On Monday night, at The World Swimming Championships in Perth, Australia, Nicole Haislett came to attention atop the medal stand and prepared to savor the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. The 18-year-old Florida freshman had just won the women's 100-meter freestyle in an American-record 55.17. She heard a cough. Then she felt a tug on her warmup. It was China's Zhuang Yong, who had finished third, signaling to Haislett that she was facing the wrong way. "I thought the flags would be at the other end of the pool," Haislett said later. "The Chinese girl was trying to get my attention."
It was that kind of night for the U.S. women, who had to adjust from the elation of Haislett's victory in the 100 free to the letdown of a disqualification in the 800-meter freestyle relay caused by a blunder by Haislett herself. And in between were disappointing performances by the U.S.'s once and future swimming queens, Janet Evans and Summer Sanders, respectively. "It was like a roller-coaster ride," said U.S. coach Richard Quick, referring to the swings of emotion his team experienced.
The U.S. women had arrived in Perth as the team to beat, thanks as much to the postreunification breakup of the powerful East German team as to their own considerable talent. "Do you enjoy being Number One again?" asked Klaus Weise, a writer for the German sports daily Deutsches Sportecho. It was a question that by Monday night, with six days of swimming yet to go, had received no definite answer.
The U.S. divers, in contrast, were underdogs to the Chinese, and the unusual timing of the championships, which forced Northern Hemisphere swimmers and divers alike to turn their training schedules topsy-turvy, didn't help. "Our divers are exhausted," said Wendy Lucero, who on Monday finished second to China's Gao Min in the one-meter springboard. The U.S. team's best hope for a diving gold medal was Mark Lenzi, the World Cup champion in the one-meter event. But the 22-year-old Indiana grad was plagued by an injured left ankle on Saturday and barely held on to second place, behind Edwin Jongejans of the Netherlands.
The broad-shouldered Lenzi was openly envious of China's latest slim-line prodigy, 12-year-old Fu Mingxia, who stands 4'9" and tips the scales at 77 pounds. "It's kind of like dropping a broom handle off a 10-meter platform," he said, describing her technique. "She could land flat on her back and still rip [the entry]."
Mingxia trailed her teammate Xu Yanmei, the 1988 Olympic champion, through five of the eight dives in last Friday's platform final. But when Mingxia nailed the sixth, a forward 3½ somersault, for 7.0's and 7.5's and Xu received nothing higher than a 6.0 for the same dive, Mingxia grabbed the lead for good. She finished with 426.51 points, far ahead of the Soviet Union's Elena Miroshina (402.87), and Wendy Williams of the U.S., who edged Xu for the bronze, 400.23 to 399.12.
Mingxia is the youngest diver ever to win an Olympic, world-championship or World Cup title. In fact, she is so young that she will not be allowed to compete in the World Cup in Winnipeg this May. In Perth, the technical-diving committee for FINA, the world aquatics federation, passed a rule that to compete in the three international championships, a diver must be 14 or older in the year of the competition. Said Jack Sanders, the committee's secretary, "The medical evidence we have suggests diving from the 10-meter platform while a child's bone structure is still developing has no immediate effect, but problems may occur later in life."
Mingxia tried gymnastics briefly, but at age eight she switched to diving, moving 450 miles from her parents' home in central China to a youth sports center in the north. "She learned very fast," said her coach, Xu Yiming, whose name means "master of understatement." In just her third international competition, Mingxia won the platform title at the Goodwill Games, and, said Xu Yiming, "She became an immediate celebrity in China. She traveled and went to parties and didn't train. She was too proud of herself." Only when she slipped to third place at last September's Asian Games did the little reveler come to her senses and begin training in earnest once more.
Though the diving scores were consistently low, the world record in the 100 breaststroke was tied and then broken by the same man, Norbert Rozsa, an 18-year-old high school student from Budapest. In Monday morning's sun-splashed heats, Rozsa clocked 1:01.49. That tied the time that Adrian Moor-house of Great Britain had swum three times in the past 18 months. "Obviously, it is a magic time," said Ferenc Kovacshegyi, who coaches Rozsa. Not as magic, however, as the 1:01.45 Rozsa swam that night in the final, after overtaking Moor-house in the last five meters.
Next came the much-anticipated showdown in the women's 400 individual medley between the 18-year-old Sanders and the 19-year-old Evans, the Olympic champion in the event. As expected, Sanders got out fast and by midrace led Evans by a body length. The IM's third leg, the breaststroke, is critical for Evans. Since winning the gold in Seoul, she has struggled to adjust to a more mature body and to the new breaststroke technique Quick has designed to compensate for it. Evans fell farther and farther behind on the breaststroke leg and turned into the final 100, the freestyle, three body lengths behind Sanders. But on came Lin Li of China, who caught Sanders at the final turn and held off 16-year-old Hayley Lewis of Australia by the narrowest of margins, 4:41.45 to 4:41.46. Sanders was third in 4:43.41, Evans fourth in 4:46.05.
"I did something majorly wrong," admitted Sanders later. "That was one of the worst-feeling IM's I've done."
Evans was resolutely cheerful. "What can I say about my 400 IM?" she mused. "I guess I'm having trouble with my breaststroke."
That night, anchoring the U.S. 800-free relay team that included Whitney Hedgepeth, Haislett and Trina Radke, Evans started a body length behind Germany's Stephanie Ortwig and swam like a woman possessed, passing the German at the turn and driving furiously for the wall. Evans touched in 8:01.63, almost half a second under the four-year-old American record, and nearly a full second ahead of the German team.
Then came the bad news: Haislett had left the block seven hundredths of a second too soon. The U.S. team was disqualified. Haislett avoided reporters, leaving Evans to speak for her and the rest of the team. "Even though we were disqualified, we know in our hearts that the little bit we gained didn't make a difference," she said. "We feel like world champions. We'll just have to keep the faith."
Lucero came up with a silver medal in the one-meter event.
Haislett had much to celebrate after the 100 free but would soon have much to bemoan.