SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
August 23, 1976
Barred from Montreal, South African Jonty Skinner held his own "Games" in the AAU swim meet and became the Fastest Man Afloat
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August 23, 1976

A Feat Of Olympian Proportions

Barred from Montreal, South African Jonty Skinner held his own "Games" in the AAU swim meet and became the Fastest Man Afloat

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After winning the 100-meter freestyle in Philadelphia's sun-drenched John B. Kelly Pool, Jonty Skinner, a South African who swims during the college season for the University of Alabama, took one look at the overhead clock, saw the numbers 49.44, leaped into the air and joyously embraced his rivals. Then the 6'5" Skinner slumped, sobbing, against the edge of the pool. A moment later he climbed out of the water and put his arms around Alabama Coach Don Gambril. "Oh, Coach," he said in a choked voice, "Coach, I did it."

The cause of Skinner's tearful jubilation at the AAU outdoor championships was a world record made doubly gratifying by the fact that he had been deprived of an opportunity to do the same at the Montreal Olympics. Because of its apartheid policy, Skinner's homeland is banned from Olympic competition, and last winter he had sought Congressional assistance in hope of becoming an American citizen in time to try out for the U.S. team (SI, March 29). But a bill providing for hurry-up citizenship was rejected by a House subcommittee, forcing Skinner to watch on TV as Indiana University's Jim Montgomery won the 100 freestyle at the Games in 49.99—[6/10] of a second faster than Montgomery's old world record. U.S. men won 12 of 13 events in Montreal, but Doc Counsilman, the Indiana and Olympic men's coach, singled out Montgomery's breaking of the 50-second barrier as "an historic achievement."

In rewriting history so soon, Skinner created an ironic situation: his record means that in the most stunning year in Olympic swimming history, a non-Olympian now holds the title of Fastest Man Afloat. Leading all the way in Philadelphia, he pared half a second off Montgomery's three-week-old record and 1� seconds off his personal best. Montgomery had elected to pass up the AAU meet, but the cheering crowd of 4,000 at the Kelly Pool obviously agreed with Skinner that his absence was not critical. Once the emotions of the moment subsided a bit, Skinner said, "Since I couldn't swim against Jim, my opponent had to be the clock."

Skinner's remarkable performance, which occurred during the final session of the four-day competition, came just as it appeared that the 1976 AAU would become the first major meet in memory that failed to produce a world record. The consensus was that the pool in Philly was slow, and there also was talk about a letdown after Montreal, where world records were set or equaled in 22 of 26 events. In fact, except for Skinner's swim, the times in Philadelphia were so plodding that it seemed almost sacrilegious that the scoreboard clock was one of those used in Montreal. At least the clock seemed to think so; until it was rewired on the meet's third day, it refused to function properly.

Even with the poky times, the AAU did provide a chance for the 28 U.S. Olympians on hand—23 others skipped the meet—to treat themselves to a curtain call or two. Predictably, the one obliged to take the most bows was John Naber, winner of four golds and a silver in Montreal. Naber arrived in Philadelphia with the avowed intention of "promoting swimming," and it was toward this worthy end that the 6'6" USC star endlessly talked up the sport during TV appearances and signed so many autographs at poolside that his felt-tip pen went dry on the second day of the meet.

Naber said, too, that he was competing in the AAU meet, in which team standings are kept, out of loyalty to the Ladera Oaks ( Calif.) Aquatic Club. He also said he was there "because I want to get the Grand Slam." The Grand Slam? "Sure," replied Naber, flashing his famous grin. "That's when you win the same event in the AAU indoors, the AAU outdoors, the NCAAs, the Olympic Trials and Olympics in the same year."

This was about the first that anyone had heard of the Grand Slam, but then, it was also the first time that Naber was promoting the sport. Settling for a second in the 200 freestyle and a fifth in the 100 won by Skinner, Naber scored easy victories in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, completing a sweep of both events in the requisite meets. His 56.48 in the 100 and 2:03.73 in the 200 were off the world records of 55.49 and 1:59.19 he set at Montreal, but this mattered little to those who were now saying, "Hey, isn't that something about Naber getting two Grand Slams?"

Besides swelling Naber's hoard of championships, the meet produced some new stars, most of whom represented the swim club of Mission Viejo, a planned community of 35,000 south of Los Angeles. Mission Viejo attracts promising young swimmers from around the U.S., much as the Juilliard School does budding musicians, but until last week it was known mainly as the home club of Shirley Babashoff and Brian Goodell. Other Mission Viejo swimmers finally got their names in the headlines at Philadelphia because Babashoff, disappointed by her failure to win an individual gold medal in Montreal, has decided to stay out of competition until she enrolls at UCLA this fall. And though Goodell, the Olympic champion in the 400 and 1,500 freestyle events, was at the AAU, he admitted to a case of post-Olympic blahs.

Those taking up the slack for Mission Viejo as it swept the three team titles—men's, women's and combined—included a couple of fast-improving 14-year-olds, Alice Browne and Dawn Rodighiero, who have just the kind of fresh talent the U.S. will need if it hopes to overtake the powerful East German women swimmers. Browne took the 200 butterfly in Philly with a clocking of 2:15.57, while Rodighiero won both breaststrokes, the 100 in 1:14.64 and the 200 in 2:39.4.

While Browne and Rodighiero were making up for the absence of Babashoff, Goodell was being rudely treated by Mission Viejo teammates Casey Converse and Jesse Vassallo. Converse, who will be a freshman at Alabama this fall, was one of the few disappointments among the U.S. men at Montreal. He failed to make the finals in the 400 freestyle won by Goodell in a world-record 3:51.93. "I want to prove I'm a swimmer," Converse said as the AAU championships began, and he did just that by outracing Goodell to win the 400 in 3:54.65, which would have been good enough for the bronze medal at the Olympics. He also whipped the obviously tired Goodell in the 1,500.

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