If there is one thing Bobby McGregor hates, it is swimming first thing in the morning. Bobby is a tall, lithe 20-year-old Scot and one of the fastest swimmers in history. He is also one of the most reluctant, which may account for the fact that he is a solid favorite for the 100-meter freestyle gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics at an age when many top racing swimmers are burned out. Bobby approaches his daily 7:30 a.m. workout with deep revulsion. He walks into the pool at the shallow end, shuddering. His chest is puffed out and he tiptoes slowly forward, delaying the moment of total immersion as long as possible.
This is the beginning of a light day's training, which Bobby himself describes as "a triviality." He thinks he should perhaps be putting in two tough two-hour pool sessions every day, but, well, his architectural studies in Glasgow take time, and all he actually manages is an hour and a half mornings and an hour evenings. Anyway, he doesn't really believe in the modern school of swim-till-it-hurts self-torture. "It is the quality of training that counts," he says, "not the quantity."
Two weeks before a big meet Bobby cuts his meager workouts drastically—often swimming no more than 500 yards a day—and if that seems to be making him stale he simply chucks the whole business and goes fishing.
For Bobby this low-pressure routine has produced startling success. In the past 10 months no other swimmer has come within a second of his best 110-yard performances—and in the sprints a second is a big chunk of time. Bobby set his first world record last July at 110 yards—two feet more than 100 meters and a common sprint distance in the nonmetric countries. That was in the 55-yard salt-water pool at Blackpool, England, and Bobby's time was 54.4 seconds. In August he chipped that to 54.1 and in September to 54 seconds flat, where the record now stands. His current form is tremendous: in May he churned along the Blackpool lanes in 54 again. "Fifty-three five will win the Olympic 100 meters easy," he says, "and I'll be at 53.5." Then, lest his neighbors think him guilty of the Scots' sin of cockiness, he adds: "At least I think I will."
The 100 meters is the most glamorous of the Olympic swimming events, and it has long been the private property of the United States, Australia and Japan. Since the Games began, in 1896, only three 100-meter gold medals have eluded those countries. Since World War II only three bronze medals in the event have gone elsewhere. The sheer, shining novelty of a Scots lad fighting for room at the top has made McGregor a British celebrity.
Bobby receives an astonishing amount of mail, much of it from adoring teenage girls. Not long ago a man groping for words of high tribute introduced Bobby to a school audience as "someone as well known as George, Paul, Ringo and John." The occasion was the annual prize-giving day of his old school, Comely Park Primary in Falkirk, an iron and coal town midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. After an enthusiastic rendition of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by the school's percussion band and a recitation of a Scots nursery rhyme, Voodoo for Miss Maverick, by a small girl with a white ribbon in her hair, Bobby stepped shyly forward to present the swimming prizes. When he handed a cup to the champion girl swimmer she in turn presented a fishing line to him. Everybody in Falkirk knows that Bobby would rather fish than swim. "All the best for Tokyo," Headmaster Arthur Doyle said to Bobby at tea later. Teachers and guests applauded vigorously, and Bobby looked down and away, very embarrassed.
Robert Bilsland McGregor made his first hesitant splash in the swimming world when he was 9. His father, David, an Olympic water poloist for Britain in 1936, had become manager of the Falkirk Baths. Bobby wanted to fish in a local canal. But he could not swim, and his father said he would have to learn before he could go fishing alone. "He didn't want to learn how to swim before that," says McGregor. "He started with the breaststroke, and once I had him swimming the crawl I realized that he had great ability and potential."
A natural athlete, Bobby played a wicked center half in school soccer and hit a better-than-average golf shot. "He had that rhythm about him," says his father, "and the eye. More than that, he always liked to win. There was none of this being a good loser and that sort of nonsense."
Not until he was 14 did Bobby begin racing, and then only in minor events. A year later, in 1959, "he became sort of interested," as his father puts it. That year he won his first important championship, the West Scotland junior 100-yard freestyle title.
It was in 1962 that Bobby first joined the British national team. He celebrated by defeating the German ace Frank Wiegand at 100 meters. Shortly thereafter he beat Germany's Hans-Joachim Klein, the present world 200-meter record holder, at 110 yards, and in the European championships at Leipzig his leg of the 400-meter relay was the fastest of all the 32 competitors.