To the girl swimmers from California's golden land the future always looks good, perhaps because they have sheltered themselves so from the present. They come from where the hot winds blow and the divorce rate far exceeds the national, where one person in 38 lives in a trailer, and where the misplaced children from broken homes gather. But for the girls there are only the blue pools filled season into season. Their hair is bleached by the chlorine and scorched by the sun into strands of gold tinsel, while their deep-brown bodies still carry reminders of baby fat. They will go through the consolidated high schools, and nobody will ask them out for Saturday night's dance or the drive-in movie and a burger on The Strip, because they have no time. Swimming is their life, and they are unconscious of all but its demands.
Debbie Meyer is the most famous of the breed, from the part of the golden land that is Arden Hills, Calif. Arden Hills is not like Carmel or Monterey, Big Sur or La Jolla. It huddles near the Sacramento's muddy water, cut off from the sea and San Francisco by the Coast Ranges and from the rest of the continent by the Sierra Nevada. Debbie came to Arden Hills by way of Haddonfield, N.J. when her father was transferred west by the Campbell Soup Co. In New Jersey she had been swimming only one hour a day maybe three times a week, and she couldn't even do the warmups when she started to swim for Sherm Chavoor, owner of the Arden Hills Swimming and Tennis Club. The first time she eased into the pool Sherm told her just to go ahead and do 20 laps to loosen up. After struggling through four laps she dragged her exhausted 98-pound frame out of the water.
That was only about four years ago. Now she is a few weeks short of 16, and she swims seven or eight miles every day in the heat or the wind and the rain. Every day.
But there are many of them like Debbie, so many that what was expected to be a relaxed warmup for the Olympic trials at last week's AAU National Swimming and Diving Championships in Lincoln, Neb. turned into a fierce Olympic preview. Perhaps the girls should have been pacing themselves, as the men did, but they realize that the U.S. team is going to be so strong that whoever qualifies for it at the trials August 24-28 is almost assured of a medal in many of the events two months later at Mexico City.
The girls are making the effort now because they know that their toughest competition is right here, anyway. They can't kid each other. Two of the top gold medal prospects, Debbie and Sue Pedersen, swim against each other every day for Sherm Chavoor—who also happens to be the women's Olympic coach—at the Arden Hills gopher ranch.
"Every morning when I come to the pool," Chavoor says, "the first thing I do is make a gopher check. This year so far I have found 164 gophers in the pool, and I got 11 in one day. The girls won't go near the pool unless I clean them out. Actually, the gophers aren't so bad; it's the snakes and muskrats that really bother them."
"Sherm is really horrible to those little gophers," Debbie says. "Sue and I sit on the bottom of the pool when he is getting rid of them."
"All that gore," says Sue. "Ecchh." But the pool usually does have a lot more swimmers in it than gophers. Chavoor, who has been coaching now for 21 years, has more than 180 young swimmers, and they are still coming.
"It's tough on these kids," Chavoor explains. "Swimming isn't like any other sport. In track or football you can at least talk while you're playing and watch what's going on around you. In swimming you have your face in the water, and you just follow that black line on the bottom of the pool. Sometimes I think I'd like to dump some fish in the pool and give the kids something to look at while they're working out. People think that girl swimmers, or even boys for that matter, peak when they are 16 or 17, but it isn't true at all. These kids are no different from any other athletes, and they would peak at the same time, too, around 23 or 24.
"The problem is that they have no program after age group and high school to go into. The boys can go on in college, but they still don't get the amount of pool time that they need. The whole thing is pool time. The reason most of the swimmers are from California is pool time. Everybody out here has a pool, and you can swim in it all year round. It's too bad the girls can't go on after high school when they've spent so much time at it."