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The long race was nearly over when the 2,000 fans packed into Brown University's Smith Swimming Center last Saturday night suddenly stood up shouting and thunderously stamped their feet. In the pool below them Tim Shaw was slipping smoothly through the water, inexorably edging farther and farther ahead of his nearest rival, obviously bound for an American record in the 1,650-yard freestyle. For Shaw, a freshman at Long Beach State, it would be his second such record in the NCAA swimming and diving championships, but the crowd's ear-splitting reaction that affirmed his emergence as the new king of college swimming seemed oddly out of place on a supposedly blas� Ivy League campus.
What seemed odder still was that Shaw's crowd-pleasing deeds, coming less than four months before the Summer Olympics, may be as significant as any the 18-year-old Californian had achieved in the past. Just two months ago he received the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete of 1975, a year in which he held records in every freestyle event from 200 to 1,500 meters. Yet as the Olympics neared, most of Shaw's records had been broken, leaving him with only the 400.
The big shocker had come five weeks ago when Australia's Steve Holland reeled off a 15:10.89 in the 1,500, fully 10 seconds better than Shaw's mark. Meanwhile, Shaw had not been swimming well over the winter, raising fears that he might have had the ill luck to peak a year before the Olympics.
"I've been kind of plowing through the water this season," Shaw fretted while relaxing in a Providence motel room on the eve of the NCAA meet. "It's been only the last couple of weeks that I've started going better in workouts. I could use a couple of good swims here to prove I'm not slipping."
Shaw proceeded to prove it well enough to utterly overshadow a contest for the team championship that was, in fact, no contest at all. Southern Cal rolled up a near-record 398 points to take its third straight title in a rout, leaving Tennessee (237), UCLA (213) and fading superpower Indiana (199) to battle among themselves for the next three places. Coming armed both with depth and stars, Coach Peter Daland's Trojans had as many as four out of a possible six finalists in some races and missed making the finals in only three of the 16 swimming events. All told, USC took home seven firsts, a haul marred only by the fact that it was USC's star, freestyler-backstroker John Naber, who was deposed by Shaw as the dominant figure in collegiate ranks. Now a junior, Naber had won three events as a freshman, repeated as a sophomore and was seeking his seventh straight NCAA individual championship when he came up against Shaw in the opening swimming event of the four-day meet.
It was a classic matchup, pitting Naber, the American record holder in the 500 freestyle, against Shaw, whose 400-meter world record is the event's metric equivalent. While Shaw excels in 50-meter world-class pools, Naber has fared better in 25-yard pools like those in which the NCAAs are held, because of the more frequent turns. Naber is especially skilled at catapulting his 6'6" body off the walls. "Tim will win the straightaways and I'll win the turns," he predicted before the 500. "It should be quite a race."
Unhappily for Naber, Shaw managed to hit the wall with some authority of his own, all but nullifying Naber's advantage. "I knew I couldn't let him beat me off the walls too much, so I really concentrated on my turns," Shaw said. He stayed pretty much at Naber's shoulder for the first 275 yards, surging into the lead just before the 300 mark, and then withstood several late charges. Naber's old record was 4:20.45, and both swimmers went under it, Shaw touching in 4:19.05, Naber in 4:19.71. Swallowing his disappointment, the ever-effusive Naber reached across the lane marker and held Shaw's hand aloft in triumph.
Although Naber was not entered in the 1,650, it was his record—15:09.51—that fell there, too. Shaw's time was 15:06.76, all the more impressive in that his closest rival, Southern Cal's Ron Orr, finished more than a pool length behind. For most of the way Shaw had not been pressed.
After the opening-night defeat, Naber recovered to take both the 100-and 200-yard backstrokes as well as swimming on USC teams that swept all three relay events, setting American records in two, the 400 free (2:57.54) and 800 free (6:33.13). Though the loss in the 500 stopped his streak, Naber's backstroke wins gave him an imposing eight NCAA individual titles. With his senior year yet to come—and with swimmers allowed to enter three individual events—he still remains a threat to break the NCAA career record of nine championships set by Washington's Jack Medica in the '30s and equaled by USC's Roy Saari in the '60s. He also remains the leading U.S. Olympic hope in the backstroke, although the loss to Shaw momentarily tempered some big ideas he was nurturing regarding the 400 free.
"I think I still might have a chance to make the U.S. team in the 400 and maybe win a medal," he said, "but I've got to be realistic about the gold. Tim will be very hard for anybody to beat."