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Shirley Babashoff climbed out of Belgrade's Tasmajdan pool and burst into tears. Teammate Deena Deardurff put on her sweat suit and disappeared into a nearby park, where she walked dejectedly beneath the great domes of St. Mark's Eastern Orthodox Church. Competing last week in the first aquatic world championships, Babashoff and Deardurff had just swum freestyle and butterfly respectively on a U.S. women's 400-meter medley relay team that was roundly beaten by four gifted swimmers from East Germany. "I just wanted to be alone," Deardurff said later. "I was astonished. I couldn't believe anybody could go that fast."
The medley relay was the most stunning of a number of outstanding swims by East German women at a competition that also included world championships in water polo, diving and synchronized swimming. The big splashoff was staged at four pools scattered around the Yugoslav capital, the handsome facilities festooned with billboards for Coppertone and Electrolux as well as for the people's state lottery. Unfazed by these blatant concessions to free enterprise, the East German medleyists put on a display of pure collectivism to leave their American rivals a gaping eight body lengths behind. The GDR girls broke seven world records in the meet, with two of them coming in the medley relay: a lead-off 1:04.99 by 14-year-old Ulrike Richter and a 4:16.84 for the race as a whole. Only opening legs of relays count officially as records, yet it was an awesome fact that the other GDR swimmers—breaststroker Renate Vogel, butterflyer Rosemarie Kother and freestyler Kornelia Ender—each swam the equivalent of a world record time, too.
All this raised the question of how a nation of 17 million, a second-rank power a few months ago, had so quickly moved to the top of women's swimming. Lifting their tots of slivovitz at the bar of the Hotel Metropol, some European sportswriters credited the GDR's success to mysterious wonder drugs while others echoed the sentiments of those U.S. girls who sourly referred to their German rivals as "a bunch of boys." This charge was belied, however, by the East Germans' provocative swimsuits, high-necked garments made of stretchy membrane-thin material. If bulging muscles were often in evidence, the snug suits revealed the girls poured into them to be bona fide in every other particular.
Whatever the reasons for its sudden prowess, the GDR left no doubt in Belgrade that it meant to dominate women's swimming as it does women's track. Its girls won 10 of 14 events, outscoring the U.S. for the women's team title 188-143. Reducing the competition to practically a dual meet, the Americans took three of the remaining four events, in each case at distances of 200 meters or more. This last fact drew from Gerd Barthelmes, general secretary of the GDR swimming federation, a vow that could scarcely be taken lightly. "We have done well here in the sprints," he said. "Now we must go home and do better in distance swimming."
It was fortunate for the U.S. that women's swimming was only part of the aquatic championships. The American men swimmers won eight of 15 events, easily outscoring the runner-up GDR 204 points to 97. The U.S.'s second-place finish to Italy in men's diving was due largely to Air Force Lieutenant Phil Boggs, who won the three-meter springboard. An all-California team came in fifth behind champion Hungary in water polo, while the U.S. won all three categories in synchronized swimming, a women-only sport that is rapidly gaining popularity even though, as one American coach admitted, "Some people still think we're sort of la-di-da."
Counting all sports, the U.S. took 15 of 37 gold medals, a respectable haul for a squad loaded with promising but extremely young athletes. With Mark Spitz and other U.S. stars retired, the men's swim team was short on experience, a weakness only partially hidden by a flowering of Spitz-style mustaches. Even the mauled American women could take heart that they did better than poor Australia. Having lost Shane Gould to retirement, the once-mighty Aussie girls finished no better than fourth in any event. U.S. girls still showed depth, raising hopes that in the distant, impenetrable future—which in swimming could be tomorrow morning—they will regain their accustomed glory.
It was this transient nature of swimming that prompted the 103-nation F�d�ration Internationale de Natation (FINA) to hold the world championships. Like the IAAF, which governs the other major international sport, track and field, FINA had been content to confine its world competition to the Olympics, but all that changed with last week's championships. "We felt that swimming needed exposure more often than every four years," explained FINA President Harold Henning, a dentist from Naperville, Ill. "It's common for some kids to peak too early for the Olympics and others too late." The next world championships are planned for Cali, Colombia in 1975 and the event will settle into a quadrennial, mid-Olympiad schedule—1978, 1982, and so on—after that.
In another show of independence on the eve of the world championships, FINA threatened to withdraw from the 1976 Olympics should the IOC eliminate more than three swimming events or, alternatively, if Montreal provides fewer than 9,000 seats for swimming—two eventualities the federation considers calamitous. By coincidence, the Belgrade meet came at a time when some Olympic critics were advocating decentralizing the Games into a series of just this kind of world championships. As a dry run, the FINA show was well organized, and went off with a minimum of acrimony. Israel's water-polo team was kept under heavy guard and, in welcome contrast both to Munich and to last month's turbulent World Student Games in Moscow, the Israelis were treated courteously and competed without incident.
The championships also fulfilled the avowed purpose of accommodating emergent swimmers, the best being American Jim Montgomery and Australian Steve Holland. The 18-year-old Montgomery, a 6'5", 190-pound freestyler—and free spirit—from Madison, Wis., finished no better than 23rd in any event at last year's U.S. Olympic Trials, but last week he amassed five gold medals, winning the 100 and 200 freestyles and swimming on three victorious U.S. relays. Bound for Indiana University, Montgomery shrugged off all mention of Spitz. "Come back and see me in three years with your Spitz comparisons," he said. The 15-year-old Holland, who is 5'10" and weighs 130 pounds, turned in a 1,500-meter freestyle race that in a single stroke—or, rather, a lot of them—broke his own world record, gave the Aussies their only gold medal of any kind and kept Californian Rick DeMont's week from being fully redemptive.
DeMont arrived in Belgrade as the most celebrated Olympian to be stripped of a gold medal since Jim Thorpe. He won the 400 freestyle at Munich only to have the victory nullified for taking a prohibited asthma medication, a mistake that has been laid to the U.S. team doctors. Under pressure from Olympic brass, he reluctantly returned his gold medal a few weeks ago and he wanted to forget the whole sorry affair.