To the dismay of many competitors, also in Florida will be the dazzling Laura Blears Ching, a 23-year-old Hawaiian waitress who is the best female surfer in the world and commanded chauvinistic attention in Houston because of her alluring figure. "She ain't your basic Tom Sawyer," Sperber conceded.
The earthy Ching brought along her father, Lord James Blears ("The famous Lord Tally Ho, former world's light-heavyweight wrestling champion"), her husband, Bon Ching ("My name is Cyrus Meek Halanani Ching, man. Bon? I eat bonbons, man."), a full-size Hawaiian flag and several thousand puka shell necklaces. She qualified for Florida by ending up sixth in Group 1, but more impressive were her soulfulness, her John Lennon vocabulary and the fact that she will soon be seen in an altogether different magazine. On her board. In the altogether.
"I dig posing nude, man," said Ching. "It's a downer when people think chicks who do sports aren't chicky enough. It's a trip bein' a chick, man. A groove. Superstars? Far out, man."
But even the likes of Ching could not entirely upstage Billie Jean King, who was returning to the scene of her most glorious conquest, otherwise known as Riggs' Last Stand. B.J. psyched herself by claiming she was "in with some real dogs," and finished fifth in Peppler's group to easily qualify for the finals. She even won the basketball shooting event, upsetting the volleyball player in a sudden-death playoff.
There was a tense, climactic struggle between Sperber and Cathy Rigby for Group 2's last qualifying spot. The 4'11" gymnast finally defeated the bowler by a bare half-point when she chugged through the hazardous obstacle course and nailed third place in the event behind sprinters Tyus, who finished third in the group, and Barbara Ferrell, a non-qualifier.
It was questionable whether the golfers would have won so much as a chugalug. Jane Blalock had the worst luck of the tournament, and effervescent Palmer kept missing the cut in every event and howling, "I'm so glad I got a job."
As for the rowing event, it was Superstars at its nonsensical worst—or best. The race was held 50 miles from Houston on Lake Conroe, to which the women were carted in a bus early one morning. "The last time I was in a boat, I stayed the night," said Palmer.
The officials should have become suspicious when Peppier and Joyce kept breaking their oarlocks in practice. Sure enough, when Ching set off as the first contestant in her yellow boat, her oars popped out. She made another run, then another, and they resulted in breakdowns. "Get her a motor," screamed spectators, raising their paper cups.
From there the competition had nowhere to go but down. Equipment failures mounted in the darkest hour for J.C. Penney, which supplied the boats. Tyus speared a buoy with her oar. Ferrell fell backwards in her boat. B.J. King drifted in circles. Smith inherited Ching's wayward yellow vessel, tried twice, failed twice, complained and then gave up. "Next time get your boats at Sears," she snickered, and went off to play golf. Golf wasn't even in the competition. "I really care," Smith said.
"I just figured this out," said Marilynn Preston of The Chicago Tribune
. "ABC only gets its kicks when the girls look like fools. This is the worst exploitation of women yet."