He looks like a baseball veteran. Baseball was Tom Jager's favorite sport in the beginning, and now he looks as if he has played at least a half dozen years in the big leagues. A pouch of chewing tobacco, perhaps, should be sticking from a back pocket on his racing briefs. What do you think about these Olympics in Barcelona, Tom? Spit. Think we'll do just fine. Spit. He is 27 years old with a hairline that is moving backward on him in a hurry. He does not appear to mind. He has seen some 50-meter free-styles in his time, seen some 400-meter freestyle relays, too. Backup catcher. Utility infielder. Well, maybe a little better than that. After all, he does have four gold medals back home in Tijeras, N.Mex., and a silver medal to keep them company. Now he is going for more. He is a professional, and this is his job. Swimming. Going for gold medals. This is different.
"I figured it out last year," he says. "I made more money than the minimum salary in baseball [$109,000]. Not a lot more, but more. That made me happy. I always remember saying that my ambition was to be a professional athlete, and now I guess I am. Nobody likes to hear the word professional, but it's true. Swimming is my job, and I enjoy getting paid for what I love to do.'
In another time he would have been no more than a name in agate type in a list of former Olympic champions. He would have been an interviewer in a blazer—or an interviewee, perhaps, talking about old times at his ranch. For this Olympics, though. he is back on the block, ready to go. The men's swimming team finally is filled with men.
A quiet financial revolution has taken place in his sport, fomented mostly by Jager and by fellow veteran Olympian Matt Biondi, but benefiting everyone. A man can now make a buck in a chlorinated pool without wearing a whistle around his neck and saving five-year-olds who have wandered into the deep end. Not a lot of bucks, but a buck. Enough to...O.K.... stay afloat. For the first time the U.S. will send a team filled with veterans instead of acne-faced kids who have to unplug their Walkmans and step off their skateboards before the big race. Swimmers have been able to keep swimming.
"In the past a male swimmer basically had one shot," Olympic men's coach Eddie Reese says. "Maybe he didn't even have one shot. If you were born at the wrong time—say the Olympics came around in your sophomore year in college—you might not get a shot when you're at your peak. A swimmer just couldn't keep at it. College ended, he had to get out in the job market meet his financial needs. Now he can stick around. People mature at different rates. We've got people on this team now who've set world records, who are going to their third Olympics who have been training just for this. We don't have but three college athletes on the team who swam this year for their school in the NCAAs."
The average age of the U.S. male swimmer on the first day of the Games will be 23.85, far and away the oldest team in U.S. history; in 1984 and '88 the average age was about 21. Jager will be back. The 26-year-old Biondi, winner of five golds, one silver and one bronze in '88 in Seoul, will be back. Breaststroker Mike Barrowman, 23, backstroker David Berkoff, 25, butterflyer Melvin Stewart, 23.... Ten men on the 25-man roster are veterans of either 1984 or '88. Twenty-seven-year-old Pablo Morales, in the 100-meter butterfly, is back from 1984 after unexpectedly failing to make the team in '88. Second chances are everywhere. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now comes a second and even a third time.
"That's important," Reese says. "It's a scary proposition, swimming in the Olympics. I had freshmen from my team at the University of Texas at the Olympic trials, good freshmen, had a chance. Not one of them made it. They were all about to throw up. Now you have a second chance. A guy like Barrowman, he went a little slower in Seoul than he expected, finished fourth, now he can swim again."
Much of the reason is the bucks. Back in 1985, abandoning its insistence on simon-pure amateurism, FINA, the world governing body for swimming, began allowing swimmers to defray some of their expenses by accepting endorsement money and limited-assistance funds from their national federations. At first the money involved was peanuts, but endorsement opportunities started growing, and U.S. Swimming, the sport's governing body in this country, gradually increased its outlay to potential Olympians. The trend accelerated following a weak showing in Seoul, where Biondi was the only American man to win an individual gold medal.
Under U.S. Swimming's assistance program an athlete can now eat and swim at the same time. The amount of money paid out is based on world rankings, meet results and so on. Last year, for instance, a world record earned American swimmers a $5,000 bonus; achieving a time in the top eight in the world was worth $3,000; and making the top four was rewarded with what amounted to a salary—$1,500 a month. In this Olympic year the rules have changed a bit: Everyone who made the team for Barcelona receives $1,500 a month plus a onetime bonus of $1,250.
The influx of dollars has kept older women in the sport, too; the average age of the '92 U.S. women's team is 21.08, compared with 19, four years ago. Distance ace Janet Evans, 20, a triple gold medal winner in Seoul who made the '92 team in the 400 and 800 free, has cashed in nicely since dropping out of Stanford last year, and another Barcelona-bound Stanford swimmer, butterflyer—individual medleyist Summer Sanders, 19, recently gave up her NCAA eligibility, the better to chase endorsements. But it's the men, who tend to peak later than the women, who are hanging on longer—and cashing the bigger paychecks.