Canada’s swimming and diving team in search of Olympic gold

JACK BATTEN August 1 1973


Canada’s swimming and diving team in search of Olympic gold

JACK BATTEN August 1 1973



Canada’s swimming and diving team in search of Olympic gold

The early morning seemed all wrong for Merrily Stratten.

She had the dulling beginnings of a cold. Her period had just come on. And the weather — leaden skies, chilled air — was hardly cheering for late spring.

Nothing, not the day nor her health, promised much for a 22-year-old competitive swimmer like Merrily, thirteenth best in the 1972 Olympics at the 200-metre freestyle, on her way to a 7.30 a.m. workout in an outdoor pool.

She pulled on a black pea jacket over her blue checked shirt and tight jeans — clothes that showed her long muscled thighs and freakishly broad shoulders, typical swimmer’s physique — and drove her father’s Buick Riviera through the muted streets of the old, middle-class district where she lives in west-central Toronto. And, feeling a little down, slightly glum, she had serious matters, like Pain and Struggle, on her mind.

“Well, see, swimming is supposed to hurt,” she explained. “You build up a gradual desensitization to the pain over the years — like, I’ve been in racing since I was nine — but you still feel a lot of hurts, muscle tears and stitches and so on. And that’s good because the hurts tell you that you’re working, you’re getting somewhere, you’re improving. You learn to push your body in swimming and to get past psychological barriers against fatigue, which is something people probably don’t often find out about themselves in other activities. Even” — she shook her head and grimaced — “if it does make you feel lousy on days like this one.”

Merrily steered the Riviera into a parking lot beside the pool in Smythe Park, the only regulation-sized 50-metre pool available to her swimming club, the Etobicoke Aquatic Club. Etobicoke, with more than 200 swimmers ranging in age from eight to 25 and rated fourth best in the country after the 1972 Canadian Championships, is coached by Merrily’s brother, Gaye, and it was Gaye, a slim, pale, cheerfully intense man in his late twenties, who was waiting impatiently by the side of the Smythe pool. He had already put 45 Etobicoke swimmers through a six o’clock practice, and for Merrily there was to be a special workout in preparation for a meet in Quebec City two days later.

Merrily changed quickly into a plain, green-flowered onepiece suit. With short blond hair hugging her head like a skullcap, with tight pinchers on her nostrils and tiny, bulge-lensed goggles masking her eyes, she looked vaguely like a martian from a New Yorker cartoon. She dived into the water.

“Okay, okay,” Gaye called, clapping his hands in front of him, generating enthusiasm. “I want nine 200s in three-timesthree” — 200 metres in three groups of three 200s with a short pause between each group — “and I want you to do every third flat-out. Gimme, say, 2.20” — two minutes and 20 seconds, when Merrily’s all-time best for the 200 is 2.12.4 — “and I wanta hear the drive in there. Okay, go!”

Merrily pushed off from the pool’s edge and headed for the other end in a metronomic series of deliberate, relentless and tidily described strokes. The motion of her body, swiveling gently in the water, had a grace and beauty to it, even a hint of erotic attraction.

“Isn’t that ridiculous when you think of it?” Robin Campbell said, standing beside the pool; Campbell, a short, dark-haired man with a permanent satirical smile, is the swimming coach at the University of Toronto and he also helps out with the Etobicoke Club. “Ridiculous when you think of stroking up and down a pool for five or six hours a day. Apart from track, swimming has got to be the world’s most boring sport to practise. But swimmers

are types who find a challenge in that. We get the higher academic people in swimming, y’see, the people who are satisfied with smaller rewards, a stroke done right or a tenth of a second chopped off a length, instead of going for the more obvious results there are in just playing a game.”

Merrily rested in the water and Gaye leaned over the pool’s edge, talking softly: “Your deep water pull? You know? It’s in trouble. You’re not keeping your arm straight enough. Right?”

Merrily nodded, said nothing, took in a long gulp of air and shoved off again.

“I dunno,” Gaye said, looking grim. “Sometimes I dunno about pushing people too hard. One of these days I’ll be wrong. I’ll take a young girl who’s got her period or something and I won’t know she has and I’ll push just too far. Sometimes I think the horse people are way ahead of us — I mean, at racetracks they have all the equipment to check a horse’s blood level and so on and see exactly what the horse is capable of on any given day. We oughta do the same.”

Gaye waited until Merrily had covered another flat-out 200 — timed at 2.32, 12 seconds over the day’s target — and then he said to her in a matter-of-fact voice, “Okay, let’s change things. We’ll make this morning an easy one.”

Easy, as it turned out, meant 90 minutes of pool work. The grace of Merrily’s motion in the water gave way to something perceptibly more violent, and the air over the pool was filled with a desperate swishing sound.

“What you have to understand about Gaye,” Robin Campbell said, watching Merrily stroke back and forth, “is that he’s different from the old-fashioned coaches in professional team sports. They don’t push their players. They don’t understand the human potential, so they end up actually handicapping the individual player. Not Gaye. He gives every one of his swimmers a new obstacle every time they get in the water.”

At nine o’clock, Merrily pulled herself out of the pool.

Gaye said quietly. “You’ll have to do better.”

Merrily glanced at him, her face impassive: “I figured that out already.”

Nobody looked happy.

Canada, it may surprise you to learn, is stacking up just fine against the rest of the world’s countries in competitive swimming. Canadian prospects for 1976 Olympic medals shape up now as potentially golden in at least half a dozen events, notably the men’s 100-metre butterfly, the women’s 400-metre individual medley and 100and 200-metre backstroke, not to mention several sets of relays. Overall, Canada is currently hovering around fifth or sixth best depending on how you arrange the statistics. You have to bear in mind, though, that swimming statistics, more than those in any other sport, are in a seething state of flux. In swimming, records are changed as often as bathing suits. During 1972, world marks were bettered on 52 separate occasions, and only two events — the women’s 100-metre backstroke and the women’s 200-metre breaststroke — survived the year with their record times intact. Still, given that situation of hyperkinesis, Canada can marshal all kinds of recent facts and figures to demonstrate its impressive status in world swimming:

* Bruce Robertson, a 20-year-old science major at the University of British Columbia with dark, flawlessly groomed good looks, is the world’s premier 100-metre butterfly competitor. The only swimmer with a better time in the / continued on page 62

SWIMMERS from page 30

event in 1972 has since retired to his endorsements and his millions, Mark Spitz of course. Robertson, who took up serious competitive swimming at an age when many competitive swimmers are considering retirement, 16, finished second to Spitz in the 100 fly at the Munich Olympics, and for good measure he also swam on the Canadian 400-metre medley, 400-metre freestyle and 800-metre freestyle relay teams and helped them finish, respectively, third, fifth and seventh.

♦Jane Wright, a dark, serious-faced 18-year-old from Islington, Ontario, now swimming with the Etobicoke Club, took on Gail Neall of Australia in

the 400-metre individual medley during an international meet in Winnipeg this spring. Miss Neall was merely the reigning Olympic gold medialist in the event. Jane out-swam her by a full two seconds.

♦Leslie Cliff and Donna Marie Gurr, both of Vancouver, both 18, both coached by Deryk Snelling, a bustling Englishman who arrived in BC in 1967 to guide the Dolphins Club to the top of Canadian swimming, rank among the world’s best five in their specialties, the individual medley for Leslie, the backstroke for Donna. Leslie took a silver medal in the 400-metre IM at the ’72 Olympics, and Donna won a bronze at the same Games in the 200-metre

backstroke. The two girls, who are, in their own words, “not friends but not feuding either,” derive much of their competitive fervor from the simple rivalry of fighting for the star spot on the Dolphins Club.

♦Brian Phillips didn’t figure to beat the Russian flashes in his specialty, the 100-metre freestyle, when he went up against them in a Canada-USSR meet in Winnipeg late this spring. After all, it was exam time and he had managed only two weeks of sporadic training. But Phillips, a 19-year-old Winnipegger with a long-haired hip look, not only whipped the Russians — he also came within three-hundredths of a second of

matching his own Canadian record for the distance.

“Canadian swimming is in its Golden Age,” Nick Thierry summed up one day not long ago, sitting in his office on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood, California. Thierry, a darkskinned, balding, sophisticated man in his mid-thirties, should know. As international editor of Swimming World magazine, he keeps closer tabs on international swimming than almost anyone, and he has a special knowledge of the Canadian situation because he coached many of our swimmers in the 1960s, was in charge of the excellent Canadian team that toured Europe in 1965, and was team coach for the 1970 British Commonwealth Games.

“The bad situation I would say about Canadian swimming is that there aren’t enough coaches. Nobody puts up the money to keep good guys in coaching, men who want to make coaching their full-time profession. There are a few — Gaye Straiten in Toronto, Deryk Snelling in Vancouver, George Gate in Pointe Claire — but not enough. I know that at the 1972 Canadian Nationals, out of maybe 100 coaches and other officials, only six had been at the same event in 1966. That’s an incredible rate of attrition.

“Still, you know, I think the situation is so good for swimming in-Canada that by 1980 the country will rank number two in the whole world.”

While Merrily Stratten, in the dressing room at the Smythe pool, changed out of her bathing suit, her brother Gaye and Robin Campbell, the University of Toronto swimming coach, sat on a bench at the edge of the pool and looked back, altogether admiringly, over the events that led to Merrily’s greatest swimming triumph, her trip to the 1972 Olympic Games.

“The coaches Merrily had till she was 18 didn’t make her work hard enough,” Gaye explained, his voice gone husky from a morning of shouting at swimmers. “Then I got her in our club and I pushed her. She’d end up in tears some days and our mother’d say at nights, ‘What are you doing to Merrily anyway?’ But Merrily kept coming back for more.”

“Plateauing — that’s the big problem in swimming,” Robin Campbell picked up. “Kids get into swimming and they have a lot of initial success and then they plateau — they stick at the same level for a l'ong period, maybe six months. It’s like a hockey team not winning a single game for six months. Well, Merrily plateaued for an incredibly long time, two or three years without any real improvement.”

“But I knew she could make the Olympic team after I went to a meet

down in Australia in the January before the Games,” Gaye went on. “I saw the times the other girls were making and I came home with the idea of building up Merrily’s confidence that she could swim as fast as they could. Okay, Merrily went to work and she finally put it all together at the most crucial moment, in the finals of the Canadian Olympic trials for the 200 freestyle. She made her turn for the last lap of the race and there was a girl just slightly ahead of her. And Merrily took off. You could see her rise higher in the water and turn it on. Exciting! We were all quivering inside watch-

ing her. She passed the other swimmer and made the Olympic team, and then she went to Munich and proved it was all no fluke.”

“A lot of swimmers, y’see, take a free ride to the Olympics,” Robin Campbell chipped in. “They make the team and go to the Games just for the exposure, and in the actual races they finish so far out of it that it’s embarrassing. But Merrily took her free ride and swam the fastest 200 of her entire life.”

Merrily reappeared from the Smythe dressing room in her pea jacket and continued on page 64

SWIMMERS continued jeans. She looked wan and tired.

“Six o’clock workout tonight,” Gaye told her.

Merrily said she’d try to catch some rest that afternoon. She had to see the dentist and she had to check on the typing of a research paper. Merrily had taken the physical education course at the University of Toronto, winding up at the top of the class in all four years. And though she’d finished the final year, her last paper — The Effects Of The Menstrual Cycle On Women Swimmers, the first such study carried out on an ambitious scale in Canada — remained to be tidied up.

“Hey, isn’t your graduation day next Monday?” Campbell asked.

Merrily nodded, and Gaye said: “Next Monday? Oh, oh. I hope that doesn’t mean you’ll miss a workout.”

Nobody could tell whether he was kidding.

Canadian diving, you may also be surprised to learn, like Canadian swimming, isn’t exactly slouching behind the rest of the world. Consider some of its recent facts and figures:

* Beverly Boys of Pickering, Ontario, who won every major diving competition in the world in 1969-70 — gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, PanAm Games, U.S. Nationals — finished fifth in platform diving at the ’72 Olympics in the face of enormous obstacles. What obstacles? Twenty-pounds worth of them. “That’s how much overweight Bev was in Munich,” explains her coach, Don Webb. “She’d been under terrific pressure during her winning years, and she started to balloon.” By late this spring, back in serious training, she had lost 12 pounds with eight more to go, and, says Webb, “she doesn’t have to improve her diving to win the ’76 Olympics — she just has to maintain her present level.”

*Scott Cranham, 18, from Toronto, is on a diving scholarship at Indiana University, an indication all by itself that Cranham is world class since Indiana has dominated university diving for the past 10 years. In three meets through early 1973, Cranham easily handled the best divers from England and Australia, and those victories conjure visions of two gold medals for him at the Commonwealth Games next January in New Zealand.

*Cindy Shatto of Toronto, a lovely blond 16-year-old — she has the bewitching look of Sue Lyon playing Lolita — has been winning and placing well in Canadian and North American meets over the past 10 months with the inevitability of a girl who’ll stop only when she hits the top. Maybe more significant, though, was one of her rare losses at an international meet in Winnipeg this spring — Cindy finished fourth but the

only girls who beat her were the gold, silver and bronze medalists from the ’72 Olympics, divers whose careers, unlike hers, had already peaked.

Canada’s current diving successes, despite the promise of Scott Cranham and the accomplishments of other young men, are principally a women’s affair, and if there’s one person responsible for the female domination it’s Don Webb. And if there’s one characteristic that defines Webb it’s single-mindedness. Webb, a short, compact 40-year-old, is a naturally warm and comfortable sort of man but, when it comes to diving, a man whose warmth and comfort give way to a blast of intensity.

“You have to be a bit nuts to get into coaching divers,” Webb says, not kidding at all. “You sacrifice your family and so on, and don’t get much money return. You can’t sell a medal and it’s all you’re going to earn. And that, I think,

explains the one big lack we have in Canadian diving — coaching. There are good coaches in the country, but they simply aren’t able to sacrifice themselves.

“Still, we don’t have to take a back seat to anybody. Canada really got going in diving at the 1966 British Commonwealth Games and we’ve been building ever since. Look at the 1971 Pan-Am Games — we got two golds, a silver and a bronze from just three girls. And I don’t know why we can’t win all four golds, men’s and women’s, at the next Commonwealth Games.

“I’ve been to three Olympics,” Webb goes on, working up a catching enthusiasm, “but ’76 is the one I get most excited about. We’ll have Bev there with the experience and we’ll have the other girls with the gung-ho spirit. That’s not a bad combination.”

It was 5.30 p.m., and Merrily Stratten, driving to the Smythe pool for her second workout of the day, was smiling a smile that turned her broad cheeks into masses of parallel dimples. She’d slept that afternoon, and even with her slight cold, even with her period, she felt healthier. In fact, she was feeling downright feisty about one subject.

“Most of the male reaction to female

athletes is ridiculous,” she said, radiating heat. “All a woman has to do is get keen on a sport and people go around saying, well, what’s wrong with her? The guys really feed on the image of the allpowerful male athlete, and the only role for the woman is sitting in the stands cheering the male athlete’s big ego. You’re actually treated like a strange animal if you go into sports and you happen to be a girl.”

At the pool, Gaye Stratten whistled 37 swimmers into the water and kept them there for two hours. They stroked back and forth in a series of relentless drills signaled by Stratten’s whistles and shouted instructions — sprints, pickups, flat-out time trials, and some easier lengths — “garbage stuff,” as Stratten called them — to relax their muscles. Boy and girl swimmers churned through precisely the same drills — “We never talk about sex around here,” Stratten explained — sending up a roaring sound, water rising and falling back on itself, so constant and so regular and so Niagaralike in volume that it was almost hypnotic.

“That,” said Stratten, “is the sound of a real good workout.”

At the end of the two hours, Merrily said that she, for one, detected improvement in her style and her time over the morning workout. She changed quickly into her clothes, and then she considered a question that was part philosophic, part practical.

“Why do I swim?” she said. “That’s what people at school could never figure out. They’d say to me, ‘Well, why do you want to go up and down in the water like that? What do you do when you swim?’ And I’d always come back at them and ask, ‘Well, what do you do?’ The answer is nothing. They’d go to a restaurant and smoke and eat lemon meringue pie and talk about parties. That’s petty stuff. For me, I think I’m accomplishing something in swimming. I think when I’m finished I’ll be able to look back over my swimming and say, well, yeah, I really have accomplished something. I’ve proved myself to myself. I mean, progress to me is going faster.”

Merrily smiled her multi-dimpled smile and drove home to late dinner and early sleep. Next day, she rode on a bus with the rest of Etobicoke’s senior swimmers to a meet in Quebec City. She won three races, the 200-, 400and 800metre freestyle and made her best-ever time in the 800, a relatively new event for her. The bus back home reached Toronto at two-thirty in the morning, and as Merrily and the other young people, groggy-eyed, climbed out of their seats, Gaye Stratten reminded them of something:

“Don’t forget,” he called, “workout at six o’clock tonight.”

Nobody groaned. ■