They stand in front of us next to a pool in Fort Lauderdale, four women on a mission for America. They are heading to Barcelona, the best swimmers in each of the sport's four strokes. If all goes well, each will win an individual medal during the first five days of the Olympics and on the sixth, July 30, they will join forces on a 4 x 100-meter medley relay team that will shatter an eight-year-old world record set by a former country called East Germany. They are our champions, the best we have to offer.
Please, let their unofficial captain, 22-year-old Crissy Ahmann-Leighton, introduce everyone so we can give them a cheer. Crissy?
"I'm hungry," she says, pointing to herself, a specialist in the 100-meter butterfly. "She's tired," she says, pointing to freestyler Jenny Thompson. "She's bored," she says, pointing to backstroker Janie Wagstaff. "And she's...she's cranky," Ahmann-Leighton finishes, pointing to 15-year-old breaststroker Anita Nall.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Our team. The women have been working a bit today, up at 6 a.m., off to the pool, swimming and swimming some more, doing a lot of interviews, and now they seem to be late for supper and have to pose for a picture. Let's give them a Barcelona cheer. Hungry, tired, bored and cranky. Our team. Let's give them a cheer.
They are having fun, these women, are they not? They are not exactly a team and won't be, even if everything works out, until about 18 hours before they swim the event. They probably will be the team. Should be. Might be. Then, again.... Whatever the case, they do not seem to be feeling much pressure. They are posing for the picture, two of them holding Nall in the air, then standing back-to-back, then face-to-face, and then everybody is smiling for the camera, and the photographer is saying he surely wishes Olympic swimmers wore thongs. All four women are laughing. Thongs? "Do you mean flip-flops on your feet?" Anita is saying. Laughing some more. Funny. Did those East Germans have this much fun in 1984?
"I love to swim the relay," Ahmann-Leighton is saying. "I never could swim the relay in high school. There was only one person on the swimming team. Me. They wouldn't let me swim all the legs on the relay."
"I can see us in the ready room at Barcelona," Thompson says. "Trying to get each other psyched. It won't be hard to do."
The way the team will be chosen is that the top American finisher in each of the 100-meter events in Barcelona—backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle—will swim a 100-meter leg in the relay final. A change could be made by the coaches if there is injury or sickness, but basically the team will be decided by the individual performances in the Games. This will be a team with no real practices.
"The one thing you have to remember is that nothing is set," U.S. women's coach Mark Schubert warns. "Anything can happen. We have two swimmers in each event, and they could finish in any order. Some of them are very close, especially in the butterfly and the freestyle. The people who swam the fastest at the trials might not be the ones who swim the fastest in Spain. I do know that whoever is on the team, it should be awesome."
If form does hold from Indianapolis, however, these would be the four swimmers. Their combined best times—including a world record of 54.48 by Thompson in the 100 free and an American record of 1:00.84 by Wagstaff in the 100 back at Indianapolis—would add up to 4:03.22, beating the East German record of 4:03.69. This is not even allowing for the advantage gained in relay starts, which could drop the time to 4:02.
Wagstaff would lead off in the backstroke. She is 18 years old, from Mission Hills, Kans., heading for the University of Florida next year. She is tall (5'11") and weighs 146 pounds. Her nemesis in these Games is going to be tiny (5'4") Krisztina Egerszegi of Hungary (following story). Egerszegi is the world-record holder in both the 100-and 200-meter backstrokes. She has beaten Wagstaff every time they have met, a fact that only fires up Wagstaff. She is probably the most competitive of the swimmers, somebody who had to be warned by her club coach, Pete Malone, that "you cannot reach over the lane rope and grab somebody else's foot."
"I don't say good luck to people," she declares. "In my mind I get real cutthroat. If I was swimming against my best friend, I'd start saying bad words against her. I make my competitor my enemy."
Nall would swim the second leg, the breaststroke, and she could be the swimming darling of these Games. Already she is shown on Olympic promotional announcements on NBC that tell how her first name really is not Anita but Nadia, given to her because her mother went into labor while Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was performing on television in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Nall has developed a finishing kick that is lethal, especially in the 200, in which she set the world record of 2:25.35 in Indianapolis. But she also has a personal best in the 100 of 1:09.29, not too far off the world record of 1:07.91 set by East Germany's Silke Horner in 1987. Nall is from a working-class family in Towson, a Baltimore suburb. She is in between her sophomore and junior years at Towson Catholic Prep and already has met the governor of Maryland and the mayor of Baltimore and probably will be meeting a lot more famous people very soon. As young as she is, she has a maturity that makes her fit on the U.S. team as nicely as her swimming times.
"I was driving from Philadelphia to Washington in April, and I was going through Baltimore," male breaststroker Roque Santos says. "I said to myself, Hey, why don't I go and visit Anita? I drove up to her house, and then I remembered she was 15 years old. I'm 24. I said, 'Wait a minute. What's her father going to say? A 24-year-old guy visiting my 15-year old daughter?' But she's my friend. It shouldn't matter that she's only 15. Shouldn't I go see my friend? I went. I got along great with everybody. They invited me to stay for Easter dinner. I stayed."
The third leg, the butterfly, would belong to Ahmann-Leighton, who probably will be the only swimmer at the Olympics with the tattoo of a dolphin on her left ankle. "I like dolphins," she says. "I'm thinking of having the Olympic rings tattooed somewhere before the Games. Would that look good?" A resident of Tucson, she is one of three married women on the U.S. team; her husband, Glenn Leighton, is a salesman. Her greatest competition sometimes seems to be with former U.S. Olympian Mary T. Meagher, as she moves inexorably closer in the 100 fly to Meagher's 57.93; this is an 11-year-old world record that for a long time has carried the aura of Bob Beamon's broad jump but now—like Beamon's jump—may be within reach. "I've only seen Mary T.'s race about 100 times on tape," says Ahmann-Leighton. "Mary T. is in a class by herself. I don't know if anyone can catch her, but at least we're getting closer."
Ahmann-Leighton surprised even herself by swimming a 58.61 at the trials. She will have strong competition in the event from teammate Summer Sanders and from Qian Hong and Wang Xiaohong, both from China, the gold and silver medalists, respectively, in the 1991 world championships.
"In the relay, the pressure really isn't on me and Anita," Ahmann-Leighton says. "We're in the middle. The pressure is on Janie, at the beginning, trying to get out to a good start, and Jenny at the end, because she either has to keep a lead or get it. The big problem is getting together with the other three swimmers for the celebration at the end if you win. That happened at the worlds. Everyone was jumping up and down, hugging each other, and I'm lighting through the crowd, saying, 'Excuse me, excuse me, I should be part of this. I'm on the team. Excuse me.' "
Thompson would swim the anchor leg, the freestyle. She is the first American woman in 59 years to hold the record for the 100. Her closest competitor at Barcelona will be teammate Nicole Haislett, who once held the American record in the 100 and nipped Thompson in the 200 free at the trials. Thompson, a freshman at Stanford, is from Dover, N.H., also the home of U.S. woman marathon starter Cathy O'Brien.
"I like the relay," Thompson says. "I've always liked the relay, the challenge at the end. You're always in a position where what you do could determine the outcome of the race."
The challengers to break into the relay lineup would include Haislett, Sanders, Lea Loveless in the backstroke and Megan Kleine in the breaststroke. By finishing higher than their teammates in the individual races, any one of them could qualify. And to further complicate matters, more than four women could win gold medals; second-stringers are allowed to swim in the morning heats, and they share whatever medals the first team brings home in the evening final. Whatever the combination, though, the time should be fast. Possibly the fastest in history.
"We mixed everyone up for our practice meet in Fort Lauderdale," Schubert says. "And the two teams finished within a hundredth of a second of each other. You can't get closer than that."
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. One more time. This is our team. Maybe. Possibly. Medley relay. For America. Will these women set a world record in Barcelona? Will these, in fact, be the four women on the team? Let's suppose they are. The picture's done. One more time. Crissy, as spokesperson, will you introduce each swimmer and tell a little bit about her? Please.
"I'm the mother hen, I suppose," Ahmann-Leighton says. "It's not like I'm the leader or anything, but I am the oldest, and I'm married. I'm Mom. But it's not Mother. It's Mom.
"Jenny is James Dean," Ahmann-Leighton says, pointing at Thompson. "She is the rebel. She goes her own way. I mean that in a good sense. She is the strong, silent type, the loner. She goes into town, gets the job done and leaves.
"Janie is the comic relief," Ahmann-Leighton says, pointing at Wagstaff. "We call her Big Girl for obvious reasons. She is the jokester. She gets rowdy. We played cards the other night. She was my partner. I made a bad bid. She sat on me.
"Anita...." Ahmann-Leighton pauses for effect. "Anita is the kid," she says. "We let her hang around with us. She says things that make us laugh. She's the environmentalist. She's a tree-hugger."
So, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The Mother Hen, James Dean, Big Girl and...the Tree-Hugger. That's our team. Maybe. Let's give 'em a big cheer. On to Barcelona.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Nall, Ahmann-Leighton, Wagstaff and Thompson may have a leg up on their foes.
Buoyed by her 100-free world record, Thompson could win five Olympic golds.