The 50 Is A Swifty A new event at the Olympics, the 50-meter freestyle is short, sweet and blazingly fast

September 13, 1988

freestyle march onto the pool deck in Seoul on Sept. 24, one of them
will be angry as hell. Tom Jager of the U.S., the lanky, slightly
balding master of swimming's fastest event, will come out huffing and
puffing, smacking his hands together and occasionally slapping his
face. Near the starting blocks Jager will kneel to splash water on
himself. If some of the water hits and distracts his rivals, so much
the better; Jager will have convinced himself that he hates them.
It is time for the most intense 22 seconds of the Olympic swimming
! competition, a sprint just one length of the pool, all out, for the
title of Fastest Swimmer in the World. ''People stand for the 50,''
says Matt Biondi, second behind Jager in the 50 at the U.S. trials in
August. ''To me it's the most exciting event in the sport.''
Each of the finalists will have trained for an explosive,
hair-trigger start. The start can be everything -- there's no time to
play catch-up -- so top 50-free swimmers visit sports psychologists
to learn to relax and concentrate. They do hand-slapping drills for
quickness, drag football sleds for power, play pickup basketball to
improve leaping and coordination. Jager, a hoops hound and perhaps
the fiercest competitor in all of swimming, drives into the Mojave
Desert with his wife, Becky, from their home near Los Angeles just to
think about his event in a retreatlike setting. There, he starts to
work up a good anger.
When Jager and the seven other finalists finish their prerace
strutting and stretching in Seoul, a beeper will send them off into
Olympic history. They will roll down the pool like a whitecap, side
by side, thrashing and kicking as fast as they can. Jager will take
some 40 strokes -- about 10 more per pool length than he does in a
100 free. He will turn to breathe only once or twice. ''The 50 leaves
no room for error,'' he says. ''It's an event of nerves, pressure
and precision. An extra breath can cost you the race.''
Roughly 22 seconds after the start, the whole field will touch the
wall, seemingly as one. Swimmers and fans alike will look to the
scoreboard to learn that the fastest swimmer alive is. . . . Suffice
it to say that the 23-year- old Jager, the reigning world 50-meter
freestyle champion, is the favorite.
Although new to the Olympics, the 50 free has actually been around
in one form or other forever. It has been swum at NCAAs (as two laps
of a short- course, or 25-yard, pool) since 1925, at U.S. nationals
since 1980 and at various international meets starting not long after
Except for a 50-yard race at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, 100
meters has been the shortest Olympic swimming distance. For years the
U.S. had virtually all of the best 50-free swimmers and was a lone
voice calling for inclusion of the event at the Olympics. But with
the emergence of foreign stars, international support began to build.

Two years ago the 50-meter free was finally voted into the Olympic
program by the International Olympic Committee, following the event's
introduction at the 1986 world championships in Madrid. There Jager
clocked a 22.49 to edge Dano Halsall of Switzerland (22.80) and
Biondi (22.85) for the men's title, and Tamara Costache, then 15, of
Romania took the women's race in a world- record time of 25.28.
Costache will be the women's cofavorite in Seoul, along with Yang
Wenyi, 16, of China. At the Asian Championships in Shanghai last
April, Yang became the first Chinese swimmer in 28 years to set a
world record, lowering Costache's mark to 24.98.
Some swimming traditionalists continue to scorn the 50, Olympic
event or not. They feel that it is simply too short a distance to be
considered a legitimate test of skill and endurance. Never mind that
a world-class 50 free takes more than twice as long to complete as a
world-class 100 meters in track (the 100 free approximately matches
track's 400 meters in time elapsed), or that it demands power,
concentration and intense workouts. The conventional wisdom holds
that if a swimmer can't perform well over at least 100 meters -- and
a lot of 50-meter specialists can't -- he or she doesn't belong in
the pool.
This view is narrow-minded. It is not so much the physical demands
of the 50 that are exhausting; it is the mental aspect, trying to
remain sharp, that can wear a swimmer out.
Jager is the sharpest of the sharp. ''I have to stay away from him
before races,'' says Biondi, the world-record holder in the 100 free.
''He's a charismatic guy anyway, but all the stuff he does on the
deck -- it's like he creates a mental suction. It's easy to get
sucked in.'' Says Jager, ''The 50 is psychological warfare.''
Jager grew up in Collinsville, Ill., a town without a swim club or
even a training pool. He traveled 45 minutes each way to practice at
the Parkway Swim Club in Ballwin, Mo., and developed into an
age-group star. At UCLA, where he earned a degree in (what else?)
psychology, he won five NCAA titles, in the 50-and 100-yard frees and
the 100-yard backstroke, and learned the intricacies of the 50 from
older teammate Robin Leamy, one of the best pure sprinters ever.
Stubborn in his ideas about training, Jager had more than a few
shouting matches with Bruin coach Ron Ballatore. ''We're so much
alike that we'd just explode,'' Jager recalls. Ballatore has since
come to respect Jager's independence. ''You can't devise a rigid
training program for Tom,'' Ballatore says. ''He won't follow it. You
have to coach him by feel. You have to talk to him, listen to him. He
knows what his body needs.''
Jager was once told by a sports psychologist that his swimming
feeds off anger. That's why he intentionally works up a hatred for
his opponents before a race and why, of late, he has been thinking
about his experience as an Olympic alternate in '84 and about a South
African named Peter Williams. Both topics get him really mad.
Looking back on the Los Angeles Games, Jager says he, like other
alternates, was treated as ''expendable,'' even though he swam
100-free legs in the preliminary rounds for two gold-medal-winning
relay teams. A year after the Games, the IOC approved the awarding of
medals to Jager and the other relay alternates. But at Jager's
official medal ceremony at the 1985 Indoor Nationals, there was a
snafu. Not all the medals had arrived from the IOC, so Jager was
presented with two Olympic souvenir medals. He got his real gold
medals in the mail a few months later.
Jager also has been smoldering about Peter Williams, 20. On April
10, swimming alone in a 50-meter-free time trial in Indianapolis
following the NCAA championships, Williams, a Nebraska freshman,
bettered Jager's world record of 22.23 with a 22.18. Jager had set
his mark in competition just 16 days earlier at the Indoor Nationals
in Orlando, Fla. ''It's like a wind-aided track race,'' Jager says of
Williams's swim. ''It's not ((Williams's)) fault, but there's just no
comparison between swimming by yourself and doing it under race
conditions. I'd like to see how he would do if he had me and Biondi
on the blocks next to him.''
Unfortunately for Jager, that won't happen anytime soon, because
South Africa is banned from international swimming, including the
Olympics. Worse, the Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur
(FINA) will probably recognize Williams's record even though 1)
time-trial marks are widely considered to be tainted (in a time trial
there is no turbulence in the water, and the swimmer can anticipate
the start because he knows the gun will fire as soon as he is set);
and 2) South Africa is not a member of FINA. It should be noted that
Williams will probably go even faster someday -- at 6 ft. 1 in. and
163 pounds, he is still rather underdeveloped compared with mature
sprinters like the 6 ft. 3 in., 180-pound Jager and the 6 ft. 6 in.,
200-pound Biondi. Still, because it was set in a time trial, his Indy
mark should not be recognized. ''I think Tom got hosed,'' says
The duel between Jager and Biondi in the Seoul 50 should be one of
the Games' highlights. The two friends have swum against each other
in the 50 at least 11 times in major meets since 1985, when Jager was
a UCLA junior and Biondi a Cal sophomore; Jager holds an 8-3 edge.
They have made record- swapping a habit: In preliminaries at the 1985
NCAAs, Biondi set a U.S. 50- yard free mark of 19.32; Jager eclipsed
it with a 19.24 in the finals 7 1/2 hours later. At the following
year's NCAAs, Biondi defeated Jager and reclaimed the American record
with a 19.22 clocking. In 50-meter competition Jager set a world best
of 22.40 in 1985. Biondi lowered it to 22.33 in '86, and Jager, in
turn, trimmed the mark to 22.32 (the first FINA-recognized world
record in the 50) last summer and to 22.23 in March.
''If Matt hadn't swum the 50 these last few years, people wouldn't
be giving me much respect now,'' says Jager, downplaying his own
status as the seventh- fastest 100 freestyler in history (49.79).
''Matt made the event respectable because he's such a great swimmer
at other distances. Beating him means something.''
Jager sometimes comes across as a pedal-to-the-metal type from
L.A.'s fast lane, but away from the pool he's actually an easygoing,
small-town boy. He and his wife could be straight out of Mark Twain:
Tom and Becky, first loves who grew up near the banks of the
Mississippi and like to go camping and rafting. Two years ago they
got married next to a cornfield on the Illinois farm of Jager's
grandfather; now they live in a cabin overlooking Topanga Canyon,
northwest of L.A. According to local legend, Teddy Roosevelt once
used the cabin as a bear-hunting lodge.
The legend excites Jager. He's a bit of a dreamer who likes to
drift back into the Wild West through Louis L'Amour novels. ''I
always tell Becky I wish I had lived back then,'' he says. ''Nobody
could've gunned me down.''
Instead, Jager has to settle for being the fastest draw in the
fastest event in swimming. If he's angry enough in Seoul, he'll
likely shoot down a 50-free gold medal.