For almost a month Bruce Furniss had been living with the painful fact that he had let his teammates down at the World Aquatic Championships in Cali, Colombia. He had forfeited a gold medal and a world record in the 800-meter freestyle relay by leaving the block on his anchor leg before teammate Tim Shaw had touched (SI, Aug. 4). Consequently, a U.S. national team that had shaved almost three seconds off the 2-year-old world mark had been disqualified. At the National AAU long-course swimming championships in Kansas City, Kans. last week, Furniss intended to atone for his mistake.
"It happens very seldom," he said, grinning through his braces, "but once in a while you get a second chance."
Certainly Dick Jochums, his coach at the Long Beach Swim Club, had enough topnotch swimmers to field a relay squad equal to a national team. There was Furniss' friendly rival, Tim Shaw, the triple gold medalist at Cali and freestyle world-record holder in the 400, 800 and 1,500 meters. There was Bruce's brother Steve, co-holder of the 200-meter individual-medley world record. And there was Rex Favero, a strong distance freestyler and butterflyer. All Bruce had to do was tack on an anchor leg in a time close to his own 200 freestyle world record. Anything under 1:51 would be just fine.
All week long Jochums had refused to predict a world record in the relay. His philosophy, he said, was not to attach importance to such incidentals. "We are here to win the men's team title," he said. "To get points, not records." But Steve Furniss spread the world—"Dick thinks we can do it"—and as it happened, they did.
August 31, 1975
The Long Beach Swim Club dug into the relay race with Favero's 1:54.97 lead-off leg, not a record pace yet, though Favero clipped almost three seconds off his previous best for 200 meters. He touched in second place. Then Shaw, a beautiful stroker, got out in front with an impressive 1:51.35, and the record began to seem possible. Steve Furniss followed with a 1:53.27. Finally, Bruce, who had stood quivering on the block, slammed into the water. His time for the first 100 was 52.9, one second faster than he had ever gone out. He held on to finish in 1:50.95, and as he touched, the field was struggling half a pool length behind him. The clock stopped at 7:30.54—2.68 seconds below the old record.
Bruce Furniss beamed as he climbed out of the pool. He shook Jochums' hand. "That's for you, baby! All for you!" he shouted.
That was on Friday. On Wednesday, to tune up for the relay, Furniss and Shaw had started off the meet with a couple of record busters that had the 3,000 fans jumping in the 90° heat. They swam a fierce 400 free, with Shaw taking a slight lead from the start and the wiry Furniss churning after him, hoping to catch him at the halfway mark. Furniss said later, "With Tim, you have to be ahead at 300." But at 300 meters, Shaw was in front by .8 of a second. Over the last 12 meters Furniss accelerated into a sprint for the wall, but Shaw got there first, with a time of 3:53.31—.6 under his world record. Bruce turned to his brother Steve and said, "I'm going to whip him in the 200 free tomorrow."
Which is what he did, also in world-record time. Zipping into the lead, Furniss was in front of Shaw by .2 at the 50, by .4 at the 100, by 1.6 seconds at the 150 and beat him by 1.73 in 1:50.32, a time almost half a second faster than his previous record.
"I hung on as long as I could," said Shaw. "That was until the 100, and then he just took off. I couldn't do anything about it."
"I never won a national championship before," said Furniss. "I was probably hungry. And maybe I had to prove that it wasn't a fluke when I took Tim's record at the trials for the world championships."
Just as his brother Steve had been second to Gary Hall when Hall was setting records in the individual medley events a few years back, Bruce had had to settle for silver medals to Shaw's golds in the 200 and 400 at Cali. But "Bruce is too determined to play bridesmaid for long," says Jochums. "He is intense, more intense than Shaw. He lives and dies swimming. Tim does his work and forgets about it. Bruce goes home and worries about his splits. He is the most talented swimmer I have ever coached. He is blessed with blazing speed, Tim is not. Tim has to work at it harder."
Blazing speed and worrying about his splits were enough to make Furniss the meet's high-point winner in the men's competition, and his team, the Long Beach Swim Club, was the men's team champion. Shirley Babashoff was the women's high-point winner, and her team, the Mission Viejo Nadadores, also finished first. Altogether, the championships turned out to be a meet of the highest caliber. Indicative of the depth of world-class male freestylers in the U.S. was the fact that all eight qualifiers for the 400-meter finals swam the distance in less than four minutes in the heats. The record total was overwhelming: five world and two American marks in the men's events, six American records in the women's. All the winning times in the individual women's races were below those of the 1972 Olympic gold medal winners, and in the individual men's events, only the 100 breaststroke, the 100 backstroke and Mark Spitz' two butterfly finals were swum faster in Munich.
Greg Jagenburg, who won the 100-meter butterfly at Cali, observed, "This meet is far more important than the world championships." Jagenburg had tapered down for an attack on Spitz' 200 fly world record, and when he missed it by .03 of a second he turned to his coach, Frank Keefe, and said, "I'm sorry. How could I have been so slow?" His time of 2:00.73 was the second fastest ever swum. Spitz, who was at poolside, remarked, "I have not been personally around when my freestyle records were broken. Maybe I should show up more often."
John Naber, who beat East German world-record holder Roland Matthes in both backstroke events last year, had not even tried out for Cali. He had rested in July, learning to play the guitar and giving a sermon at his church. "I was looking forward to a good Olympic season," he said, "and I needed a psychological break." But he prepared for this AAU meet and won both backstrokes, lowering his American record each time.
On Saturday, the last day of the meet, the question was: Who is the world's fastest human afloat? There were three candidates: Jim Montgomery, who had won five gold medals at the 1973 World Games and had broken Spitz' 100-meter freestyle record last June in the World Game trials with a clocking of 51.12; Andy Coan, the 17-year-old high school sensation from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who had won the sprint in Cali and broken Montgomery's record by .01 in his hometown pool at the Hall of Fame on Aug. 3; and Jonty Skinner from South Africa, who entered the University of Alabama last year and won the 1975 NCAA championship with a 43.92 for 100 yards. Skinner and Coan are 6'4", Montgomery 6'5"—long and lean, all three.
Coan's brief reign as world-record holder ended even before he got to swim his preliminary heat. In the previous heat, Montgomery went all out and clocked 50.59, becoming the first man to break 51 seconds. In the finals, Coan led for the first half of the race, but the second half belonged to Skinner and Montgomery, the latter winning by an inch. Montgomery's time was 51.04. In a single day, Coan's record had been shattered three times.
"The world's fastest human afloat, yes, I was that," Coan had said early in the week. "On a day in Cali. On another day in Fort Lauderdale. But this is going to be yet another day."
Meanwhile, Bruce Furniss continued to collect points for the team title, even grabbing a fourth in the 100 free behind Coan. In his fourth individual event, the 200 individual medley, his finish was a stunner: not only did he win, he set another world record of 2:06.08, breaking by almost .3 of a second the mark held by brother Steve and David Wilkie of Scotland.
The effervescent Bruce Furniss seemed more sobered than elated by his achievments. "Sometimes I'm shocked at the things I do," he murmured. "How did I do it? I had no business winning the IM. I thought I was second. I can't read the scoreboard without my glasses." Then he added, "I was so upset after Cali. But you've got to have the valleys to make the peaks."