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A hush fell over the crowd packed into Brown University's Smith Swimming Center for the 1976 NCAA championships. In the water, Southern Cal's John Naber maneuvered his long, bony body to the wall, concentrating on the race he was about to swim, the 100-yard backstroke. Suddenly Naber noticed an ABC-TV camera trained on him. He flashed a here-I-am-world grin, then issued a joyful "Hi, Mom!" for the folks at home in Menlo Park, Calif. That done, he went ahead and won the race.
If John Naber can shamelessly ham it up before a big race, it is only natural that he carries on a bit afterward, too. Accordingly, it is well documented that Naber has celebrated swimming triumphs by enveloping astonished rivals with bear hugs, flinging roses into the crowd and randomly kissing any coed who happens to cross his path on a pool deck. A storklike figure at 6'6" and 195 pounds, he flaps around at other times adding new names to the list of 30-odd pen pals with whom he regularly corresponds or merrily tackling any and all subjects with reporters, from his fondness for trivia questions ("loads of fun") to his profoundest philosophical underpinnings ("The quality I treasure most is honesty...").
As for what makes him prance and pontificate, Naber is characteristically forthcoming. "I'm having a great time," he enthuses, an explanation that surely applied to the moment, also at Brown, when he mounted the victory stand, produced an Instamatic and startled the assembled photographers by snapping away at them. "I wanted to turn the tables on those guys," he said.
However he explains his antics, John Naber towers over swimming today by reason of his gangly height, the 14 American records he has set and, as much as anything, his exuberance. A 20-year-old junior, he has led Southern Cal to three straight NCAA championships and is well on the way to establishing himself as the most accomplished swimmer in collegiate history. Meanwhile, he looms as a good bet to win three gold medals at the 1976 Olympics.
Any such performance by Naber at Montreal would give the world an Olympic hero longer on personality than physical grace, the reverse of the image that Mark Spitz projected in 1972. Inspired by his physique, so free of definition that a fireman would feel comfortable sliding down it, Naber's USC teammates call him "Snake," which also covers the low, flat and sinuous way he slips through the water. Naber has picked up a couple of other nicknames that acknowledge his freewheeling nature. One is The Politician. Another is The Roman Candle.
He admirably lives up to these handles, too. As a teen-ager in Menlo Park, a shady suburb of San Francisco, he glad-handed his way to the presidency of the 2,000-member student body at Woodside High School, a success he credits to his popularity with "the straight-arrow crowd." Now a prominent member of USC's thriving Christian movement, he speaks with palpable sincerity about the joys of nature, the evils of narcotics and the importance of helping life's unfortunates. The Politician? Unleashed against any of this year's presidential hopefuls, it is hard to imagine John Naber carrying fewer than 40 states.
Less susceptible to prognosis is how he might celebrate such a triumph—which is where the Roman Candle business enters in. In a sport in which many athletes would never so much as smile without the coach's consent, Naber's impetuousness inevitably strikes some as excessive. Indiana sprint star Jim Montgomery shakes his head and concludes sadly, " Naber's a fruitcake." Perhaps worse, UCLA's Bruce Hardcastle, a perennial runner-up to Naber in the backstroke, sees in his rival's hail-fellow manner a touch of the Machiavellian.
"John is always so friendly, and that makes it hard to swim against him," Hardcastle complains. "I sometimes think he does it for a purpose. Like before a race he'll say, 'Let's you and I go one-two.' I know he means I'm the one finishing second. That's when I tell myself, 'Hey, maybe this guy's not that nice.' "
But Olympic hero Charlie Hickcox, now an AAU coach in Cincinnati, takes a different view. "Most great athletes are emotional," he says. "Naber just shows it more. There's nothing wrong with that." Naber also wins favor from a number of teen-age fans who, pleased to find a swimmer who will actually smile and wave at the crowd, have formed John Naber card sections at meets. Naber's showmanship impresses USC-bound Canadian backstroker Steve Pickell, who says, "John is outgoing and that's good for swimming because people notice him."
It is yet another sign of his fundamental enthusiasm that Naber himself appears to embrace all these viewpoints at once. "I do get carried away," he allows. "I guess I just enjoy being in the limelight." But there was also the revealing moment after Naber won high-point honors at last month's AAU championships in Long Beach's Belmont Plaza pool, a meet that many collegians, having swum in the NCAAs the week before, shrugged off as unimportant. Accepting congratulations on the pool deck, Naber declared with sudden gravity, "Any swimmer who took this meet lightly did a disservice to the fans, the press and, thereby, themselves." End of lecture.