A few weeks before the 1976 Olympics, Forbes Carlile, one of Australia's leading swimming coaches, was musing about his sport's reckless way with world records. "I thought two decades ago that performances would have leveled off," he said. "I feel they must start flattening out soon."
Since Carlile spoke, swim times have plunged even more precipitously. At Montreal world records were set in 22 of 26 events, which together with three other world records broken at a pre-Olympic meet in Berlin left just one of the 26 records—Mark Spitz' 54.27 in the 100-meter butterfly, set at the '72 Games—more than two months old. Following this binge in 50-meter Olympic-size pools, the action shifted to the 25-yard short courses found in the U.S. Last month at the NCAA meet at Cleveland State University, all 16 events were swum faster than ever before. Then two weeks ago, at the AAU short-course nationals in Canton, Ohio, the women made their splash with 11 more record clockings. The aftershock of this spree is even more devastating than last summer's: in the 32 standard short-course events only two records are more than three months old.
What makes this ceaseless assault all the more extraordinary is that it is occurring in a sport enjoying less than universal participation. Short of growing gills and fins, it takes time, money and a lot of dreary practice laps to conquer the alien environment in which swimmers compete, a fact that scares away plenty of would-be John Nabers and Kornelia Enders. As a consequence, big-time swimming has the flavor of an exclusive splash party; just seven countries shared the swimming medals at Montreal as compared to 23 countries in track and field.
But those who do take the plunge tend to be zealous. It is hardly an accident that one of the sport's reigning superpowers is East Germany, a centralized society that has marshaled its technological resources to dominate women's swimming. But it is also significant that the U.S. remains No. 1 overall. Without much of a professional payoff, swimming in this country is confined to those who can afford the luxury, with the result that it is a country-club sport, a lily-white sport—and pretty much a California sport. Yet Peter Daland, coach of perennial NCAA champion Southern Cal, notes that these limitations are also, in a sense, strengths.
"Swimming people are generally upper middle class, which is the most disciplined sector of our society," Daland says. "They're achievement-oriented. They're the hard workers and tinkerers."
The best place to find the go-getters Daland is talking about is in the sport's thriving age-group program, the well-spring of most of the growling coaches and aggressive parents of swimming legend. Launched in the late '40s, age-group competition offers children as young as eight or nine a chance to break sanctioned national records. These attractions help the swim coach beat the football coach to a lot of big, strong youngsters. The enduring effects were apparent at Montreal, where the sight of all those strapping American swimmers—the U.S. men averaged 6'1", the women 5'8"—had Jack Nelson, the 5'6" women's swim coach, muttering, "Everybody's growing except me." But Kansas Track Coach Bob Timmons, who was once a swimming coach in Wichita, feels that the main benefit of age-group swimming is psychological.
"By giving the kids national records to shoot for, age-group swimming has taught them that records aren't sacred," Timmons says. "While track people were still talking about barriers—four-minute miles and the like—swimmers were out there breaking records."
The talented, record-hungry swimmers nurtured by the age-group program have also been innovative, another big factor in the evanescence of swimming records. In the mid-'50s swimmers got the idea they could go faster by shaving their bodies, theorizing there would be less drag. Though the actual value of shaving has yet to be proved, an unquestioned breakthrough came in the 1950s after freestylers discovered they could execute quicker turns by somersaulting and pushing off the pool wall with their feet. So what if the rules required a hand touch? The rules were changed and "flip turns" are now universal. Much the same sort of thing happened when East German women introduced their revealing "skin suits" in the early '70s. American women were scandalized—until the East Germans started beating them. Then U.S. swimmers began wearing skin suits, too.
Today, anxious to carry this technological one-upmanship even further, swim parents and coaches are spending a lot of time in basement workshops devising New Improved Starting Blocks, the Ultimate Bathing Cap and anything else that might conceivably keep times dropping. In the vanguard of this effort is Larry Wan of Fountain Valley, Calif., a Yale-educated engineer whose wife Sara is an age-group coach and whose two sons are swimmers. Wan owns a small electronics firm, Sycom, Inc., which recently came out with Pasar, a $130 battery-powered unit that straps on to the swimmer's head and emits a metronomelike beep to help regulate stroking tempo during workouts. And for another $200, a coach can buy a transmitter from Sycom that will deliver his orders through the Pasar. Wan's firm is also developing a training aid called Cybertron, an electronically sensitized mitten that issues a tone which varies in pitch according to the amount of water pressure exerted on the hand—and thus, Wan says, "helps the swimmer develop a more efficient stroke."
None of this is any more futuristic, however, than the product developed by an Iowa osteopath named Jon Van Cleave. His brainstorm is Time-Off, a spray-on solution selling at $6.95 for a 10-ounce can, said to hydrodynamically "friction-proof swimmers. Time-Off was tried at Montreal by ex- University of Florida star Tim McKee, who sprayed himself before winning the silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley. "I don't know if it helped or not," McKee allows, "but I figure it didn't hurt, either."