There was still a touch of bewilderment the next morning. The fastest swimmer in the world had been the fastest swimmer in the world for slightly more than 12 hours. This was all new. Bill Pilczuk was not sure how to act. "I never thought I could beat Popov," he said. "Popov. I never thought...."
The yellow digital display on the scoreboard from the night before was a photograph, seen once and now lodged in his head, unforgettable and unimaginable, as if it were the picture of a UFO spotted in the cloudless western Australia sky:
PILCZUK, USA, 22.29
POPOV, RUSSIA, 22.43
What? "It took a few seconds for everything on the scoreboard to register," Pilczuk said. "I looked at the times first. To see that Popov was behind me. Popov."
This was an upset straight out of a scriptwriter's clich� book. Was Gene Hackman available to play the role of the coach? The unknown American had come along last Saturday, on the next-to-last night of the World Swimming Championships in Perth, to beat the unbeatable Russian champion in the glamour event of the seven-day meet.
The Russian was the grand athletic millionaire, as tall and handsome as mortal sin. He was the true capitalist, endorsing anything that might get wet, living and training in Australia but still swimming for the motherland, bilingual and suave, untouchable since he sent the last great American swimmers in the event, Matt Biondi and Tom Jager, off toward retirement at the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, then beat the next great hope, Gary I hill Jr., at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The American was this 26-year-old nobody from Cape May Point, N.J., and Auburn, who describes his career as "crap swimmer in high school, mediocre in college and getting better and better."
The all-powerful Russian versus the unknown American. Wasn't this the morality-play matchup that supposedly died with the cold war? Here it was again, playing one more time.
"I'd never swum against Popov before," Pilczuk (pronounced PIL-zuk) said as he sat in the sunshine outside Challenge Stadium, signing occasional autographs with a bold stroke that he had perfected in obscurity, before anyone had ever asked for it. "I'd never even talked to him. I was in the same room with him once before, at the worlds in 1994 in Rome, but I'm sure he never noticed me. I didn't even make the finals in Rome. I was looking at him and saying, That's Aleksandr Popov, right there."
In a sport filled with pubescent phenoms attending prep schools with high-powered swim programs, then moving along on full scholarships to high-powered college programs, Pilczuk followed a different path. Public high school in Erma, N.J. No state championship ribbons, no stale records. No scholarship offers. Went to Miami-Dade Community College for two years because he would have been a Prop 48 student at a Division I school. Scholarship for a second year, but still no scholarship offers from four-year schools. Walked on at Auburn. No titles. Left off the roster for the SEC championships in his senior year in favor of a freshman. Graduated magna cum laude. Kept swimming.