Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. After breaking his third world record in two days at the NCAA men's swimming and diving championships last week, Virginia's Ed Moses roamed the University of Minnesota's Aquatic Center in search of agua. Hmm. None in the media room. "Try down the hall," said an official. Moses, the sensational sophomore breaststroker, sought not to slake his thirst so much as prime his pump. He owed two urine samples to FINA, swimming's international governing body, and another to the NCAA. "If I don't get some fluids in me," he said, "I'm not going to get out of here till midnight."
Officials were handing out more plastic cups than usual in Minneapolis. Seven world records and 20 American records fell at this three-day event. That's just what the NCAA hoped for when, in an uncharacteristic spasm of common sense, it decided to hold the races at this year's championships in meters rather than in yards. The NCAA has long touted its men's meet as among the fastest in the world. The problem was, no one could tell, because the flat-earth Yanks were the only people on the globe still racing in yards.
George Mason associate athletic director Kevin McNamee is a meter advocate who chairs the NCAA's swimming and diving committee. In selling the metric system to his more hidebound colleagues, he predicted a coming-out party for NCAA swimming. So it came to pass. The party was kicked off by Anthony Ervin, a Cal freshman who fairly flew through the 50 freestyle in 21.21 seconds, knocking .10 of a second off the world record (all marks were "short-course" records because the pool was 25 meters long instead of the Olympic length of 50 meters) and dropping jaws in this sport's stopwatch-and-clipboard community. "Un-frickin'-believable," said Minnesota coach Dennis Dale, whose inelegant observation Ervin disproved two nights later by winning the 100 freestyle and swimming a leg on the Golden Bears' victorious 400 free relay team.
Relay-rich Texas was the championships' dominant team. The Longhorns scored 538 points, 153 more than second-place Auburn. The meet's dominant swimmer—after two days, at least—was Arizona senior Ryk Neethling, a taciturn South African whose victories in the 400 and 200 freestyles gave him nine NCAA titles. To make it an even 10, he needed only to win last Saturday's 1,500 free, an event he had owned since his freshman year. Neethling's rivals couldn't help noticing that he had not shaved his head for the meet and did not bother to race in a cap. This was the swimming equivalent of shooting a rap video the week before the Super Bowl. Neethling's comeuppance came on Saturday night, when he was upset in the 1,500 by Southern Cal freshman Erik Vendt.
Neethling's defeat only focused more attention on Moses, a breaststroker so smooth that everyone else in the pool seems to be fighting the water. He's a freakish, once-in-a-decade talent who despite only recently learning how to put his goggles on right-side-up set a world record nearly every time he jumped into the water.
Well-mannered as he is—and this crew-cut son of an Air Force colonel is as polite as can be—Moses could not disguise impatience at some of the questions he fielded during the meet. Yes, it's true that he has only been swimming full time for three years. Midway through his senior year at Lake Braddock High in Burke, Va., when it became clear that he would not be offered a scholarship for golf, his first love, Moses began training with an area swim club. Not long after, he caught the eye of Cavaliers coach Mark Bernardino, who recognized in him a raw but enormous talent.
Yes, he is a latecomer to a sport whose stars all seem to have started swimming around the time they began learning phonics. The point Moses makes is that since he began training seriously, he has been training as seriously as any swimmer in the world to make up for lost time. This is a guy who has added ballet exercises to his stretching regimen to strengthen his kick; a guy whose idea of a good lime is to curl up in front of an old videotape of his idol, 1992 Olympic champion breaststroker Mike Barrowman. "Every time he watches that tape," says Moses' mother, Sissy, "it's like he's seeing it for the first time."
Sissy's son broke his first two world records in one day: On Friday afternoon, after swimming the first half of his 100 heat faster than any American had ever breaststroked 50 meters, he finished the race in 58.05, lowering the world mark by nearly half a second. That night, in the final, he lopped a half-second off his own new 100 record.
As long as he was breaking world records on a daily basis, it seemed reasonable to expect that Moses would swim the fastest-ever time in his heat for the 200 the next afternoon. Instead, he glided in .28 of a second slower than the record. Sure, he broke the American mark, but U.S. records had been falling like the Dow when Alan Greenspan is overheard complaining of gas pains. Expectations were higher for Moses, who, it turned out, had been told by his coach to swim the race "between 90 and 95 percent."
Moses opened it up in the final that night. With a raucous crowd shouting "Mo!" each time his head broke the water's surface, he came in at 2:06.40, trimming nearly a second and a half off the world record. That effort earned him the meet's outstanding swimmer award and, he hopes, sent a message to the world's other top breaststrokers training for the Sydney Olympics this September. "I want them working hard and worried," he said. "I want them to know it's gonna be tough to win that [gold] medal. There's going to be a fight."