If there was any mystery about the identity of this country's leading male swimmer, UCLA's Brian Goodell certainly helped clear it up last week at the NCAA championships. A year ago Goodell joined Mark Spitz and John Naber as the only freshmen to win three races at the same NCAA meet, and he won the identical events again this time, easily outdistancing all challengers in Cleveland State University's pool. Goodell also proved beyond doubt that his physical problems of last summer were not serious and that he is once again the same dependable young man who did so well in the 1976 Olympics.
Until last summer, Goodell had an aura of invincibility about him, of relentlessness, although, deceptively, he looked and acted like the kid next door. At 17, Goodell won the 400-meter and 1,500-meter freestyles at Montreal, and he continued to dominate distance swimming in 1977 before starring in last year's NCAAs. Then last summer at The Woodlands, Texas, he faltered in the AAU nationals and didn't make the 45-member U.S. team for the world championships in West Berlin. He was suffering from a strep throat, but his failure at the AAUs was shocking just the same: Brian Goodell. Olympic champion, simply wasn't supposed to lose.
All of which pressed on his mind in Cleveland, along with certain other matters. For instance, it was finals week back at UCLA, and Goodell and several Bruin teammates were scheduled to take a three-hour exam in Math 1B in their hotel practically on the eve of the NCAA meet. So there was Goodell poring over a slender volume called A Primer for Calculus. "I sure don't feel like studying math," he said. An assistant coach from UCLA proctored the examination, and Goodell was happy when it was over. Emerging from the room after the test, he said with a relieved air, "It wasn't too hard. I think I did O.K."
That freed Goodell for his well-plotted heroics at the NCAAs. On his return to UCLA after his big disappointment last summer, he found a new weight room, a new crop of freshmen and a new coach. Ron Ballatore, George Haines having quit to return to club coaching. Goodell swam spectacularly during the Bruins' dual-meet season, lowering his collegiate record for 1,000 yards by 9.15 seconds (to 8:52.45) in a win over Texas and also leading the Bruins to victories over defending NCAA champion Tennessee and perennial power Southern Cal. "I came back to school recharged and ready to go and I still feel that way," Goodell said last week. "There are a lot of good swimmers in this meet, but if I'm feeling good I don't think anybody will be close to me."
Before it was over, the NCAA meet produced eight American or U.S. open records, but Goodell missed his own record of 4:16.40 in the 500-yard freestyle, the meet's opening event, which he won in 4:16.43. Still, when Goodell hit the wall, his closest pursuer, Harvard's Bobby Hackett, was a gaping six yards behind. The next night Goodell got a record, pulling away from University of California freshman Jim Johnson to win the 400 individual medley in 3:50.80, breaking Jesse Vassallo's 3:51.69. On Saturday night he went after his own American record of 14:54.54 in the 1,650 freestyle and surged into an early and growing lead. As he moved into the final 150 yards, the crowd rose and roared for a new record. Goodell got one by a hairbreadth, touching in 14:54.13.
Despite his steady, strong performances, Goodell was generally disappointed in his times. In the 1,650, for example, he had hoped to break 14:50 but, as he explained, "I got out front and kind of lost concentration during the middle of the race." He added, "I think I can go faster than that."
In two weeks Goodell will be competing in the AAU short-course nationals in Los Angeles, where eager high school swimmers will be challenging him and other collegians for spots on the U.S. team at this summer's Pan-American Games. Beyond that, barely a year away, loom the 1980 Olympics, where Goodell hopes to defend his 400 and 1,500 titles and also, perhaps, to enter the 200 freestyle and the 800 freestyle relay. He is sure to be a marked man every watery inch of the way.
Goodell also was disappointed, as were his teammates, by the way the race for the NCAA team title went. UCLA had hoped to win its first championship, but Goodell received less support than expected and the Bruins finished fifth in a hot race among six teams from the Pac 10 and the Southeastern Conference. California also was looking for its first NCAA team title and got it, winning seven of 16 events to outscore runner-up Southern California 287 to 227. Florida was third, followed by Tennessee, UCLA and Auburn.
Cal's victory was a triumph for its coach, Nort Thornton, who took over in 1974 after a successful career at Foothill Junior College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. The Golden Bears hadn't even scored at the just-completed NCAA meet, but Thornton pulled off an early coup by landing Peter Rocca, a solid backstroker from nearby Orinda, Calif., who wound up winning two silver medals behind John Naber at Montreal. Thornton says that otherwise he didn't have much luck competing against USC and UCLA for homegrown talent, so he began recruiting foreign athletes.
Rocca, now a senior, helped Cal reach the top of the collegiate heap last week by winning the 200 backstroke, while Swedish import Par Arvidsson took both the 100 and 200 butterfly. But Cal's big gun was Canadian Olympian Graham Smith, who swam at the Pac 10 meet three weeks ago in a bushy beard and ponytail and didn't make the finals in any event. Last week he applied shears and razor ("I'll have to reintroduce myself to my professors") and matched Goodell triumph for triumph to win three races, too, including an American-record 54.91 in the 100 breaststroke. And he contributed a strong breaststroke leg to a winning 400 medley relay team that finished in 3:15.22, also a record.