Three months ago it would have been difficult to imagine Tim Shaw thankful for runner-up spot in any kind of major swimming race. Yet there Shaw was last Friday evening climbing out of the Belmont Plaza pool in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. and looking happy over a 400-meter freestyle race in which he had not only placed second but also had lost the last of the three world records he once held. The occasion was the third night of the U.S. Olympic Trials and whooping it up in the lane next to Shaw was Brian Goodell, a 17-year-old California schoolboy with a Huck Finn expression and a machete-like stroke who had just trimmed .23 of a second off Shaw's record.
For the moment, however, Tim Shaw cared little about any of that. All that mattered was that the first three finishers in this event qualified for the Olympics, meaning that he would be joining Goodell, and third-place finisher Casey Converse, in Montreal.
Shaw, whose Olympic prospects were dim going into the race, showed his relief while being congratulated at poolside. A sometime water polo player, he suddenly pretended to be an announcer describing an exciting game. "It's a desperation shot, folks," he declared, pausing dramatically before adding, "and it goes...in!"
Shaw's bid for a spot on the U.S. team did indeed contain an element of desperation. The 1975 Sullivan Award winner came into the Trials weakened by the lingering effects of anemia and—partly because of that—with his confidence badly shaken. Then, at the very start of the six-day meet, he finished a shocking fifth in the 200-meter freestyle, another of the events in which he had held a world record. That raised the sobering prospect that the man who had been selected 1975's top amateur athlete would go to the Olympics as no more than an 800-meter relay-team alternate.
But the gloom lifted with the 400, a stunning race in which the 18-year-old Long Beach State freshman grittily got off his last-second shot. Shaw's world record was 3:53.31, and Goodell stormed to victory in 3:53.08, with Shaw just behind at 3:53.52, followed by—as quickly as you could snap your fingers—Converse and four other pursuers all touching out at under 3:56. Since the best time in history outside the U.S. is 3:57-plus, there was immediate talk of an American sweep in the event at Montreal, the only question being who would grab the gold.
"The doctor says I'll be completely healthy by Montreal," Shaw declared, building a case for himself. "That should help a lot."
But Goodell was boosting his own stock. "It will probably take another world record to win at the Olympics," he said. "I'll just have to do it again."
Such brave talk, and corresponding actions, are what the world has come to expect of American men swimmers, who routinely carve up one another at the Olympic Trials, after which the survivors go off to the Games and hack away at each other all over again with the rest of the swimming world on hand as not much more than witnesses to the mayhem. An example of such intramural battling was found in the backstroke events. John Naber, the 6'6" Southern Cal star, ended a long quest by winning the 200-meter backstroke in 2:00.64 to break the 3-year-old world record of East Germany's Roland Matthes by more than a second. But while Naber reached his goal at the Trials, it is apparent he will have his hands full in Montreal with the University of California's Peter Rocca, a fast-improving challenger who very nearly beat the USC swimmer in the 100 and pushed him to the record in the 200. "Peter's going to make me go faster," Naber acknowledged.
In contrast to the men's glittering prospects for gold medals, there is the fear that most of the American women will be going to Montreal only to practice their French. A couple of weeks before the Trials the already worried American women had been further jolted when East Germany's Wunderm�dchen went on a spree at their own Olympic trials in Berlin, a mopping-up operation that left them, tidily enough, with world records in all 13 women's Olympic events. Far from responding in kind, the American women looked as if they were in shock at Long Beach, the notable exception being Shirley Babashoff.
Babashoff did not get back her world record in the 400 meter freestyle, broken in Berlin by the GDR's Barbara Krause, but she did set her usual batch of American records, toying with her U.S. rivals even as she tried to bolster their flagging morale by insisting, "The East Germans may win on paper, but in Montreal we'll win in the water." The upbeat words sounded somehow more persuasive coming from Babashoff than they did from 5'3�" Lauri Siering, who qualified in the 200-meter breaststroke in 2:38.75, far off the world record (2:34.99) of the GDR's Karla Linke, and then feistily pronounced it a personal goal to lower her time by six seconds at the Olympics.