They stand in front of us next to a pool in Fort Lauderdale, four women on a mission for America. They are heading to Barcelona, the best swimmers in each of the sport's four strokes. If all goes well, each will win an individual medal during the first five days of the Olympics and on the sixth, July 30, they will join forces on a 4 x 100-meter medley relay team that will shatter an eight-year-old world record set by a former country called East Germany. They are our champions, the best we have to offer.
Please, let their unofficial captain, 22-year-old Crissy Ahmann-Leighton, introduce everyone so we can give them a cheer. Crissy?
"I'm hungry," she says, pointing to herself, a specialist in the 100-meter butterfly. "She's tired," she says, pointing to freestyler Jenny Thompson. "She's bored," she says, pointing to backstroker Janie Wagstaff. "And she's...she's cranky," Ahmann-Leighton finishes, pointing to 15-year-old breaststroker Anita Nall.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Our team. The women have been working a bit today, up at 6 a.m., off to the pool, swimming and swimming some more, doing a lot of interviews, and now they seem to be late for supper and have to pose for a picture. Let's give them a Barcelona cheer. Hungry, tired, bored and cranky. Our team. Let's give them a cheer.
They are having fun, these women, are they not? They are not exactly a team and won't be, even if everything works out, until about 18 hours before they swim the event. They probably will be the team. Should be. Might be. Then, again.... Whatever the case, they do not seem to be feeling much pressure. They are posing for the picture, two of them holding Nall in the air, then standing back-to-back, then face-to-face, and then everybody is smiling for the camera, and the photographer is saying he surely wishes Olympic swimmers wore thongs. All four women are laughing. Thongs? "Do you mean flip-flops on your feet?" Anita is saying. Laughing some more. Funny. Did those East Germans have this much fun in 1984?
"I love to swim the relay," Ahmann-Leighton is saying. "I never could swim the relay in high school. There was only one person on the swimming team. Me. They wouldn't let me swim all the legs on the relay."
"I can see us in the ready room at Barcelona," Thompson says. "Trying to get each other psyched. It won't be hard to do."
The way the team will be chosen is that the top American finisher in each of the 100-meter events in Barcelona—backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle—will swim a 100-meter leg in the relay final. A change could be made by the coaches if there is injury or sickness, but basically the team will be decided by the individual performances in the Games. This will be a team with no real practices.
"The one thing you have to remember is that nothing is set," U.S. women's coach Mark Schubert warns. "Anything can happen. We have two swimmers in each event, and they could finish in any order. Some of them are very close, especially in the butterfly and the freestyle. The people who swam the fastest at the trials might not be the ones who swim the fastest in Spain. I do know that whoever is on the team, it should be awesome."
If form does hold from Indianapolis, however, these would be the four swimmers. Their combined best times—including a world record of 54.48 by Thompson in the 100 free and an American record of 1:00.84 by Wagstaff in the 100 back at Indianapolis—would add up to 4:03.22, beating the East German record of 4:03.69. This is not even allowing for the advantage gained in relay starts, which could drop the time to 4:02.