The image came to Pablo Morales on the victory stand. The gold medal was hanging from his neck, the Star-Spangled Banner was being played and the American flag was being raised on the middle pole at the other end of the Bernat Picornell swimming pool, but in the image in his mind he was sitting with his mother in Santa Clara, Calif., in the family living room. They were watching television.
How long ago was that? They were watching one of those Bud Greenspan documentaries about the Olympics, a tale about athletes and their dealings with the fickle gods who control these Games. How long ago? He remembered how he was touched and how she was touched by the stories they saw.
Now his was the best story of all. Winner and loser. Both. He had experienced all there was to experience, had been touched by all the gods had to offer. If only his mother could see this, if only.... Who knows? Maybe she could.
"At the finish I looked at the scoreboard, and it had such an unreal quality," Morales later said about his win in the 100-meter butterfly on Monday, completing a comeback at 27 years old that at one time seemed only a faint prayer. "Once something like this happens, you wonder if it really happened. You wonder the same way if you win or if you lose. Did it really happen?"
He had felt the same odd silence at the end of this race that he had felt in 1984, at the Olympics in Los Angeles, when he was the best butterfly swimmer in the world, expected by everyone to win the 100. That time he had turned to look at the scoreboard and learned that he was second to West Germany's Michael Gross. Unreal. This time he turned and held his breath, and in the quiet he saw that he was first. Eight years—with a big disappointment in the middle when he overtrained and failed to make the '88 team—brought two moments together.
Was this not a Bud Greenspan story? Morales was a smiling, restrained, elegant face on the screen that he and his mother had watched so often. If only she could see. If only....
His race was on the second day of the competition at Bernat Picornell, an outdoor arena built on the mountain called Montjuïc, the stands high and close to the pool, the heat of the early evening covering everyone. His American teammates were experiencing mixed results. Expected gold medalists, the ones who had those tidy television biographies shown before their races, were ending up with lesser positions on the victory stands. Other Americans were doing better than anticipated.
Where did he fit? He had fallen into the first category, the disappointments, in '84 and again at the '88 trials. Was it better to be in the second category, an unknown quantity, a question, a possibility rather than a probability? He could only wait to see where his story would fit in the string of stories. "I had no idea what to expect," he said. "All I knew was I was going for the gold medal. That was the dream."
The biggest positive surprise had been 21-year-old Nelson Diebel of Hightstown, N.J., a winner in the second race of the meet, the 100-meter breaststroke. Diebel wore an American flag bandanna on his shaved head, three earrings in his left ear, had a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his right hip and told stories of being a reformed juvenile delinquent. He had predicted his win to his coach, Chris Martin, after the latest of their confrontations in his six-year changeover from bad kid to good swimmer.
"We were at training camp in Narbonne, France," Martin says. "There was a giant water slide. Nelson wanted to go down it. He has a history of injuries [he was in car crashes, he once fell from a railing while trying to jump into a nearby pool, etc.], and I told him he couldn't do it. Not so close to the Olympics. It wasn't worth the chance. He got mad. He climbed to the top of the slide and wouldn't come down. He just sat there. We yelled at each other."