SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
September 05, 1977
The anticipated showdown between U.S. and East German women was upstaged when Joe Bottom smashed swimming's oldest record
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September 05, 1977

Bottom Was Up To Topping A Mark

The anticipated showdown between U.S. and East German women was upstaged when Joe Bottom smashed swimming's oldest record

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Marching triumphantly around East Berlin's Karl Friedrich Friesen Stadium's green-carpeted pool deck last Saturday afternoon, American swimmer Joe Bottom proved himself both gallant and accurate. Without breaking stride, Bottom flung the flowers he was carrying into the lap of Mrs. David Bolen, who was sitting in the stands with her husband, the U.S. Ambassador to East Germany. Betty Bolen smiled. Joe Bottom smiled. And across the pool, other U.S. swimmers hugged one another and cheered.

The occasion for all this exultation was a world record by Bottom in the 100-meter butterfly, the surprise highlight of the G.D.R.-U.S. dual meet in the East German capital. Before a sellout crowd of 8,500, Bottom had just beaten G.D.R. star Roger Pyttel to win the fly in 54.18, thereby breaking Mark Spitz' 10-year hold on the record. Spitz last lowered the mark at the 1972 Olympics and that clocking of 54.27 was the only individual world swimming record more than 15 months old. Spitz, doing color commentary for ABC-TV, was at poolside in Berlin, but Bottom even rivaled him when it came to analysis. "It was," Bottom observed for the cameras, "a very conspicuous record."

For Bottom, silver medalist in the event at Montreal, the world record was just one of his contributions to the U.S. effort in Berlin. He also swam on the 4 x 100 freestyle relay team that set a world record of 3:21.11, a whopping 3.74 seconds below the previous mark, and as co-captain of the 36-member U.S. team, led the cheers as American men won 13 of 15 events, a blitz that also included a world record in the 400 freestyle by Brian Goodell.

While the men continued the dominance they showed at Montreal, a young and eager U.S. women's team was winning only two of 14 events against the mighty East German Fraulein. But this was two events more than some people expected the Americans to win and helped the U.S. take the overall swimming team title 176 to 168.

To the crowds in the Berlin stadium, however, the results seemed almost incidental. The two-day meet had been sold out for months in advance and the stadium, built in 1951, had been whitewashed and retiled in anticipation of the American visit. At the start of the meet, spectators clapped their hands to the martial music of the German People's Police Band but they offered only muted cheers during the races, watching instead in the respectful manner of medical students observing open-heart surgery. "It's a different type of fan here," Goodell said after his world record. "They obviously appreciate swimming, but they're kind of quiet."

One could not have accused Goodell's compatriots of being overly silent. The U.S. team had competed the week before at the AAU championships in Mission Viejo, Calif., where the shallow—hence turbulent—pool had slowed them down. After a 13-hour flight the Americans arrived Tuesday night in Berlin. They were whisked through Checkpoint Charlie by bus and began working out at the Friesen pool, which is more than seven feet deep—almost twice the depth of the Mission Viejo pool. The U.S.squad promptly pronounced the pool "fast."

The Americans remained enthusiastic even in the face of arctic blasts that issued from the air-conditioning ducts in the private room where they took their meals in the 37-story Hotel Stadt Berlin. Carolyn Finneran, the women's chaper-one, said that the room seemed to be about the same temperature as the walk-in refrigerator in the Carvel ice cream shop she and her husband once ran in New York. But it was not until the third day that the U.S. swimmers, some of whom had been dining in parkas, prevailed upon their hosts to turn down the accursed air. By then, the team had eight fresh colds; fortunately, most of them cleared up by the weekend.

One possible reason for the delayed request was the U.S. team's preoccupation with keeping its women swimmers in a proper frame of mind to face the awesome East Germans. The G.D.R. women won 11 of 13 events at Montreal and many American coaches have attributed their prowess at least partly to weight training, which American women once avoided for fear it would make them too bulky. The new breed of U.S. women swimmers (only five Olympians were on the American squad) almost all lift weights, and they either are willing to risk a little brawn or somehow manage to remain as rail-thin as Tracy Caulkins, the 14-year-old string bean who does 45 minutes of weight work three times a week and who broke three American records at Mission Viejo. "Tare," as friends call her ("It's Tracy spelled sideways," she says) had previously seen East German swimmers only on TV, and she said, "I've heard they're big and strong and masculine-like." That was before she got a look at them in Berlin. On the eve of the big meet, sitting in Coach Frank Keefe's hotel room, she said, "Hey, those girls aren't so big."

Keefe nodded and replied, "That's right, Tracy, and tomorrow you're going to beat them."

Next day Tracy did as she was told. Two entrants from each country were allowed in each event and Caulkins and 15-year-old Nancy Hogshead stunned the East Germans in the competition's second race for women, the 200 butterfly. Caulkins won in 2:12.43, overtaking Hogshead in the stretch. Both touched ahead of the G.D.R.'s Andrea Pollack, a gold medalist at Montreal, and Anett Fie-big, the European champion. Caulkins later broke her week-old American records in the 100 breaststroke (1:12.98) and in the 200 individual medley (2:18.55), but finished behind G.D.R. women in both events. The only other American girl to win was 15-year-old Alice Browne, who took the 800 over Petra Th�mer, the gold medalist in the 400 and 800 at Montreal. Browne's time was 8:36.62, an American record but 1� seconds off Th�mer's world record.

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