The indoor warmup pool at Madrid's swimming complex was gloomily dark last Tuesday night. In one corner Mary T. Meagher, the U.S.'s foremost woman swimmer, was sobbing on the shoulder of a friend. Nearby, relay teammate Jenna Johnson was staring dejectedly into space. Head coach Richard Quick moved about Piscina Centro de Natación's deck trying to cheer his troops, but his own face showed a sort of weary exasperation. The American women wore that look regularly at the fifth World Aquatics Championships.
In this case the end—of yet another fruitless race against the powerful, altitude-trained women from the German Democratic Republic—had justified the miens. East Germany's 400-meter-free-style relay team had just blown Johnson, Meagher and two other U.S. relay swimmers out of the water with a 3:40.57 that lopped nearly two seconds off the world record. On the leadoff leg, Kristin Otto, a versatile 20-year-old from Leipzig, smashed the individual world mark for the 100 free with a 54.73. As the G.D.R.'s cheering section erupted with whistles and air horns, the American relay team limped home second in 3:44.04, more than three body lengths behind. "We're frustrated," said Quick. "Looking at the results of our trials...we should be doing very well in this meet."
Quick's lament applied to the men as well as the women. The U.S. team that had set nine world or U.S. records in its June trials in Orlando, Fla., sagged under the Madrid sun like one of Dali's melting timepieces. One obvious cause was a raging intestinal disorder that hit swimmers from many countries, the U.S. in particular. The U.S. team had to send home for cartons of Kaopectate, and one Canadian coach, whose team was also affected, suggested that the natatorium be renamed "the vomitorium." "The information we got about eating in Spain was that it wasn't a serious problem." said Quick. "If we had known this would happen, we might have done things differently."
But in general—and especially in comparison with the G.D.R. women, who won 13 of 16 events and set five of the meet's six world records—the Americans just didn't perform well during the two-week-long meet. Of their 151 swims at the Madrid championships, scarcely a dozen were personal bests. For the first time since the 1956 Olympics, the U.S. men failed to qualify anyone for the finals of an event (two events, in fact: the 100 breaststroke and 200 butterfly) at an Olympics or world championships. In the end the U.S. won just five of 26 individual events and two of six relays. It was America's worst showing ever in a major swimming championship.
August 31, 1986
Not that the Americans didn't anticipate trouble. They had flown in under a cloak of secrecy in two differently routed airplanes so that at least half of them would survive any crash or terrorist attack. They had also been warned not to wear USA apparel or wave the flag, which stifled most displays of team spirit. Watching out for them was a Belgian security agent who at one point stopped the team's hotel from renting rooms to a group of Syrians. He might have done well to inspect the hotel food.
One American who came under intense scrutiny of another kind was University of California senior Matt Biondi, El Torpedo to the local press, who was attempting to win seven gold medals in Madrid. Biondi was besieged by European reporters, who seemed certain he would breeze through the 50 and 100 frees, knock off world-record holders Michael Gross of West Germany and Pablo Morales of the U.S. in their specialities (200 free, 100 butterfly, respectively) and anchor the U.S. men to three relay victories. So they came at him at every turn. One even jumped into the pool during a workout and collared Biondi from behind. "We would like you to do some photographs for our magazine," the reporter said, calmly treading water.
Biondi, a relative newcomer to international competition, was uncomfortable in the spotlight. He didn't expect to win seven golds and said as much. Still, he knew his final workout times had been tremendous. A Mark Spitz-like performance was not out of the question.
Last Tuesday, Biondi waited for his first and most difficult race, the 200 free, on a shady bank out beyond the pool. He was obviously nervous. "You could just see it in his face," Gross would say later. Biondi sat so long that Gross finally went over to him. "We must go to the starting blocks," he told the American.
They marched in, one before the other, the 6'6¼" Biondi with his funny-looking cowboy amble, then the 6'7½" Gross cool and erect. Gross, who takes pride in his competitive sangfroid, had been wearing a T-shirt with the message: RELAX. He knew that Biondi had swum the 200 free infrequently.
Gross has a flair for offbeat humor and has taken to having messages shaved on the back of his head. In Madrid the back of his head was shaved halfway up his ears. "My teammate tried to cut something different there," Gross said, refusing to elaborate. "It did not work out."
Neither did Biondi's race. Biondi is a sprinter with limited endurance, and in the 200 he must surge far ahead early. But Gross, out to defend the world championship title he had won four years earlier, stayed close. On the third 50 he blew past Biondi. By the end, El Torpedo was far enough back to see not only his rival's odd haircut but also the nickname—Albert—that Gross (the Albatross) had written on the seat of his swimsuit. "I was thinking too much about the other swimmers instead of my own race," Biondi said later. "I won't do that again."
Gross touched in 1:47.92, ahead of the G.D.R.'s Sven Lodziewski (1:49.12) and Biondi (1:49.43). Biondi's time was more than 1½ seconds off his U.S. record. That seemed to bother him more than losing to Gross. "He is now, and maybe always will be, the greatest male swimmer of all time," said Biondi. "I have nothing but respect for him."
In his later races Biondi again was off his best times, yet he ended the meet with seven medals, an unprecedented feat in world championship competition. He won the 100 free by nearly a second in 48.94 and pulled out two relay victories with spectacular anchor legs. He went home with three golds, one silver, three bronzes and this consoling thought: Spitz didn't have to swim against Gross.
Gross went on to successfully defend his 200 butterfly title in history's second-fastest time (1:56.53), and three other men—West German golden boy Rainer Henkel (400 and 1,500 free), Hungary's Tamas Darnyi (200 and 400 individual medley) and Igor Poliansky of the Soviet Union (100 and 200 backstroke)—also were double winners. But despite them, and despite strong wins by Americans Betsy Mitchell (100 backstroke) and Morales (100 fly), the true stars of the meet were the G.D.R. women, especially Otto, winner of four gold medals and two silvers. "We have never had so great a team before," said backstroker and team captain Cornelia Sirch.
The East Germans had trained in Mexico City during the spring and in the Caucasus in July to prepare for the effects of Madrid's 2,130-foot altitude and smog. As the world meet progressed, they couldn't understand why other swimmers kept complaining that the natatorium pool was too choppy. The water was calm enough if you swam out front.
So that's where they stayed. Breaststrokers Sylvia Gerasch and Silke H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árner set world records in the 100 (1:08.11) and 200 (2:27.40), respectively, while Kornelia Gressler upset world-record holder Meagher, who had been up all night throwing up, in the 100 fly. Heike Friedrich, 16, whose grandfather, a shepherd, had started her swimming, swept the 200 and 400 frees. Later this year the East German swimmers will all feast on a couple of Grandpa Friedrich's sheep, which graze on the grounds of the Karl-Marx-Stadt training center.
Otto, the G.D.R.'s answer to the now-retired Tracy Caulkins, earned individual golds in both the 100 free and the 200 IM. Until a backstroke-related nerve problem last year put her in a neck brace for nine months, Otto was the world's best 200 freestyler and 100 backstroker. Last week she won the 100 free and 200 IM, was second in the 50 free and 100 butterfly and was on two of the G.D.R.'s three winning relay teams. Still, she wishes for even more versatility. "I felt silly during the breaststroke. I can't swim it at all," Otto grumbled after her IM.
The East Germans even had the foresight to bring and prepare all their own food, thus avoiding illness. They obviously favor a steady regimen. "I wish to say that we have eaten spaghetti for the last three days and I am tired of it," declared butterfly medalist Birte Weigang when the meet ended.
Alimentary troubles were no laughing matter, however. The U.S. men's water polo team, which clinched a berth in the 1988 Olympics by finishing fourth in Madrid, might have reached the gold medal game had it not been for severe intestinal problems. Several key American players literally had to take themselves out of their semifinal against Italy in order to run to the bathroom. The U.S. lost, 10-9, offsetting earlier victories over the U.S.S.R. and West Germany in which the Americans played brilliantly.
Brilliance was the order of the day at other venues. In synchronized swimming, triple gold medalist Carolyn Waldo, 21, of Beaconsfield, Quebec, who, after nearly drowning as a child, had to overcome a phobia of the water, received the highest single-routine score in the history of her sport—two 10.0s and five 9.9s—in winning the solo competition. "Basically, this is the same as the Olympic Games," Waldo said excitedly. "These are the same people who will be in Seoul in 1988."
That wasn't totally true. Among the (so far) non-Olympic events introduced in Madrid were the 50-meter freestyle and women's water polo, at which topless women fans in the stands vied for attention with a fun-loving team of Americans, who won the bronze medal behind Australia and the Netherlands. In the 50-meter free, Tom Jager of the U.S. proved that he was the fastest swimmer alive. Jager, taking just two breaths, covered the 50 meters in a time of 22.49 seconds.
The most delightful sight at the diving well was that of 15-year-old Gao Min of China launching herself into spinning, fluttering parabolas off the springboard. Time and again she punctured the water like a needle. Even though Gao had never competed in a major international meet before, she earned the highest total score in the history of women's springboard, 582.90 points.
"I think she could be even more of a factor off the platform someday," said U.S. diving coach Ron O'Brien. "I've seen her up there working on dives that other women haven't tried."
The springboard skills of Gao caught the eye of Greg Louganis. "She was incredible," said the five-time world champion. "Every single dive was straight up and down on the entry. That's hard to beat."
Louganis, whose hair is now flecked with gray and who has taken up weightlifting to fight the ravages of being 26, dived with his own special grace. He swept the springboard and platform titles in Madrid to end any worries that his skills might be slipping. Those fears had arisen earlier this year when Louganis placed fifth in a meet after hitting his feet on the platform.
Louganis thought the worlds might be his last competition. His acting and dancing career has been expanding: He plays a womanizing beach bum in the upcoming film Dirty Laundry and will start work this month on Front Runner, a movie in which the half-Samoan diver is cast as a Finnish distance runner. He turned down a role in Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway in order to keep up his diving training.
But in Madrid, Louganis remembered an old vow. "I've always told myself to continue diving as long as I can improve," he said, and as luck would have it, he partially fouled up two dives. First Louganis went too far over on a reverse 3½ tuck off the springboard, leaving him about five points shy of his alltime scoring record of 755.49 and well short of his longtime goal of 800 points. When he also came up short on an inward 3½ tuck off the tower, he decided he could still improve. And so he will dive at least through the '88 Olympics, where he'll almost surely have another chance to watch and marvel at Gao.
The worlds ended Saturday night with a brief U.S. rally. Meagher won a gold—to go with three silvers and two bronzes—in the 200 fly, and Biondi and Morales swam extraordinary closing legs to bring home a win in the men's 400 medley relay. But afterward, Quick made it clear that a full re-evaluation of the U.S. swimming program would begin shortly.
As soon as the relay had ended, Gross and his teammates wheeled a shopping cart full of beer onto the pool deck. They wrapped themselves in togas fashioned from hotel sheets and began handing out cans of lager to every swimmer they could find. "You know the movie Animal House?" asked Gross with an infectious grin. After two long weeks in Spain, that was all the invitation the American swimmers needed.