Everybody knew that the best backstroker in the world would be beaten sooner or later. But the longer they waited, the more a nagging suspicion seemed to rise: perhaps only hardening arteries could sink East Germany's 23-year-old Roland Matthes. For seven years, through two Olympics and a world championship, he had left all opponents in his world-record wake. And then came last Saturday and the much-heralded East German-U.S. meet at Concord, Calif., as theatrical a confrontation as swimming can produce.
The champion arrived for the competition burdened with ailments and self-doubts, the latter aggravated by the challenge of fast-improving John Naber, a stringy, 6'6" Southern Cal sophomore. Naber's goal was reflected in the GO, SNAKE, YOU'RE NO. 1 banner friends held aloft when he mounted the starting block. But beat Roland Matthes?
Thus it was a moment of high drama when, with nearly half a pool length to go in the 200-meter backstroke, it suddenly became apparent that Matthes' astonishing winning streak was going to end. The SRO crowd of 6,000 at the Concord pool cheered itself silly, and Bruce Furniss, one of the Snake's teammates, kept leaping up and down and screaming, "He's going to beat him! He's going to do it!" Matthes' teammates sat in stunned silence, their mood as blue as the color of their warmup jackets.
This was Matthes' first defeat in the backstroke since he lost a 100-meter race to countryman Joachim Rother in April 1967, and he suffered it with equanimity. Removing the yellow cap that covered his shoulder-length locks, he leaned across a lane marker to give Naber a bear hug and he smiled gallantly for the photographers. "I'm very disappointed," he said. "But a good athlete must learn to lose as well as to win, and tonight I am learning." Climbing from the water, he shrugged and noted, "Man wird alt—a fellow gets old."
The 18-year-old Naber was at once exultant and embarrassed. Allowing that Matthes had long been his idol—as he has been to practically every young backstroker—Naber said, "Beating him is like finding out there is no Santa Claus. It's like waking from a dream." Then noting that his 2:02.83 clocking was nearly a second slower than Matthes' world record, he added, "It was fortunate for me that Roland was out of shape."
That Matthes was indeed below par was confirmed the next evening when he lost again to Naber, who out-touched him to capture the 100 backstroke in 57.74—a satisfying win but well over Matthes' world record of 56.30. Nor were these woes the only ones endured by the East Germans during the two-day meet. The U.S. won the team diving title 24-20 and the overall swimming competition 198-145. With the downfall of Matthes the American men swept all 15 of their events. But they were expected to win; almost as heartening was the performance of the U.S. women, who proved that there is still such a thing as a moral victory.
The East German Wunderm�dchen took 10 of 14 events, but outscored the U.S. women by only 84-79. They were certainly not as overwhelming as they had been at last year's world championships in Belgrade, where they had swamped the U.S. women. Until that debacle, American water sprites had been secure in the knowledge that the Santa Clara Swim Club or Lakewood Aquatic could beat the world.
Coach Rudolf Schramme of East Germany was undismayed by his team's showing in Concord. "This competition here is just fine, but it's really only a tune-up," he said. "What we are pointing for is the Olympics in Montreal." For such as butterflyer Rosemarie Kother, individual medleyist Ulrike Tauber and backstroker Ulrike Richter, the tune-up was impressive. Each won two races in the Concord pool—with Richter and Kother breaking world records—and they erased any lingering doubts that they are the world's best in their specialties. And the East German women might have done even better but for some tough luck.
Renate Vogel placed third in the 200 breaststroke but was disqualified for an improper kick on the turns, an infraction that reduced the 19-year-old veteran to tears. "That's the way I've always swum it," she protested, and then came back to take the 100-meter breaststroke in a world record 1:12.28. Then star freestyler Kornelia Ender came down with a touch of the flu—her team doctor held American air conditioning partly to blame—that forced her to scratch from one event. Ender did swim in the 400 freestyle relay, only to badly misjudge a turn, an error that helped the U.S. win the event. But then she rallied once more to win the 100 free and anchor her 400 medley relay team to victory.
Still, none of this is to underrate the zeal of the American girls, who prepared for the battle of Concord like so many Paula Reveres. Leading the way, Shirley Babashoff equaled her own world record of 2:02.94 to take the 200 freestyle and then won the 400 free. The East Germans and Americans were allowed two entries apiece in individual events, and Babashoff also was runner-up in the 800 to Jo Harshbarger, a mere sparrow of a girl who finished just .09 over her world record of 8:47.5. What is more, Babashoff anchored the U.S. team in the 400 freestyle relay, the event in which Ender missed her turn, and another world record—3:51.99—was the result.