On Monday afternoon, when triple-gold medal hopeful Janet Evans of the U.S. touched the wall after the opening butterfly leg of the grueling 400 individual medley, she was in fourth place, more than a second behind Kathleen Nord of East Germany. But those in the know at Seoul's Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool were aware that the race was over. The fly was Evans's weakest leg, and since she stayed so close to the leaders in those first 100 meters it would be only a few minutes before the 17-year-old high school senior from Placentia, Calif., would provide the U.S. with its first gold medal of the Games.
Oddly enough, Evans, who holds the world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 frees, was expected to have her best gold medal shot in the 400 IM, in which she had only the American mark (4:38.58). Even if she swam a perfect race, she would have trouble bettering the magnificent world record of 4:36.10, which was set by Petra Schneider of East Germany in 1982.
Evans was set to give it the old high school try. She had come to Seoul from a training camp in Hawaii, where she had to work out in a lane with the U.S. men because none of the women could keep up with her. "She's just amazing," said her coach, Bud McAllister.
After hanging near the leaders in the opening 100 on Monday, she zoomed to the front on the second leg, the backstroke; pulled away in the third leg, the breaststroke; and after the freestyle leg won the gold by more than a body length, in a new American record of 4:37.76. "However happy you can be, that's how happy I am," she said afterward. Having won the IM by a whopping 1.7 seconds over second-place Noemi Lung of Romania, the 5'5�", 102-pound American seemed set for equally strong assaults on this week's 400 and 800 frees.
The first two days of Olympic finals produced mixed results for other U.S. swimmers and divers. The pressure on Matt Biondi of the U.S. to win seven gold medals—to repeat Mark Spitz's 1972 feat—ended early Monday afternoon in the finals of his first event, the 200 freestyle, when he finished third behind Anders Holmertz of Sweden and the surprise winner, Duncan Armstrong of Australia. U.S. divers Michele Mitchell and Wendy Williams exceeded expectations by winning the silver and bronze medals, respectively—America's first medals of the Games—in the women's platform competition. But Greg Louganis, who came to Seoul trying to become the first man to win gold medals in the springboard and platform in consecutive Olympics, had a brush with disaster in the three-meter springboard preliminaries when he smacked his head on the board, opening a cut that required five stitches.
Armstrong's win was one of the most delightfully shocking upsets in Olympic history. "Lucky Lane 6!" cried Australian coach Laurie Lawrence in the bedlam that followed Armstrong's victory. To the astonishment of everyone who was watching, the 6'2", 176-pound Armstrong, 20, of Brisbane, competing in Lane 6, blasted home in the last 50 meters to chop down an international forest of world-record holders: the 6'6" Biondi; Michael Gross of West Germany, the 6'7" defending Olympic champ; and 6'5" Artur Wojdat of Poland, the top qualifier in the previous day's heats. Not only that, Armstrong shattered Gross's world mark of 1:47.44 with a 1:47.25 clocking. "Anything's possible, mate, if you've got an Australian hat on!" hooted Lawrence.
Anything did seem possible as the Olympic aquatics competition opened at two superb pools nearly 3� miles apart. The first 12 medals awarded at the swimming pool went to competitors from 10 different countries—perhaps a death knell for the sport's fading U.S. Soviet-East German axis.
But nothing was as startling as the men's 200, in which Gross, Biondi, Wojdat and Holmertz had figured to fight for the title. No one paid any attention to Armstrong, who came into the Games ranked 46th in the world with a best time of 1:51.18. The only thing that set him apart was that he liked to surf.
But you know those Aussies. In Los Angeles in 1984, unknown Jon Sieben—also coached by Lawrence and also swimming in lucky Lane 6—had run down Gross on the last lap of the 200-meter butterfly to claim the gold medal and the world record. Could lightning strike twice? Lawrence thought it could. When he got up Monday morning he began concocting a gold medal strategy for Armstrong.
Several hours before the finals were to start, Lawrence broke into a locked videotape room at the pool by removing a glass pane and watched replays of the 200-free heats. He decided that Armstrong should stick to the shoulder of Biondi, who, as the world-record holder in the 100 free, would surely go out fast. Armstrong could then slingshot past Biondi in the homestretch. It sounded good. Just for luck, Lawrence tossed a penny into the pool.