They seemed to come from everywhere, men thrusting microphones under her nose, kids jostling for her autograph, each honoring in his own way the world's fastest woman swimmer. Of course, one does not usually think of a 14-year-old schoolgirl as a woman, but if Shane Gould demonstrated nothing else on her triumphant visit to California, it was that her athletic gifts went well beyond her years. Only when the adulation of the crowd dissolved her pretty features into a shy smile, baring the braces on her teeth, were watchers jolted into remembering just how suddenly this young Australian with the gunslinger's name had burst onto the scene.
There have been plenty of overnight sensations in swimming, but Shane, whose tender age makes that other evocatively named Australian prodigy, 19-year-old Evonne Goolagong, seem almost matronly by comparison, may be the most sensational of all. It was just last year that she failed to make her country's team for the Commonwealth Games, and the first time she ever swam outside Australia was during a European tour this past spring. That was when it happened. Competing at a meet in London, she stunned the swimming world by tieing the oldest record on the books, Dawn Fraser's 100-meter freestyle clocking of 58.9 in 1964, then showed it was no fluke when she propelled her 5'8" frame through the water the next day to a world mark of 2:06.5 in the 200.
When she turned up in the U.S. for last weekend's Santa Clara International Invitational, Shane was accompanied both by her parents and her newly acquired reputation, and she promptly struck a deal with the former even while she sought to enhance the latter. Moving in with a Santa Clara family, Shane asked her folks, who were staying at a nearby motel, to allow her to extend her week-long U.S. visit an extra 24 hours if she managed to set another world record, even though that would mean missing one more day of high school back in Australia.
The Goulds reluctantly agreed, perhaps figuring that with only four days to recover from her 20-hour flight from Sydney, and to adjust from her wintertime training regimen, their daughter was not in much danger of breaking any more records.
But Shane and pessimistic thoughts are strangers. "I'm pretty sure I'll get a record here," she shrugged, swaddling herself in a towel one morning after a workout in the glittering Santa Clara pool. "I seem to improve every time I get in the water. I haven't finished a race yet where I felt I couldn't go a bit further."
Shane merely wanted an extra day, but her rivals thought she would never leave. Shamelessly dominating the biggest international meet of the year—there were entries from 12 nations—she swept all four freestyle events and, sure enough, got another world record, this time at 400 meters. Going up against Karen Moras, a 17-year-old Australian who held the existing world mark of 4:22.6, Shane moved out in front early and kept enough for the last 50 meters to win going-away from Karen in 4:21.2.
Behind her prowess in the water was the kind of singlemindedness Shane showed immediately following her record swim. Earlier Friday afternoon she had breezed to victory in the 100 meters, and a fellow with one of those microphones asked which of the two events she preferred. Shane was already looking ahead to the next day. "I prefer the 200," she said, and she went on to win that one in 2:06.61, a frustrating one-tenth of a second above her own record. As if three world records for the season were not enough, Shane finished on Sunday with a 9:03.87 in the 800, 20 seconds better than her fastest previous time and tantalizingly close to Karen's record of 9:02.4.
"Shane is more focused on what she's doing than any athlete I've ever seen," marveled Australia's former swim star Murray Rose at poolside, and Shane's father, an airline marketing manager, could only agree. At home in the leafy Sydney suburb of Pymble, Ron Gould has found it necessary to sneak into Shane's bedroom and turn off her alarm clock in order to force her to miss an occasional five a.m. workout and get a little more sleep. Shane's love of physical activity dates back to the seven years she lived as a child in the Fiji Islands, where the elder Gould worked for Pan American World Airways. Shane spent her days tirelessly climbing coconut trees. "She never sucked her thumb," says Ron Gould. "Oh, she had a teddy bear, I suppose, but she never really needed any object of sublimation."
Along with such compatriots as Karen Moras and 16-year-old Graham Windeatt, the two world-record holders at 800 meters, Shane Gould has helped restore Australian swimming to the heights of a decade or more ago. This resurgence, brought about by Australia's relatively recent age-group program as well as by the year-round training made possible by new indoor pools, has posed a particular threat to the women swimmers of the U.S. They are clearly in danger of losing the supremacy they enjoyed at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, where they won 11 of 14 swimming gold medals.
But the challenge is coming not just from Australia, nor can it be said for sure that the U.S. men are altogether secure, either. Things are stirring everywhere in world swimming. One indication was the appearance at Santa Clara of 10 Soviet swimmers, the first ever to compete in the U.S. The Russians have improved steadily in recent years, but not nearly as quickly as they had hoped. "When we compare our times with others, we cannot be happy," said Nikolai Rusak, the Soviet director of aquatics. This may suggest that the Soviet Union is now ready to compete in topflight international competition on a more regular basis.