SI Olympic Coverage


His grandfather's bankroll and his father's heartbreak are part of swimming lore. Now it's Gary Hall jr.'s turn, at this summer's Olympics, to add his chapter to the family saga

by Johnette Howard

from Sports Illustrated May 15, 1995

He has been called the second coming of Matt Biondi, the most talented U.S. swimmer since Mark Spitz. His famous father, Gary Hall Sr., swam for three U.S. Olympic teams, and his notorious grandfather, imprisoned savings-and-loan baron Charles Keating Jr., won the 1946 NCAA title in the 200-yard butterfly. Yet ask Gary Hall Jr. where his sprinter's speed comes from, and he doesn't mention bloodlines. He smiles raffishly and says, "Really, it's these webbed toes I have." And he laughs.

The 21-year-old Hall is constantly admonished to be more serious, rein in his blithe spirit, get a little more of his father's fabled training zeal. But Hall's retort has always been: Why should I? Let rivals feel as if the Atlanta Olympics are coming at them, at them, at them, like a truck in the wrong lane. I'm not going to worry.

Two weeks before the U.S. Olympic Trials began in early March, Hall lobbied his coach for a three-day training break instead of the usual two. The mere mention of Hall's short-lived strength work with a former Mr. Universe for two months last year launches him into fits of laughter. "I found out Mr. Universe actually exploded a biceps muscle once trying to bench-press 600 pounds," Hall says. "Not that I had to worry about that."

No. Hall never bothers to remember his daily training sets, but he recently traded his acoustic guitar for an electric bass and eagerly set out to memorize Cosmic Slop, the old funk hit by Bootsy Collins and Funkadelic. He thinks that swimming would be more interesting if the athletes decorated themselves with body paint, marketed themselves as personalities ("sort of like pro wrestlers") and raced "dashes for cash" on which spectators could bet, as they do on horse races. He breezily calls his grandfather's federal prison the Big House, refers to Russian arch-rival Alexander Popov as the Big Dog and calls the Atlanta Games the Big One. Hall's affection for garish, '70s-style clothing-tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottom trousers and leisure suits the color of lime sherbet-dates from his high school days. He calls himself "the closest thing to a Deadhead that swimming has," and he mourned the sudden passing of Jerry Garcia last August by swimming his next race with a black band drawn around his arm in felt-tipped pen. "I'd always planned on maybe taking a year off after Atlanta and just following the Dead around the country, camping out and stuff," Hall says.

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Keating (in the prison yard with Gary Sr. and Jr.) says his three-and-a-half-hour daily workout is what "keeps me alive in here."
photograph by Peter Read Miller

He may still make the cross-country trip, alone and in his Volkswagen Microbus. When he walked out for his 100-meter freestyle final at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis on March 8, Hall was wearing brown leather motorcycle pants and a Dead shirt over his swimsuit. He hadn't swum fast since last August, but he mugged for the TV cameras anyway. And no one knew what to expect.

Four weeks earlier, in his last tune-up before the Olympic trials, the U.S. nationals in Orlando, Hall had confounded Troy Dalbey, his coach of two months, by making the turn home in the 100 free and basically tanking the race. "He quit kicking," Dalbey says. "Normally it's like an Evinrude behind him-there's a lot of water churning. He gets so much propulsion, it's like God gave him a set of fins. I sat him down and said, 'Did you just do what I think you did?' He just said, 'What?'"

Hall has a reputation as a training slacker who slogs through minor races but shoots down his lane like a torpedo when the big meets arrive, slicing off yards with a stroke that has been called biomechanically perfect by every coach he has ever had. At the Olympic trials Hall did it again-winning the 50-meter free and taking second in the 100 to breeze onto the U.S. Olympic team in both events.

Hall could win four gold medals in Atlanta, in the two sprints and as the U.S. anchor in the 400 free relay and the 400 medley relay. He and Popov, the defending Olympic champion in the 50 and 100 frees and the world-record holder in the latter, could provide the most riveting duel of the Games. World records could fall every time they dive in.

Or Hall could fall on his face.

"Other athletes alter their whole lives in an Olympic year, but I don't think he's changed a thing," says Eric Hansen, Hall's coach from 1992 through mid-'95. "We have guys who have passed him in the last year. Yet I really believe the world records in 50 and 100 free are Gary's anytime he wants them." What would it take to make that happen? "Him needing to have them," Hansen says.

Hall is convinced that his low-thermostat approach to the Olympics is right for him. He learned that lesson from the career of his dad, whose blast-furnace intensity took him to the brink of glory-but no further. "It's not something we talk about, but I know one of the storylines now is going to be, 'Can Gary win the gold medal that his father never did?'" says Dalbey, who earned two golds swimming for the U.S. 4100-meter relay and 4200-meter relay teams at the 1988 Olympics. "Gary has always had to carry a lot more baggage than the rest of us. I mean, Matt Biondi's dad is an insurance salesman. My dad's a chiropractor."

Gary Jr.'s career has always had an aura of predestination, as well as a heavy burden of expectation. He says he has learned that to succeed he must dwell somewhere between the fear of losing and the obsession to win. Asked how he swims so fast despite his relaxed approach to training, he allows himself one conceit: "I just think I can do it. At the end of every season, when I need it, the speed has just always been there."

Among the ideas that Gary Jr. has made his father consider is the mystery of speed-how it materializes when a swimmer hopes it will, and how it can evaporate no matter how hard he trains or tries.

Gary Hall Sr. is a 44-year-old father of six, a renowned Phoenix eye surgeon who still competes in masters swimming events. He has been married for nearly 23 years to Charlie Keating's second-oldest daughter, Mary, who swam at Xavier University. But when Gary Sr. looks at their oldest child, he insists that he and Gary are nothing alike as swimmers, except perhaps for the ability to surprise.

Gary Sr. was a phenom at 17, a tragic figure by 21 and a phoenix at 24, when he qualified for his third Olympic team-the 1976 U.S. squad-and rejoiced by hoisting 21-month-old Gary Jr. into the air in the Olympic trials pool. A picture of the two of them at the pool became one of the most famous sports photos of the time.

By then Gary Sr.'s story was well known. He was an almost painfully shy star with good looks and a 3.9 grade-point average, and he had broken world records 10 times in butterfly and individual medley events. Along with Spitz, he swam at Indiana University for legendary coach Doc Counsilman. Hall had developed his workhorse reputation while growing up in Garden Grove, Calif. Not satisfied to swim twice a day with his club team, he would sneak into the pool at the Disneyland Hotel to cram in a third daily training session.

Hall's victory at the 1968 Olympic trials surprised everyone-including his high school coach, Don Gambril. Hall was a 5'10", 145-pound junior at the time, and he began the meet as the second-slowest qualifier in both the 400-meter individual medley and the 200-meter butterfly. Because the events were on the same day, Hall and Gambril chose the 400 IM by flipping a coin. Then Hall swam his morning prelim. When the clock froze, Gambril was so stunned he dropped his stopwatch on the pool deck, shattering the crystal. Hall had chainsawed seven seconds off his personal best. He chopped off another two seconds that night to win the final, and he went on to take a silver medal at the Mexico City Games.

"But I was just happy to be there," Hall says. "My whole life I was thinking '72 would really be my Olympics. And going into Munich, I hadn't been beaten in the 400 IM since Mexico City. I'd set the world record at our trials. That was considered 'my event.'"

Looking back, Hall wishes he had saved energy at the '72 Munich Games by conceding the 200 butterfly to Spitz. Instead, he gave the race all he had but finished a distant second to Spitz. "All of a sudden, it was like, only 48 hours till the 400 IM," Hall says. "And I hadn't even thought of that race."

He didn't sleep well that night, and when he went to breakfast the next morning, he didn't feel well. Still, he figured he would get through the prelims, take a nap and be fine for the finals. Gambril gave Hall one piece of advice before his heat: Push the last 50 meters, just to be sure you have your finishing kick. And Hall tried.

"I swam the first 350 meters with a guy from Sweden, made the final flip, but when I went to pick it up, it wasn't there-and I had never experienced that," Hall says. "Normally I could've beaten this guy in my sleep, and I barely touched him out. And I remember the thought as I hit the wall, Oh, my god. I'm going to lose!"

From then on, Hall couldn't get his hammering heart rate down. He couldn't eat. He couldn't relax. "I just couldn't get that thought out of my head," he says. "It was a panic, like an impending death. By the time the race hit, I was feeling kind of giddy, kind of spacey, almost numb. I went out like a scared rabbit-way too fast, no sense of pace. By the time I hit 200 meters, I was paralyzed with fear. It just wasn't there. And why? That's what I could never understand-why that day? When I made the last turn, I knew it was over. I think I was fifth. Tears were flowing from my eyes the whole last lap."

When Gary Jr. is asked for his favorite anecdote about his dad, he quickly answers, "The story he told me about getting sent home from a team trip to Japan. I think he broke curfew or something."

And you liked that? "Well, yeah," Gary Jr. says, and he grins. "He was always such a perfect guy. Hearing that made me think we actually have something in common after all."

At that, Gary Sr. laughs. Sitting in his Southwestern-style mansion outside Phoenix, he can see a life-sized oil painting of Keating that is hung over a stairwell. "If you want to know who Gary really takes after," he says, "it's his grandfather."

His pending appeal has a glimmer of a chance-that's the thin consolation that sustains Charles Keating in prison day after day after day. He still insists he's innocent, still describes himself as a "political prisoner" of a U.S. government bent on making him the fall guy for the biggest banking scandal in American history. He serves his time at the Federal Corrections Institution in Tucson, a medium-security prison hemmed in by 15-foot-high fences with shimmering spirals of razor wire atop them. The cinder-block facility was built to hold 389 prisoners. It packs in more than 800.

Beyond the prison, with its U.S. flag hanging limply from a pole out front, the only things that interrupt the desert as it unfurls toward the horizon are some tufts of scrub grass and an occasional cactus or mesquite tree. That's what Keating sees as he does his 10-mile daily walk in the prison yard. He's 72 now. He says he walks for 31/2 hours a day, and he brags, "My blood pressure is 112 over 70, my pulse rate is 72, the same as the day I was mustered out of the Navy. To be honest, I think exercising is what keeps me alive in here." His prison job is recreation supervisor, a far cry from the days when he cut megadeals with Mike Milken and Ivan Boesky-when his fleet of corporate jets all had Dom Perignon chilling in their refrigerators.

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Hall grooves on the Grateful Dead, his VW Microbus and swinging '70s threads as he tunes up for Atlanta.
photograph by Peter Read Miller

It has been three years since state and federal courts convicted Keating of 73 counts of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy for business deals related to Lincoln Savings and Loan, the California S&L he owned. He was ordered to pay $122.4 million in restitution and forfeit $265 million. But on April 3, Keating's 17-count state conviction was overturned by U.S. District Judge John G. Davies (a naturalized U.S. citizen who won an Olympic gold medal for Australia in '52 in the 200-meter breaststroke).

Davies cited "erroneous'' jury instructions from Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, the O.J. Simpson-case judge who also presided over Keating's original state trial. Prosecutors immediately said they would appeal Davies's ruling. Keating remains jailed on his federal conviction, which he is also challenging. He isn't scheduled to be released until the year 2002, and he isn't eligible for parole until 2001. But he still looks and acts like an unbowed man, cracking feisty jokes about prison life and recalling the fun he and Gary Jr. had "before the government and I got into this little disagreement of ours."

Every once in a while a poignant comment slips out. Asked how long Gary Jr., his first grandchild, has stayed away between visits, Keating blinks and thinks for about a second. His soft answer sounds like a surrender: "I don't know how long." Smiling weakly, he adds, "Time passes differently in here."

He changes the subject. "Did that jerk tell you about the prairie dogs we used to shoot in our backyard?" Jerk is a Keating term of endearment. "We started out using BB guns, but that didn't really kill 'em. So we switched to shotguns."

Keating and Gary Jr. did their shooting inside the walled-in, 12-acre family compound in Paradise Valley, a tiny suburb of Phoenix. Keating and his wife, Mary Elaine, shared their home with Gary and Mary and their children for three years after the Halls moved from Indianapolis to Phoenix in 1982. In 1988 Gary and Mary took over the estate when Keating finished a $2.5 million home next door.

During their years in Arizona, Gary Jr. and his grandfather were nearly inseparable. Gary Jr. visited Keating at work almost daily. Keating and his wife took Gary and another grandson, Bobby Hubbard, on month long trips to Europe, hopscotching from Iceland to Ireland to the continent in Keating's jets. In 1983 the little group, this time accompanied by two other grandchildren, spent two weeks touring Africa. Keating recalls baboons sitting on the roofs of their Jeeps at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. In Kenya they walked within 30 yards of a herd of elephants before coming upon a pool of water that inspired the kids to beg to go swimming. "The guides said go ahead," Keating says. "Then one guy says, 'Maybe I should tell you this. A week ago a couple visitors went swimming in that pool and crocodiles ate 'em.'" Gary jumped in anyway.

Swimming has always been a big part of Keating's life. His son, Charles Keating III, finished fifth in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1976 Olympics. (He's now free while appealing an eight-year sentence for fraud and racketeering for his role in the S & L scandal.) While still living in his native Cincinnati, the elder Keating bankrolled that city's Marlins swim club, which placed six swimmers on the 1980 Olympic squad, including Mary T. Meagher. After moving to Arizona in 1976, he spent another $3.5 million to buy land for, and build, the Phoenician Swim Club, for which Gary Jr. now trains.

The elder Keating swam a mile every day after he moved to Arizona, right up until the day he was taken to jail. He and Gary Jr. still speak fondly about their impromptu races in the 25-yard pool at the family compound. Keating often regaled his grandson with stories from his days as a Navy fighter pilot who flew Grumman Hellcats to his armed services swim meets all across the U.S. while waiting for a World War II combat call that never came.

Gary Jr. also gave Keating some stories to tell. One day, when Gary Jr. was a high school sophomore, he announced to his grandfather that he knew how to make napalm. "I said, 'You're nuts,'" Keating says. "So Gary comes back in a half hour.... He throws something on the ground, lights it, and soon that stuff is burning everything in sight and I'm screaming, 'Get the hose!' That was typical Gary. Never say never."

In 1989, when his grandfather's world abruptly crashed down-when the Feds rolled in and started seizing things, and Keating was arrested, convicted, and taken away in shackles-Gary Jr.'s antics took on an angry cant. He began struggling in school and battling his parents. He and a few buddies were caught blowing up mailboxes. One night in the family wagon, he was caught spinning doughnuts on the ninth green of a Phoenix golf course until the putting surface was destroyed. "Being 15, 16 is tough enough," Gary Jr. says now. "But trying to block out everything that was happening then, I just felt helpless.

"It's hard enough to have a person that you're very close to torn away and put in jail. It's tough to be a kid and have your own government do this to you. Then the media, the FBI showing up at all hours, the harassment.... To me, he was a scapegoat. Looking back now, I realize that swimming was a way to release that frustration. Swimming has enabled me to give him some joy.... It's a small thing I can do to help him out."

A few weeks before Gary Jr. traveled to the Olympic trials, he and his parents visited Keating. Shortly thereafter, a large, hand-drawn good-luck card arrived at Gary Jr.'s condo signed by many of the 48 inmates in Keating's housing unit-cons with names such as Mister Dice, the Columbian Car, Vegas and Big Red. "I thought, Hey, that's pretty cool, having all the guys in the Big House rooting for me,'" Gary Jr. says with a laugh. The night Hall seized his first Olympic berth, with his parents looking on, Keating got the result by calling his daughter from a prison pay phone. Keating gave her a message: "Tell Gary if these guys get out between now and Atlanta, they're gonna break some of his competitors' knees."

At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, Gary Sr., the flag bearer of the entire U.S contingent, earned his final medal (a bronze in the 100 butterfly) as part of a juggernaut U.S. men's team that swept nearly every swimming event. Twenty years later, in Atlanta, Gary Jr. will be among a handful of stars counted on to save face for the slumping U.S. swimming program. And unlike the longer events his father swam, Gary Jr.'s bang-bang sprints will leave him almost no margin for error. But the younger Hall seems exactly the right person for that role. As his father says, "Gary loves to go racing. And every time he's had to swim fast in his life, he has."

At 6'6" and 187 pounds, Gary Jr. has the prototypical build for a sprinter. He's so long and blade-thin that he seems to skim the water. Even though his feet churn furiously, his stroke is so smooth it creates an optical illusion: Hall often looks as if he's swimming more slowly than the other racers-even as he's gliding past them.

Gary Sr. says his meditations on the mystery of speed-where his son's swiftness comes from; why his own speed left him that awful day in Munich-always lead him to the same conclusion: Some swimmers have to train their guts out to be great. "And some just are," Gary Sr. says. Then he tells a story about why Gary Jr. reminds him so much of Spitz.

"In the fall, when we all played water polo at Indiana, Mark chose to practically disappear for three months," Hall begins. "December would come-that's when our dual meets would start-and Mark would finally show up at the pool, reluctantly. He was always trying to get out of practice. One year he'd just come in, and already he wanted to get out. So Doc [Counsilman] says, 'All right. If you break 50 seconds in the 100 fly, I'll let you go.'

"Now, the American record was 49.1 at the time. There were only two guys who had broken 50 seconds in the world. Mark hadn't been in the water since August, remember. But he warms up, stands up and goes 49.6. And we're all going, 'Oh, my god. That's a time that would've won the NCAAs!' Mark just said, 'I'll see ya later, guys.' And he was outta there."

By all accounts Gary Jr. has been training more dutifully than that. And he's looking forward to every moment in Atlanta-the showdowns against Popov, the crowd noise that filters into the swimmers' prerace ready room, the walk to the starting blocks and the adrenaline rush as he dives in.

"You know, the ready room is a really interesting place," Hall says. "I'm usually relaxed, cracking jokes. But there's always one guy trying to psych someone out, one guy who's rocking in place and one guy who looks so scared that he's not just white, he's fish-belly white. Sometimes when you look at the fish-belly-white guy, you just wanna say, 'Hey, um ... are you gonna puke?'"

Hall sounds as if he's ready. What's more, he has found his motto for the Games: "It's a line from Woody Guthrie: 'Take it easy. But take it.'" He doesn't plan to worry about how or why he swims fast-he just thinks he will. And when his famous father is asked if he has given his son any advice, Gary Sr. smiles and says gently, "Sure. The only thing I've told him is, 'Just keep playing that guitar.'"

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