When she finally emerged from the dressing room at the Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool in Seoul last week, it was still obvious that she had been crying. Just over an hour earlier, Allison Higson of Brampton, Ont., was the world-record holder in the 200-m breaststroke and the swimmer to beat in the Olympic final. But walking out into the glaring afternoon sunshine after the race, Canada’s best hope for a swimming gold medal could draw on few experiences in her 15 years for consolation. All but one of the seven other swimmers in the race had beaten her, and Silke Hörner of East Germany now held the world record. As Higson made her way back to the athletes’ village, she explained what went wrong. “I just couldn’t relax,” she said. “And then in the fourth lap, I just lost my stroke completely.”
That was not the case for a new generation of swimmers from 20 different nations
who had won medals by Sept. 24, the secondlast day of swimming competition. The East German team led by winning 20 of 75 medals, followed by the United States with 16, but a wide range of nations, including Sweden, Denmark, China, Costa Rica, Bulgaria and Spain, also sent swimmers to the victors’ podium, compared with only eight countries who won medals in the pool at the 1976 Games in Montreal, the last time the best swimmers from the West and the Eastern Bloc met in Olympic competition. Some of the established superstars of swimming lived up to their pre-Olympic billing. Kristin Otto of East Germany won an unprecedented five golds, American Matt Biondi won six medals, including four golds, and fellow American Janet Evans took three golds. But the competition also produced some stunning upsets. Previously unheralded Australian Duncan Armstrong won a gold and a silver. Even more surprising was Anthony Nesty’s win over Biondi in the 100-m butterfly. Nesty swam for Suriname, a tiny South American nation of 400,000 people and one Olympicsize swimming pool. With the margins between medallists and also-rans mere hundredths of a second, Canada’s swimmers at week’s end had achieved only a bronze in the women’s 4 x 100-m medley relay.
Although she was a member of the bronzewinning relay team, Higson’s seventh-place finish in her specialty and her fourth in the 100-m breaststroke were the harshest setbacks for the Canadians. The disappointments began at the Canadian Olympic trials in May, when swimmer Victor Davis failed to gain a berth in the 200-m breaststroke, although he set the world record and won the gold medal in that event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Then, in Seoul, swimming only in the 100-m breaststroke—he won the silver at Los Angeles—Davis finished a disappointing fourth. Higson’s coach, Paul Bergen of Etobicoke, Ont., took responsibility for his star pupil’s overall disappointing performance—and for that of the entire Canadian team. Said Bergen: “The greatest single reason that we are not number 1 here is that I did not swim the kids right in training. They are not physically where they should be at this point. I didn’t train them correctly.”
Peak: Having banked four golds, three silvers and three bronzes at the Communist Bloc-boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Canadian team went to the Olympic trials in Montreal with hopes for continued success in Seoul. Training aimed at peak performances in Seoul continued on schedule until early July, when the preparatory stage of the team’s regimen was complete. But the second stage—intensive aerobic training requiring the Olympians to swim 70,000 to 80,000 m a week to build up their stamina—coincided with international meets in Santa Clara, Calif., between July 8 and 10 and in Los Angeles from July 15 to 17.
Last week in Seoul, Bergen said that the team should not have competed in both events. Explained Bergen: “It’s like baking a cake, and you have all the ingredients and
CANADA'S SWIMMERS DISAPPOINTED WHILE THE EAST GERMANS DAZZLED
then forget to put in the salt. I’d like to think that it didn’t make that much difference, but at this level, little mistakes cost you. It’s not the kids’ fault.”
On the opening day of the swimming competition on Sept. 19, Canadian team members chanted and waved Canadian flags as their veteran 24-year-old team leader, Pointe Claire, Que.’s Davis—with Higson, Canada’s other leading candidate for a swimming medal—marched toward the starting blocks for the 100-m breaststroke final. But once in the pool,
Dimitri Volkov of the Soviet Union sped through the first length, making the turn for the final 50 m at a worldrecord pace. Davis and his longtime rival Adrian Moorhouse of Great Britain swam stroke for stroke and touched the wall at the turn more than a second behind Volkov, and almost half a second behind Karoly Guttler of Hungary.
Over the final 20 m, as
Volkov and Guttler faded, -
Moorhouse displayed his characteristic final surge. The 24-year-old Englishman took the lead for the first time only when he touched the wall. Guttler touched 0.01 second later. “I won by a fingernail,” Moorhouse said afterward. “And as you can see, mine are cropped fairly close.” Volkov held off Davis by 0.02 second to take the bronze. Said a subdued Davis after the race: “I swam as well as I could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.”
Egos: The Olympic quadrennial exacts a severe toll. Precocious teenagers are lionized, and 24-year-olds retire. Said Davis’s coach, Clifford Barry: “It’s difficult to stay on top for more than six years. It’s like hockey players. What about Wayne Gretzky in four years? He’ll still be great, but will he be the best?” Higson, still only 15, may return to the top of her field for the Barcelona Games of 1992. In fact, she turned in her best-ever time in the 100-m breaststroke, but she lost to Bulgarian Tania Dangalakova and finished fourth, just 0.03 second from a bronze-medal performance.
For his part, the Australian Armstrong, 20, who upset the 22-year-old American superswimmer Biondi in the 200-m freestyle, attributed his sudden emergence as a worldbeater to strength training, superb coaching and maturity. Added Armstrong’s coach, Laurie Lawrence: “He’s a champion because he’s got plenty of guts and he’ll listen to you. He hasn’t got a head ‘that big.’ ”
If any egos were inflated prior to the Games, the wash at the pool at the Olympic Park put their dimensions in perspective. Typical was the men’s 100-m butterfly final. West Germany’s Michael Gross, the 24-yearold Olympic-record holder known as “The Albatross” because of his long arms, and Biondi—christened by the U.S. media as the next Mark Spitz, the legendary winner of
seven swimming golds at the 1972 Munich Games—were expected to duel majestically. But 53 seconds later, Suriname’s Nesty won the gold medal and set a new Olympic record, while Biondi took the silver and Gross
finished fifth. Said Nesty, who now trains in Florida but who grew up in Suriname’s capital city of Paramaribo, a two-minute walk from the country’s only 50-m pool: “It’s not much, but I got by, I guess.”
It was clear that getting by was about all
the Canadian team could manage. Pre-Olympic rankings suggested that backstrokers Sean Murphy, 24, of Montreal and Mark Tewksbury, 20, of Calgary should have been in the 200-m final, but they failed to qualify. Said Canadian swim team head coach Dave Johnson: “Allison’s swim was a disappointment. Murphy’s and Tewksbury’s were a catastrophe.”
By week’s end, American superstar Biondi—who has swum in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans off the United States with wild dolphins—was one short of Spitz’s seven-medal total. The world-record holder in the 100-m freestyle, Biondi set another world record on Saturday—22.14 seconds for the 50-m freestyle—for his fourth gold.
Among the women, one of the brightest newcomers was Evans. After winning the first American gold of the Games, in the 400-m individual medley, the 101-lb. Evans won the 800-m freestyle and shattered her own world record in the 400-m freestyle by 1.6 seconds. “I really couldn’t believe the time; the swim felt easy,” said the 17-year-old from Placentia, Calif.
Record: And nothing short of a triumphant homecoming awaited the statuesque Kristin Otto of Leipzig, East Germany. After holding off a determined Zhuang Yong of China to win the 100-m freestyle, the five-foot, 11-inch blonde won the gold in the 100-m backstroke and put the East German team in the lead to stay in the 4 x 100-m freestyle relay. Having missed the Los Angeles Games because of the Moscow-led boycott by 15 countries, the 22-year-old Otto said simply, “I had a new chance in Seoul and I took it.” The next day, minutes after teammate Uwe Dassler set a new world record in winning the men’s 400m freestyle, Otto promptly collected her fourth gold of the Games by winning the 100-m butterfly.
Otto, whose five gold medals represented a record for one woman at a single Olympics, flashed her bright smile and laughed softly at comparisons to Spitz: “I wasn’t trying to win as many golds as Spitz. I was trying to go for one or two golds, but I must admit that things have gone so well that I’m delighted.”
Magical: The swimming competition of the XXIVth Summer Olympics will be remembered the world over for magical performances, for the records set, for the dramatic debuts of stars like Nesty and Armstrong, and for the emergence of swimmers from nontraditional swimming countries. But in Canada, the Seoul swim meet will be remembered for a training program sadly gone awry and for opportunities squandered.
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