Chris Silva stood on the blocks of the Edmonton pool, twitching, slapping his thighs, growling. Below, churning toward him, was Tom Jager, the leadoff man on the U.S. 4 X 100-meter freestyle relay team in these World University Games.
When Silva hit the water, it would be a moment of some social significance. He would then become the first black swimmer ever to represent the U.S. in international competition. But there wasn't time to reflect on that now. The Soviet Union's Sergei Smiryagin in the adjacent lane was swimming to an opening 50.13. When Jager, who's Silva's college teammate at UCLA, touched the wall in 50.75, the U.S. had half a length to make up.
Silva is a powerful 6'3" and 190. "And a fantastic team swimmer," says Bruin Coach Ron Ballatore. "In the 1982 NCAA meet, he improved his 100-yard best from 45.0 to 43.6 in the relay, and that gave us the title."
But Silva is inexperienced in Olympic-size 50-meter pools. His best 100-meter time before the University Games was 52.8. Silva is an emotional soul, however, with a splendid sense of occasion. He had swum his preliminary leg in 50.86, which convinced U.S. Coach Sam Freas of Arkansas to keep him on the team for the final.
Silva had tears in his eyes marching in the Games' spectacular opening pageant, during which 12 huge balloons, each a likeness of an animal native to a Canadian province or territory, were displayed. The proceedings were presided over by the Prince and Princess of Wales. Silva had said right after the ceremonies, "It's been a dream since I was a little kid to stand on an Olympic stadium infield, to feel chills at so many nations coming together in peace for competition. Here, it wasn't the Olympics, but it had the same effect. It was overwhelming to watch the legend come in, Vladimir Salnikov, the Olympic champion, the guy who hasn't lost in at least 37 straight 1,500s, and to really feel that he's a person, just like you. It all has been incredible motivation."
So motivated, Silva made up water steadily in the first 50 meters against Vladimir Tkachenko. "About 15 meters before the turn, he slowed a little," Silva said. "I thought, 'I should go all out to get him,' and then in a split second I decided, no, I'll get him off the wall. So I glided into the turn. I should not have done that."
Silva couldn't get Tkachenko off the wall or in the last 50 meters, though he swam the faster split, 50.63 to 50.65. Next Tennessee's Dallas Kyle took up the chase, doing 50.41 to Sergei Krasuk's 50.58, but still the U.S. was .43 behind.
The anchors were Alexei Markovsky and yet a third Bruin, Bruce Hayes, who had won the 200-meter freestyle. Hayes, too, gained steadily. "I thought 40 meters out I could catch him," he said, and he did. A meter from the end their heads were even, but it was Krasuk's luck to have his stroke deliver his hand to the wall while Hayes's was still overhead. That was the 10th of a second difference between the two teams, 3:21.72 to 3:21.82. The world record is 3:19.26.
That relay stood as a symbol of the swimming competition in the Games, hard fought, not quite a record, and with the Soviets winning. They took 22 of a possible 29 gold medals in swimming, aided immensely by a new star, 20-year-old Irina Laricheva, who swept the women's 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyle events and added a relay anchor for her fifth gold.
Many of the best U.S. swimmers stayed home to prepare for the U.S. Long Course championships in early August, which are the Pan American Games trials. "But there are no Russians in the Pan Ams," said Hayes. "I came for the competition."