On July 14, 1983, in Los Angeles, a light breeze and Vladimir Salnikov's 11th world-record performance, in the 800-freestyle, still wrinkled the surface of the Olympic swimming pool when two men met. The American, Mark Spitz, thrust out his hand. The Soviet, Salnikov, accepted it. The most effective fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles in swimming history contracted against one another and then relaxed.
"Congratulations, Vladimir. I'm glad you weren't swimming when I was," said Spitz. His videogenic smile dismissed the fact that he and Salnikov were lords of different distances: Spitz's seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics were all won in sprints of 100 or 200 meters; Salnikov is the world-record holder in the 400-, 800-and 1,500-meter freestyles.
Then the American asked the Soviet swimmer to come to his Beverly Hills home for dinner. "He couldn't come," Spitz said later. "They didn't want him to see what I had and how I lived."
Funny how societies differ the same way muscles do, fast-twitch and slow-twitch. "Mark Spitz is a national hero," says Salnikov. "I am not so much famous because he has done more than me, and also because Americans like heroes more than us. They are more in a hurry to be somebody than us; they are more driven than us. They even have the Guinness Book of World Records so they have slots to fit all their achievements in. You won't see anyone in Russia trying to beat the record for dragging a bed around their house."
Fast-twitch and slow-twitch countries wouldn't seem to understand each other—to the extreme that now they won't even pause and play games once every four years. But Salnikov understood: By merging the best of both cultures he became the greatest distance freestyler ever, though doomed by back-to-back boycotts not to have his career crowned with victories in a full-scale Olympics.
Efforts to reach him last week and learn his reaction to the latest Olympic boycott were unavailing.
The strongest of all warriors are these two—Time and Patience. — LEO TOLSTOY
Let's go. Watch our smoke. Excuse our dust. . . .Speed, speed, we are the makers of speed. — CARL SANDBURG
Salnikov's beige compact pulls up in front of the Olympic pool in Moscow and loses itself in a parking lot full of nondescript four-wheel boxes. He reaches out, disengages the outside mirror from his door and places it inside. Car theft is unconscionable in his country, but parts are so scarce that any removable accessory is fair game. Salnikov feels fortunate to have the little car; all his teammates arrive by bus.
He steps from behind the wheel. His blond hair hides half his ears, his face is tan, his eyes pale green. A red bump rides the bridge of his nose and two pale ovals surround his eye sockets. It's a face designed by sunshine and chlorine and too many hours in swimming goggles. He wears a T shirt with the words L.A. '83, blue jeans with a ROCKY label and blue-and-white Adidas sneakers. He looks like an American—a handsome sun-bleached beach roamer from Spitzland. Then Salnikov kisses his wife, Marina, goodby and kisses a male friend hello and suddenly he's a Russian again.
The friends talk quietly, and then Salnikov goes to the locker room to prepare for the 1,500. It's Aug. 5, 1983, the last night of swimming competition of the Spartakiade, the U.S.S.R.'s national sports festival. He doesn't shave himself. It will cost him a second every 100 meters, 15 seconds in all, but he doesn't need to set new records each meet to live with himself. There are times to ration and times to burn, and he knows them well. He's 24. Most of the world-class swimmers his age in America are now ex-swimmers.
Now, in the twilight, the 1,500 is about to begin. Salnikov walks to Lane 4 and slowly removes his blue robe with the letters CCCP on the back, his warmup jacket and warmup pants, his T shirt, socks and slippers. Unveiled is a 6'5", 165-pound body with the classic swimmer's torpedo hips and sea-fan shoulders, but none of the special external aquatic gifts—the outsized hands and feet, the extra six inches of calf whip—that marked Spitz.
He searches the stands, locates Marina, smiles and waves. "Just a small one," he says. "I do not want everyone to see." If Marina weren't here, he would search for a smiling stranger and smile back.
He scoops a handful of water and rinses his mouth, then sits on the starting platform with his arms hanging loosely between his legs. On either side, the other seven swimmers fidget and stretch and windmill their arms. The champion remains loose and motionless. His is not the concealed compulsion that clenched Spitz's fingers so tightly that he couldn't uncurl them on the platform in '72. Salnikov's is the passive composure of a man in no haste to prove or immortalize himself, a man raised in a country that gave the world 1,500-page novels, that absorbed the thrust of both Napoleon's and Hitler's armies and slowly pressed them back, that patiently tolerates bread and meat lines, a country that subconsciously seems to know everything will eventually submit to the passage of time. Salnikov knows the moment for aggression will come later; now he sits and waits for the race to come to him.
"Some swimmers start the race exhausted," he says. "Maybe I have a little stronger nervous system."
The starter raises his pistol. On the platform, Salnikov bends like a willow.
Mark Spitz's beige '84 Corvette zips across Admiralty Way toward the docks of Marina Del Rey. Sometimes he leans on his right foot, and when the surge presses him deeper into the low bucket seat, and the new speed registers on his computerlike instrument panel, he feels a little like an astronaut. The other day, his first one back home after a nine-week business trip in Europe, he took the car to 123 mph. Not quite the old flush from stopwatches and electric timers—but, man, it felt good.
Spitz turns into the parking lot of the Windjammer Yacht Club. Along the edge of the water runs a woman in a pink top and purple shorts and a man in nylon shorts in the design of the American flag. On the water, ducks play in the morning light and a forest of sailboat masts sway.
Spitz exits the Corvette. He is wearing blue jeans, sneakers, a blue short-sleeve shirt, a red belt, an orange underwater watch, a blue sweater he ties by the arms around his neck, and the black mustache that has not been encroached upon since it became famous in the '72 Olympics. All 11 years that have passed since that staggering seven-gold-medal harvest in Munich seem to have congregated in a doorknob-sized circle of gray on the back of his black hair.
He's in a hurry. He wants to get his Hobie 33 sailboat launched and sea-ready by noon—he returns home to shower for a cocktail party at 2. He will act as grand marshal of Marina Del Rey's Christmas boat parade at 5:30 p.m., and return to the club for a 9 p.m. dinner with his wife, Susan.
He gets the boat into the water and steers it into its berth in front of the club. He looks at his watch. "Listen," he says to his friend, Bob Bishop. "We got about enough time to clean the mast with acetone and get it up in place. We got about 40 minutes. You ask your questions," he says to his visitor, "while I work. . . .
"Sure, I'm still competitive. We finished third in class in the Trans-Pac race in '81—that was like getting a bronze medal in a whole new sport for me. I was the skipper . . . Bob, secure that halyard . . . Can you believe we sailed in that race for 11 days and finished four minutes out of second place? Four minutes! God, this boat is dirty. Normally it's totally immaculate. I can't stand it like this . . . Of course I still feel terrible when I lose. There's nothing worse than losing. Well, maybe there is, but hell, who knows what it is? . . . That'll tighten more, Bob. Here, hook it onto this. Keep asking questions, I'm listening. . . . In '72 I won gold medals in everything and got out as a winner. That's what I went into it for. Period. The end. Now? I'm just fine economically. I've more things going than I can figure out what to do with. I market sporting goods all over the world. I've got real-estate offices in Honolulu, Frankfurt and Los Angeles. I do swimming commentary for ABC. But I don't like to talk about all that, I'm trying to keep a low profile. . . . Damn, that puncture in the hull really bugs the crap out of me. . . ."
He hops from one project to the next, fingers fretting, eyebrows worrying, jaw brooding. As quickly as he strips tape off the mast, balls it and tosses it into the water, Bob fishes it out and puts it in a paper bag. Then Spitz struggles and grunts the mast into place with the help of four others, and when the mast is up, he cups his eyes against the sun and studies the achievement. "I love it!" he cries. "Just like Iwo Jima! Twenty more minutes of work and we could be sailing. What time is it? Let's pack it up. We gotta get moving."
Pop! The starter's pistol sounds and Salnikov is in the water. He's no better than fourth off the platform—he suffers from a "sleeper start"—but four strokes into the swim the lead is his.
The gap grows from a forearm to an arm to a body length, to two and then three lengths. His right arm, the power arm, lifts and slashes again and again, cutting through the shaft of sunset that jiggles on the pool. He strokes 45 times a lap, every lap, never changing. It's an attack more than a stroke, a thoroughly controlled, disciplined, repetitive attack, and there is some strange mesmerizing beauty in its monotony.
"If you wandered into the stadium you'd swear it was Goodell," says George Haines, Spitz's former coach and now an assistant coach of the '84 U.S. Olympic swim team. Haines was referring to Brian Goodell, America's '76 1,500 gold medalist, who trained with Salnikov during the Soviets' Christmas training junkets to Mission Viejo, Calif. in the late '70s. "I'm sure they took a lot of pictures of our kids' strokes. But what's really special about Salnikov is his mental toughness. I'm sure he learned that from training with the Americans, too. Mark Schubert [the Mission Viejo coach] kicked their tails when they were here. Russian kids usually aren't that aggressive in the water." ("I did see how hard it was possible to push yourself when I was training with Americans," says Salnikov.)
Salnikov's lead in the Spartakiade 1,500 is now so mirthfully long that a journalist from Tass points and says, "It's like he's not even Russian! We are always together in a group—collectivism, you know!" He laughs and hugs the writer from America.
Salnikov finishes in a leisurely 15:17.13, 22 seconds behind his world record of 14:54.76 but 30 feet in front of the collectivists. The world is just a few heartbeats behind him in his other Olympic distance, the 400, but in the 1,500 it has resigned. If there were an Olympic 800, and if the Soviets had competed in L.A., Salnikov would have been the favorite to take that, too. Except for a second-place finish in the 400 at the European championships in '81, he has won the 400 and 1,500 in every national, European, world and Olympic event he has entered since 1978. He hasn't lost in the 1,500 in six years—14 of the best 19 times in the event are his—and he was Swimming World magazine's world Swimmer of the Year for '79 and '82.
"Most of his competitors don't even attack him anymore," says British distance swimmer Andy Astbury. "He keeps pounding out these incredible times, meet after meet, and the people who swim against him are in so much awe that when he makes his move, they seem to say, 'I can't go with him; that's it, he's gone.' His domination has lasted so long it's equivalent to what Edwin Moses has done in the hurdles."
Would more competition mean an even swifter Salnikov? Probably, but his furnace seems inner-stoked, less dependent than others on the billows of an opponent's breath.
"During races," says Salnikov, who speaks English well enough to translate the dialogue in American movies for teammates, "I would like more competition. But not on the last lap."
His Spartakiade race over, Salnikov backstrokes to mid-pool and waves once more to Marina as cameras snap. He climbs from the water, and the barracuda in him—the American in him, if you believe U.S. swim coaches—vanishes. "Molodets!" shout his Leningrad teammates in unison. Translation: "Good boy!"
He goes to a side room to give a blood sample and finds Marina already there, pricking other swimmers' fingers with a pin and sucking a few drops into a tube. A graduate of the Central Institute of Physical Culture in Moscow, she's keeping biochemical data on swimmers. Marina and Vladimir got married in September, 1982, discomforting Soviet swimming officials, who worried that Marina was too beautiful a distraction for any man on such an all-consuming hunt. "If you want me to continue swimming," Salnikov told his coach, "for me it is a better way to feel like a man, not a machine." In his first international meet after the wedding, Salnikov set two short-course world best records.
Vladimir and Marina exchange smiles and a few words, and he gives her a rose he has just been presented. Their secret is that she understands, having withstood some of the same regimen and pressure as a 16-year-old Soviet junior women's champion in the 100-meter dash. When her father worried that continuing to sprint 100 meters in 11.5 seconds might undermine her femininity, she considered his advice. Speed lost. Marina quit.
Suddenly, in the blood-testing room, Salnikov is surrounded by the uniformed children who assist on the pool deck, all clamoring for an autograph. Now a former Soviet cosmonaut pulls him aside to talk, and the press encircles them. Salnikov tells the press to wait because he must go collect his medal. A 72-year-old painter asks Salnikov to pose for a photograph so he can use it to paint Salnikov's portrait: "A little to the left, turn a little more to the left. Here, come out in the light more. No, no, tilt your chin this way a little more." Salnikov is actually adjusting his head this way and that as he stands in line for the march to the medal stand. Spillover media surround the dazed Marina and demand that she arrange interviews and photo sessions with her husband. A Japanese TV announcer asks Salnikov to go back in the water for an interview in which the Japanese will fall into the pool after posing his final question. Salnikov agrees to that, too. A Moscow reporter asks for a private interview Monday. "Call me Tuesday," says Salnikov.
Now he's being swept off to a press conference, where the Soviet media applauds him, then to a session with his masseuse. Five members of the press follow him, one a Tass journalist asking questions from a typed sheet of paper. Another reporter, an Oriental, asks, "What is your age? Your weight? Your pulse rate? When were you married?" Patiently, Salnikov answers.
"Can you turn over on your back?" says the national swim team masseuse, a jolly 50-year-old. "Or is that inconvenient for giving interviews?"
She finishes the rubdown and kisses him, then he goes back to find his wife. The stampede has passed and Marina sits alone, holding the rose, her eyes still shiny from tears. He shakes his head and hugs her. No, no, this isn't the kind of life they have planned at all.
"Man, you should see us in those sailboat races. I have no conscience! I go for broke! The wind will be blowing 20 knots at our back and I'll be putting up the spinnaker when the other boats wouldn't dream of it, and it's exit, stage left! It's good night, Gladys! Hey, that's George Gobel. Hey, George, how you doing? I met you doing Hollywood Squares."
Spitz has made the rounds at the Christmas Boat Parade cocktail party, and has met all the people with the ribboned identification stickers on their chests defining them as press, official or VIP. Now he's off to the side, drinking a gin and tonic and talking with some friends.
"So we're driving in Arizona just after Mark got the Corvette," says Bob, "and I'm reading from the manual; 'Do not drive faster than 55 for the first 500 miles,' and Mark says, '55? 55??' Boom! All of a sudden we're going 110!"
"And now," the emcee says into a microphone, "I'd like to introduce our special guest, the man that finished in the Top 10 recently when national broadcasters and sportswriters voted for the top athlete of all time. . . ."
The applause is warm. Most everyone here knows the Mark Spitz story: The 14-year-old whose mother drove him 150 miles round trip for two hours of swimming practice, whose father subsequently changed jobs and cities so his son could continue to train under Haines—and whose father was once so convinced that his son's opponents had jumped the gun that he dashed out of the stands and onto the pool deck in rage. The 18-year-old who talked of winning six golds in the '68 Olympics and became haunted when he won only two, both in relays. The 22-year-old who won an unprecedented seven golds in the '72 Games, became a cover on TIME magazine, a sex-symbol poster boy, a TV darling and, according to his agent, "the most sought-after talent in theatrical history."
Twenty-five minutes ago, Salnikov was due to speak at a downtown Moscow reception for Soviet naval officers. "It is more important to work out," he says on the way to the reception from a morning practice. A man in a black suit intercepts the entourage at the door.
"What are you doing here?"
"We bring Salnikov," replies the man who has driven the swimmer there.
"Salnikov? Where's Salnikov?" He looks just to the left of Vladimir's wet hair and right ear.
"This is Salnikov."
Salnikov reaches for his ID.
"You're too late."
"What should we do?"
"Go back where you came from."
Not being recognized doesn't ruffle Salnikov, and not recognizing Salnikov doesn't embarrass the functionary. Soviets regard their heroes differently than Americans. They are more proud than awed and far less likely to build up and chop down. Most know of Salnikov, but they don't know or care that he reads science-fiction, stuffs his car tape deck with American rock-'n'-roll and chain-eats chocolates.
"We don't have this idol-worshipping here," says Viktor Kuznetsov, a teammate and best man at Salnikov's wedding. "People want to be like him but they don't worship him. Vladimir gets very confused when he gets put in the hero situation. He'll try to stand back and push his friends forward."
"We don't have stars here," snaps Anatoly Pimenov, head coach of the Soviet national team. "In all sports, the trainer is the central figure. Salnikov behaves like a normal human being. We try to keep the attention from the extraordinary to prevent the star sickness. We regulate interviews." Salnikov still pays a symbolic 30 kopecks (45¢) a year to belong to Trud II, the sports club at which he works out when he's in Leningrad. Some days when he's in the midst of competition and not in heavy training, he works out at a public pool in Moscow where old ladies in swimsuits and bathing caps scrub themselves in the outdoor showers, where an old man with a peg leg climbs out of the pool and Spanish music blares over the loudspeaker.
The perspective that carried Salnikov into the world flows from his father, Valeri, a 53-year-old sailor who once captained timber freighters around the world and now teaches other men how to do it. In a modest flat in a five-story brick apartment building in North Leningrad, Valeri Salnikov sits on a sofa covered with thick white material to make it last an extra five or six years. He inspects you from under two intimidating black caterpillar eyebrows.
"I don't think my son's a unique man," he says firmly. "He's an ordinary son. He's not unique in sports in general. There are other champions."
Valeri's eyes take in a room where swimming trophies share space with sea-shells he has brought home from Cuba, a gondola knickknack from Venice and a black alligator from the Congo. Neither Valeri nor his wife, Valentina, attended the '76 or '80 Olympics to see their son compete. "I was busy working," Valeri says. And when they watched on TV as Vladimir won three gold medals in Moscow, only an hour's flight away? "I said, 'Good boy,' " Valeri says. "Why make gods of them? Glory isn't a motivation here; it is to see what a human being can achieve. We don't know our cosmonauts by face, but they'll continue flying farther into space. Vladimir doesn't need to use sports to make more money. He is quite satisfied with what he has."
What Vladimir has is a small Moscow apartment that Marina and he moved into last September. He didn't have to stagnate on a waiting list for months or years like so many Soviet newlyweds. He also has his small car, which he admits the government helps him finance "a little." He's in a postgraduate university program in physical culture; rather than attending classes in '83 or '84, he must only keep notes from which to write a thesis—on the training of Vladimir Salnikov. He has a salary of—Salnikov hesitates—a "little more" than the average monthly 120-ruble stipend ($175) that the government allots to postgrad students. He has a ready-made job as a swimming official or coach when he stops swimming. What Salnikov does not have is the fear of failure that most Americans must deal with, nor does he have their aspirations to luxury and convenience.
What compels Salnikov to invest his life in perhaps the most monotonous and grueling regimen that sport has contrived? What drives him to thrash his arms and kick his legs and stare down at blue tiles for five hours and 13 miles a day without even the marathon runner's compensation of fresh air and scenery?
"Maybe to see if it's possible to swim long and fast and to find my limits as a human being," he says. "I have no global thoughts."
The longer his domination lasts, the more Soviet coaches wonder when America is going to uncork some 19-year-old monster to swim him down. Despite the upswing in the Soviet swimming program in the last six years, competitors with Salnikov's drive are still rare in the U.S.S.R.
The reasons have to do with climate, living standards and social conditioning. The swimming pool itself is a luxury that Soviet society could only recently afford. Until 1952 there were only three indoor pools in the U.S.S.R., one per 61 million people, and as late as 1970 only one per 100,000. There is no Florida or California where Soviet youths can cavort in outdoor pools the year around.
Current Soviet athletes are the children of parents who, during World War II, underwent nutritional deprivation that most Americans cannot fathom. "Their parents went four, six, eight years with no meat, no juice, no sugar, perhaps just 200 grams of bread a day," says Sergei Vaitsekhovski, former head coach of the national swimming team. "We still see the effects. American coaches tell me their swimmers lose barely any days to sickness. Our average swimmer loses 20 a year."
Basic social philosophy favors the U.S., too. Americans grow up with the need to be special, to distinguish themselves, to step away from the crowd in order to hear the roar of the crowd. They get good feelings about themselves from what they do and how fast they can do it—a wonderful humus to grow athletes in. Russians, even before Communism, were brought up to blend in with the group. The individual doesn't expect so much of life, or of himself. "If I ever heard my swimmers say 'I' too much, I told them to take scissors to their tongues," says Vaitsekhovski. "But ask an American athlete who will win and he will say, 'I will.' In one way that's good—he's probably stronger psychologically. We have never had anyone with the psychological strength of Salnikov, and yet, he is also the quiet leader of the team."
"Even when the Russians' times were faster than ours," says Stanford coach Skip Kenney, "when Americans have gone head to head with them, the Russians have always knuckled under. They were intimidated. But Salnikov's so confident, he's out shopping with Americans in L.A. the day before he's going to compete. The other Russians always stay with their group—they're afraid of being psyched out."
By the '60s, the Soviets realized that what America could produce naturally, by evolution, they had to produce by systematization. Swimming coaches fanned out to check the muscle coordination of second-graders and steer the elite into special sports schools. They studied American technique and training methods. They surpassed the Americans in the application of science, and whittled down the talent gap. In 1980, Soviet men won gold medals in Olympic swimming for the first time—winning six events in Moscow. Sure, the Yanks weren't there, but who could diminish Salnikov's achievement? He whipped himself through the worst pain he had ever felt, lying to himself that the 13th and 14th 100 meters were his last, to set a world record in the 1,500.
The American swimmers, meanwhile, had begun treading water. With the Olympic stage pulled from under their feet by the boycott, the crowd's roar smothered, older swimmers quit, younger ones opted for shorter distances where the pain was less and the glamour greater. No American 22-year-olds had the kind of tailored college class schedule and monthly income a swimmer like Salnikov needs to spend half his waking hours in swimming pools and weight rooms. The Soviets remained preeminent in the long-distance events.
And every time he returned to America to compete or train, Salnikov became more aware of what the two societies instilled in their people, and what they took away. "New cars everywhere, highways and new buildings and technology everywhere, 20-channel TVs everywhere," he says. "The TV there is no place for ideas—it's all cowboys and advertisements. Everyone saying, 'Smile, wake up and smile! Have a nice day!' We don't smile unless we have a reason to. I like America like I like going to a show."
Last July in Los Angeles he bargain-hunted at six stereo stores for the best price on a portable music box to complement his Akai reel-to-reel and his Technics receiver. At one store, the salesman said, "You should come to America and you wouldn't need to bargain so hard. You're a champion; why don't they give you money? Come to America and you will be a millionaire like Mark Spitz."
"The first six years after the Olympics were a blur. I just went along for the ride. At one point, with just me and my wife driving, I had a Ferrari, and two Mercedes." Spitz smiles. "I was trying to find myself."
As grand marshal of the Christmas Boat Parade, he sits on the lead boat. Forty-five vessels follow him, decorated like Christmas trees, for a two-lap spin around Marina Del Rey harbor. Above his head, two banners run from one mast to the other. One says MARK SPITZ. The Other, OLYMPIC FANTASY.
"Mark, you've got to stand up and wave!" says a parade official.
Spitz winces. "It's my back, I think it's arthritis, from swimming. I once sat down and figured out that I've swimmed 26,000 miles in my life.
"Three years after the Olympics, without having worked out since, I swam a time trial just after the world championships in Colombia. I was two-tenths of a second off the winning time in the 100. Two-tenths!"
"What was that?"
"Did you hear it? What is it?"
"I think it's my bed . . . I mean, my heart."
"Vladimir, what are you talking about?"
In a dormitory room they were sharing a couple of years ago at the high-altitude training center at Tsahkadzor in Soviet Armenia, the swimmer and his psychologist lay in their beds and listened.
"That's what it is," Salnikov insisted.
"It can't be," said Gennady Gorbunov, the psychologist.
It was. So violently was Salnikov's heart beating—a result of the strenuous physical pace he was putting himself through each day—that the legs of his bed had begun to throb, too.
"Sometimes in workouts," says teammate Aleksandr Chayev, "I am unwillingly pulled along with him. It just leads you into a dead end. Your nervous system just can't take it anymore, and he's still going."
At a certain point in long-distance training, the mind asks for permission to leave the room. The swimmer must find a way—without surrendering to hallucination—to keep the pain in his body from flooding his head. Australia's Steve Holland kept going by visualizing a shark at his heels. Goodell pictured his brain casing as the cockpit of a 747. "Everything might be shaking and rumbling in the body of the plane, but up front I couldn't feel any of it," Goodell says. "Everything was smooth."
Salnikov blocks pain two ways: "I play music in my head. Pat Benatar. Supertramp, the Eagles or Electric Light Orchestra. Or I'll picture myself in a motion picture. I'll be Superman and the bad guys are chasing me. I'll be a cowboy and the Indians are chasing me."
Some nights, his muscles twitch involuntarily as he sleeps, and he pummels his wife. "I wake up all worried. 'Is she alive, is she O.K.?' She puts the pillow over her head for protection." Another time, he swam himself into such total depletion that he insisted Marina's blood test was faulty when it revealed no illness. "I yelled at her," he admits sheepishly.
"No one has enough motivation on their own to work out like that every day, every year," insists Don Schollander, who won four gold medals in the '64 Olympics. "You have to have a coach who's a great motivator, too. I guarantee that."
Enter Igor Koshkin, 52, a little man wearing a short-sleeved sport shirt, jeans, black clogs and an impish grin: half leprechaun, half lunatic. As a child in Leningrad, he doused fire bombs during the German siege. As an adult he forced himself to concoct new ideas for conditioning his swimmers by setting fire to training booklets he had written. When ideas popped up in the middle of the night, Koshkin would telephone the head coach of the national team at 3 a.m. Six years in a row the U.S.S.R.'s swimming Trainer of the Year has been Igor Koshkin.
Koshkin chases swimmers out of practice when they lag and proclaims sickness no reasonable excuse for absence. "He told us we were to blame if we were sick," recalls Alexei Kudinov, who swam for him with Salnikov. "He is almost a fanatic . . . and you only say almost to make it sound better." Today the flame in Koshkin's eye so quickly turns into a twinkle that he has become known as a lovable tyrant.
He makes a triangle with his stubby fingers to demonstrate his training philosophy. "One point of the triangle is motivation, one is technique and one is physical and functional preparation," Koshkin says. "All three legs of the triangle must be equal. If one is overdone, it stifles the other two." The twinkle. "We are now getting into an area that would not interest your reader."
Koshkin and the Soviets are more concerned with this balance than are their American rivals. Salnikov's weightlifting work emphasizes repetition and variety—in the U.S. there is an obsession with bulk—and his training sessions are more closely monitored and adjusted. With the aid of government-financed modern equipment, Koshkin constantly takes midsession pulse rates and lactic-acid readings to make sure that he's pushing Salnikov to the limit—but not a single gasp beyond.
"The way the American system is going," Koshkin says, "they'll eventually only be able to swim 50 meters well. One doesn't have a thoroughbred haul a 15-ton weight before sending him out to race. One should work within the rhythms of the body."
Some days, Salnikov will spend 2½ hours on a 25-station, Koshkin-designed weightlifting program. On others he will ski, play soccer, water basketball, land basketball, or undertake a drill of 150 gymnastics exercises. He will swim with a rubber figure-eight-shaped sponge around his ankles or drag a star-shaped contraption attached to a line looped around his waist, both resistance-increasing devices used by his diabolical coach.
"The physical preparation is the only part of the Salnikov triangle I need to concern myself with anymore," Koshkin says. "The technique is there, and one no longer needs to motivate him much."
Besides the biochemical equipment and the white-smocked biochem experts, Salnikov's retinue includes Gorbunov, the international-award-winning psychologist who has taught the swimmer self-hypnosis techniques to use between heavy training sessions, and the masseuse, who rubs five-inch Ebonite sticks over Vladimir's body, creating static electricity to relax his muscles.
The only Salnikov secret that Soviet scientists have discovered is a slightly wider-than-normal aorta. His other distinctive attribute—the ability to accept stress—took them several years to recognize. Koshkin readily admits he took on the young Salnikov as a training pacemaker for a more gifted distance swimmer named Sergei Rusin.
Salnikov's development into the U.S.S.R.'s greatest swimmer began when he was eight; a Leningrad coach named Gleb Petrov stopped by his school and asked who wanted to study swimming. The boy remembered the call the Msta River always made to him when he visited his grandmother 150 miles south of Leningrad; how he would disobey her orders and wade into the water—but he never knew how to stay afloat like the other boys. Vladimir raised his hand. Petrov studied the boy's movements on land and picked him as one of 120 children from his region to enter a three-day-a-week training program.
One year later the sessions were increased to six a week. Vladimir often missed practices with earaches and colds until a doctor removed his tonsils and adenoids at age 10. But his times improved enough to earn him little dolphin badges as one of the six best swimmers in his age group in the country. At 12, of the original 120 children, he was one of 14 chosen to attend a Leningrad sports school.
Now Vladimir was awaking at 7 a.m., leaving home to work out at the nearby school pool from 8:30 to 10:30, attending classes until 5 and then training again until 8. His father's bushy eyebrows bunched. Valeri Salnikov had played volleyball and lifted weights as a youth, but he had then dismissed sports as frivolous. "Swimming and records are all temporary," Valeri said.
"When I was six or seven he started talking to me like he was a commander and I was one of his seamen," says Vladimir. "My mom and sister came to watch me swim but he was very cool. Even now, he still has his doubts. I think he prefers me to be a sea captain. Perhaps it has been a subconscious motivation for me."
At 14, Vladimir switched to the then little-known fireball, Koshkin. For two years Salnikov lost every race to his training partner, Rusin, churning himself into such a blind frenzy in practice that he sometimes bumped his head on Rusin's heels. Then came the '76 nationals in Kiev, in which Rusin and two other swimmers were favored to clinch positions on the Soviet Olympic team.
Gorbunov had watched Salnikov train. He took him aside an hour before the 1,500-meter race. He led the 16-year-old into a darkened room and lulled him into a sweet semi-hypnotic dream of blue skies above and gentle ocean below. Suddenly, far away, Salnikov heard his name. He blinked and sat up. It was the public-address announcer; the other seven swimmers were on the blocks, ready for the gun. "Go now," said Gorbunov. "Swim very quiet."
Vladimir ran to his lane and heard the pistol shot almost immediately. As he dived he felt a strength and calm he had never known before a race. Salnikov finished third in 15:43.92. He swam the distance faster than he ever had in his life, beat Rusin, who was fifth in 16:00.44, and made the '76 Olympic team. Soviet coaches were astounded. They were shocked two months later when Salnikov slashed 14.5 seconds off that time in Montreal, finished fifth, best among the Soviets, and set a European record of 15:29.45.
At 16, without knowing it, Salnikov had grasped the paradox. Out of stillness comes swiftness, out of patience comes energy. He had cross bred the two seeds that grew on opposite sides of the wall.
"Hey, Mark, jump in the water and see if you can swim as fast as the boat."
"Where is your Speedo swimsuit, Mark? Show your body!"
"Go for it, Mark, swim it!"
Out of the darkness of the docks the calls keep coming. There are thousands of people out there; Spitz waves and peers from the parade boat but he cannot see them. It has been this way all his life, voices without faces in the night, demanding that he keep going, keep going.
"It has been so difficult for me to go back to mediocrity," Spitz is saying. "No one would accept it. Everyone wanted me to be special. 'When's your next movie? When's your next TV show?' Just because I was a good swimmer, in America they expect you to be a star. But I turned down movie offers because I won't do something if I can't do it well."
Would he undo it all if he could, join the faceless on the dock?
"No . . . no, I wouldn't."
What does he want out of what's left?
"I'd like to spend my remaining years with my son and give him all the guidance my father gave to me, to see him achieve the things he wants. . . . I'd love to go on the space shuttle, go around the world in 90 minutes. . . . Hey, Bob, we gotta get that boat cleaned up tomorrow. We'll Fantastik the hell out of everything. We'll clean the deck. We'll clean the teak. I think we can get the whole thing cleaned and washed in two hours, don't you. . .?"
There is no air conditioning or window screen in the Rome hotel where the Soviet team is staying for a week during the 1983 European championships. In the night Salnikov opens the window, lets the late July heat and mosquitoes pour in, and finds little sleep. "It is not heaven and it is not hell," he says of the hotel. "It is purgatory."
During the day, a West German in a wet suit and scuba gear swims under Salnikov and films his stroke as he works out. Neither the distractions of night nor of day impede Salnikov. He will win two gold medals, in the 400 and the 1,500.
Just now, though, he's late for an afternoon practice because he has spent too much time looking at St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. He picks Marina up in his arms and runs with her, for a joke, toward a bus stop. He laughs and puts her down. It would be wonderful if they could stay, visit all the treasures of Rome and Florence, when the week is over and his month-long vacation begins—but the champion is a Soviet athlete and he must go home with the group.
After he retires from competition (he had planned to quit either immediately or within a year after the '84 Games), Salnikov will become a swimming official and earn about 300 rubles ($440) a month. "I'll enjoy that," he says. "I'd like to organize some national meets, so I can see some more of the world. But I always want to come back to the Soviet Union. I understand things there."
His wife spots something in a store window, stops and leans down to look. Salnikov loops his arm around her, bends and gazes, too. Up ahead, the bus pulls away.