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 archrival 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.
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.