand that we've sent a lot of people here for that kind of experience." He might have been speaking for Silva and Hayes and Carter, too, and even Louganis. "We'll be better for this next year. Much better."


Salnikov, the best distance swimmer ever, made his usual splash in the 400 and 1,500.


At the opening ceremonies in Commonwealth Stadium, inflation reached new heights.


Laricheva swam off with five gold medals.


Jager, Silva and Kyle saw Hayes get touched out in the 4 X 100 free.


Hayes, here with his bronze in the 1,500, earlier won the 200 freestyle.


Law graduate Wiley won his case by a brief bit.


Princess Diana celebrated her 22nd birthday on the opening day.