The dive resembled a surgical incision in the blue water. And when 15-year-old Allison Higson surfaced in Lane 4 of Montreal’s Olympic pool, she was already well ahead of the seven other 200-m breaststroke finalists racing to qualify to represent Canada in September at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Exactly 32.77 seconds after leaving the starting block, the young swimmer tucked neatly into her first turn. That time was well ahead of the world-record pace set in 1986 by East German Silke Horner. Through two more turns in the 50-m pool, the issue of whether the Brampton, Ont., teenager could maintain her explosive effort remained unsettled amid the mounting tumult in the stands. The cheering erupted into frenzy as Higson’s powerful shoulders propelled her over the final 50 m. The German’s record was 2:27.40. When Higson touched the wall, the clock froze at 2:27.27.
Allison Higson had set a world record.
As the tumult swelled,
Canadian swimming had acquired a new star. Declared Higson after she emerged dripping and grinning from the pool:
“My goal for this meet was a No. 1 time going into the Olympics. Now, I want a gold.” For the fresh-faced record-holder, that ambition is well within reach. Half a dozen others among the 29 athletes who secured spots on Canada’s Olympic swimming team during five days of trials in Montreal last week are also strong medal prospects in September. Still, the team’s chances of repeating the historic 10-medal triumph of the 1984 Los Angeles Games are remote. Two of the stars of those Games—double gold medallist Alex Baumann and gold winner Anne Ottenbrite—have retired. And two days after Higson’s electrifying win, Victor Davis, a 1984 gold
medallist in the 200-m breaststroke, failed to qualify in the event for Seoul.
There have been other changes since 1984. For the first time in 12 years, the Games will see almost a full slate of competing nations. Several countries, including China, pose new but potent chal-
lenges to the established swimming powers of the Soviet Union, the United States, Canada, and East and West Germany. And at home, the national program has been shaken by upheavals in the coaching staff that have left the future murky.
None of those changes, however, appeared to burden Allison Higson as she swam her way into the record books on May 29. It was an achievement Higson had been preparing for from the age of 5, when she began swimming after a doctor suggested to her parents that the activity might ease a mild asthmatic
condition. Two years later, Allison began competing and by 1984 she held Canadian records for her age group in both the breaststroke and the individual medley. That same year, she watched Baumann break a world record in the men’s 200-m medley during Olympic trials in Toronto. “That inspired me,” Higson told Maclean’s last week. “I was up in the stands, and everyone was on their feet cheering. And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do that?’ ”
During the four years it took her to realize that dream, Higson trained six hours a day, six days a week, at the Etobicoke Olympium near her Brampton home, sacrificing the normal social life of a teenager to the gruelling schedule. “I hear from friends that they go out Friday or Saturday nights,” she said. “I don’t miss it. I don’t know what there is to miss.” Whatever social life she has missed, Higson’s immense athletic talents were directly on target in last week’s trials. In addition to her 200-m breaststroke record, Higson set a new Canadian and Commonwealth mark by swimming the 100-m breaststroke in 1:08.88, the second-fastest time in the world this season. Higson also qualified to race for Canada in the 200-m individual i medley with a time of 2:16.89, the fifth-best worldwide this season, and added yet another Canadian record to her credits. Among the women, only Higson’s Etobicoke teammate Jane Kerr, 20, came close to matching her multifaceted performance, by qualifying in the 100and 200-m freestyle and 100m butterfly.
In the men’s events, the stunning upset of Davis overshadowed all else during the trials. No Canadian had beaten Davis in the 200-m breaststroke since 1980. His world record, set at the 1984 Games, still stands. And at the first turn of his race last week, the muscular Montreal-based swimmer’s pace was his
fastest ever. But Davis said later that as he plunged through the water toward the third turn, he could feel his strength ebb. His time of 2:16.21 was the fourthfastest in the world for 1988. But Davis hit the wall 12 one-hundredths of a second behind second-place Cameron Grant, 18, of Edmonton, and 21 onehundredths of a second later than Calgary’s Jon Cleveland, 17. Said a subdued Davis after the race: “I am 24 now. I just didn’t have the guts to come back. The reserve wasn’t there.” Despite his loss, Davis qualified for the 100-m in Seoul, the event in which he won a silver medal in 1984.
Meanwhile, the two upstarts who toppled the veteran record-holder presented the Canadian team with an unexpected bonus of new talent. Cleveland, the crew-cut son of former major-league baseball pitcher Reggie Cleveland, admitted that his win had surprised even him. Said Cleveland: “I wasn’t even expecting to make the team.” But now, the California-born swimmer, a Canadian citizen since May, has suddenly vaulted into the front rank of Olympic medal hopefuls. His winning time of 2:16.00 is the second-best this season.
And there were several other men who left Montreal within striking distance of Olympic glory. Calgary’s Tom Ponting, 24, a member of Canada’s silver-medal-winning medley relay team in 1984, posted the year’s second-fastest world time in his specialty, the 200-m butterfly, as well as a fourth-fastest time in the event’s 100-m version. Two backstroke specialists selected for the Canadian team also turned in top-five times: Etobicoke’s Sean Murphy, 24, churned to a Commonwealth record and the third-fastest time ever in the 100-m, while Mark Tewksbury, 20, of Calgary, ranked fourth in the world after the two events. And 19-year-old long-distance swimmer Harry Taylor of Edmonton qualified for the 1,500-m freestyle with a Canadian record and the season’s third-best of 15:16.00.
Despite that roster of talent, no one in Montreal was predicting that Canada’s swimmers would repeat the medal harvest of 1984. For one thing, the presence of Eastern Bloc swimmers—who had boycotted the Los Angeles Games in retaliation for the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games—and the Chinese, including Yang Wenyi, the record holder in the 50-m freestyle sprint and rated the world’s fastest female swimmer, will stiffen the competition in Seoul. Said veteran University of Calgary coach Deryk Snelling: “The company has gotten tougher.” As well, the uneven talents of Canada’s swimmers were revealed when none managed to meet the minimum qualifying standards—a firstor second-place finish in an event in a
time no slower than the 16th-best time in the world in 1987—in several events, among them the men’s benchmark 100m freestyle. But the swimmers have another chance to qualify in Etobicoke in August.
Indeed, the future of Canada’s swimming program is beset by uncertainty in the wake of the abrupt firing of national coach Donald Talbot in March. Talbot was hired in 1986 as Canada’s first national swimming coach, but critics soon accused him of dictating training priorities with an abrasive intolerance for dissent. Declared Davis’s coach Cliff Barry: “Talbot was autocratic. We felt we were
being force-fed his ideas.” The sport’s governing body, Swimming Canada, eliminated Talbot’s job but named Edmonton-based coach David Johnson to prepare the swimmers for the Games. Still, several leading coaches complain that no plan is in place beyond the Games.
But for now, Seoul in September is as far as most coaches and swimmers need to look. Johnson, at least, says that he is optimistic. “If we even improve fractionally on what we have done here,” he declared, “we will have an incredibly successful Games.” For Allison Higson, that could well mean equalling her hero’s achievement. Like Baumann, she now has the chance to cap a world record at the Canadian trials with a gold at the Olympic Games.
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