At college dual meets, Southern Cal's Rod Strachan has always been a so-so performer. Major meets are another matter, as Strachan demonstrated when he beat Tim McKee to win the 400 individual medley at Montreal in a world-record 4:23.68. One reason is that Strachan gets a big boost from shaving his body, which, like most swimmers, he does only at important meets. "I'm hairy-chested," he says. "When I shave, it makes me slick and tingly—kind of like using freshly waxed skis."
In search of similar sensations, less hirsute men let their beards grow in the days leading up to meets, and women stop shaving their legs—just to have something extra to shave off before the meet. Swimmers sometimes try to heighten the effect by shaving in stages, doing the arms, say, before preliminaries and the legs before finals. If the meet lasts several days, sandpaper is applied, as needed, to remove the nubs.
Alabama Coach Don Gambril, who wrote a thesis on the subject for his master's degree at Cal State, Los Angeles, says that shaving the body bares the nerve endings and increases "kinesthetic feel." Others say the practice provides a psychological boost; it is a kind of tribal ritual in which true believers think that something good will happen, whereupon it usually does. When it comes to shaving the head, there is not even that much consensus. Freestyler-butterflyer Mike Bruner, who made like Kojak at Montreal and won two gold medals, says of being bullet-domed, "It psychs me up and freaks other people out." The latter certainly was the case last year when a University of Miami coed shaved her head for a couple of big meets. However, most swimmers are content to wear short hair or bathing caps.
Something else that swimmers save for big meets are skin suits. After logging those miles of training in everything short of suits of armor, these snug, sheer wisps of fabric—women's suits weigh as little as 1� ounces, men's half as much—can be liberating in the extreme. Some people think that nude swimming is the logical next step, but the fact is that suits are useful in streamlining the body, as breaststroker Elizabeth McCleary discovered a few years ago at the Orchards Swimming Club in Towson, Md. One night she and four other women swimmers stole into the darkened pool and timed each other in a series of 50-yard sprints, both naked and in their swimsuits.
"It felt luxurious without our suits, and we thought we were going faster," McCleary said, "but we went slower in every instance."
To ensure that their swimmers go faster, coaches prefer clean, clear water and underwater lighting, which enhance visibility. It also helps on turns if walls are adorned with bold designs. And walls will be less slippery while pushing off if covered with either rough tile or textured "touch pads."
Attention is also given to water temperature, which can make sprinters tighten up if too cold, sap the energies of distance swimmers if too hot. "Swimmers perspire like any other athletes," says UCLA Coach George Haines. "They can lose seven pounds or even more in a 1,500-meter race. If the water's too hot, they can become dehydrated." Most coaches agree that 78� or 79� is ideal for meets, but that the water should be a bit warmer at workouts.
A lot of technology has gone into finding ways to minimize turbulence that, if unchecked, can bog the swimmers down. Gutters are built wide and deep and in such a way as to swallow up waves, and lane markers are made of flow-through discs or plastic spirals. The earliest wave-dispersing lane lines were built by Ohio's Kiefer McNeil, whose president, ex-heavyweight boxer Pete Rademacher, relates that the inspiration for them occurred while a company official was visiting a men's room on the Ohio Turnpike. "He got the idea when he noticed that the meshlike material in the bottom of the urinals greatly reduced splashing," Rademacher says. "It shows that necessity is the mother of invention, or something."
But swimmers compete in a three-dimensional element, so of late an effort has been made to reduce turbulence by making pools deep enough to prevent waves from bouncing off the bottom. The saying is that still waters run deep, and some people feel the deeper the better—12 feet or even more. But Olympic hero Don Schollander believes it is important for swimmers to get a "sense of speed" by being able to see bottom, and he considers 12 feet plenty deep enough. In any case, everybody agrees that the "shallow ends" of three to four feet found in most pools create too much turbulence.
Big meets are usually held in fast pools. One of the fastest is in the Los Angeles Swim Stadium. Built for the 1932 Olympics, it is five to 17 feet deep. Another is Australia's ancient North Sydney pool, a saltwater facility in which 80-odd world records have been broken—but no more will be. Since saltwater is more buoyant than fresh, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) no longer recognizes records set in this pool. On the other hand, some newer pools are even faster: the 4-year-old Cleveland State pool, for example, where NCAA swimmers went on their recent spree, and the 3-year-old facility at Canton, the C. T. Branin Natatorium, where the AAU short-course championships were held. Any list of the world's ten fastest pools would also include the one built for the Montreal Olympics. Boasting the latest in wave-dispersing lane markers—personally installed by Rademacher—and gutters, it also had 10 lanes instead of the usual eight. The outside lanes were left vacant during the Games, further diffusing the waves churned up by all those Olympic record breakers.