Gaines's coach, Richard Quick, tried to explain the swimmer's dilemma. "He's been defending a champion's position for quite a while now," Quick said. "There are pressures involved. In swimming there's no structured program after college. You're not only losing money, you're losing professional ground, too. This is costing him a career future as well as money. He's on a grant from U.S. Swimming, $6,000 a year, and that's near the poverty level. You know how many of our 1980 Olympians are at this meet? A lot. Many of them wouldn't be swimming today if there had been an Olympics in 1980. The boycott was psychologically bad for them."
Bad for 1984 Olympic Coach Don Gambril was the performance of the women at Fresno. "We're beginning to shore up in some places," he said, "but frankly, we look frightening in others." Randy Hart, manager of venue press relations for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, had an equally depressing reaction. "Except for Tiffany Cohen in the 400 and 800 freestyles," Hart said, "our women will not be favored to win a single Olympic event."
Unless they pull themselves together. Lord knows, they're trying. Mary T. Meagher, world- and American-record holder in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly, won the 200 fly Wednesday in 2:09.53, almost four seconds off her record. And on Saturday night she finished fourth in the 100 fly, in 1:01.08, her first loss in the long-course nationals in that event in six years. Meagher, newly svelte, having dropped 10 pounds in three weeks, obviously had the future very much on her mind. "The Olympic 100-meter fly is exactly a year from today," she said. "Oh, it's a leap year, so it's 366 days from today." Meagher, who has just completed her freshman year at Cal, plans to take the next academic year off just to train for the Olympics. "I've got to stop making excuses," she said. "I'm coming off a disappointing college season, and I spent the summer getting back into shape." She also admitted that she had probably been on top too long. "I was too confident." she said. "It was a real eye-opener when Ines Geissler [of East Germany] beat me in the 200 fly at the Worlds last year. At the Bonn meet in February I was a basket case. I was crying before my race. And I'm back to being nervous up on the block. I used to use my nervousness to my advantage, but now, on the morning of a race, I panic. That never used to happen."
Twenty-year-old Tracy Caulkins, who won her 47th national title at Fresno, seemed to be in the grip of ennui. Caulkins is the American-record holder in the 400 IM (4:40.61), but on Thursday her winning time was 5.10 seconds slower than her record. She finished second to Meagher in the 200 fly. "It's frustrating," Caulkins said of her slow performances, "because I don't know why." Caulkins always looks cheerful, even when she's reciting her shortcomings. "I think I've changed a lot since I was 14 or 15 years old. Then I was just out there having fun. Now it's work. But I have more experience; that should help." She brightened as she thought of her other plusses. "I'm bigger and stronger, and that should help, too." Then, in a wistful voice, she asked. "So why don't I go faster?"
But it was not all doom and gloom for the women; some new talent emerged at Fresno. Dara Torres, a 16-year-old from Beverly Hills, chalked up a world "best" in the 50 free (25.62), and Carrie Steinseifer, a 15-year-old from Saratoga, Calif. who was swimming in her first long-course nationals, won the 100 free in 56.52, within sight of Sippy Woodhead's American record of 55.63. Steinseifer particularly impressed Pan American Coach George Haines. "We have a lot of catching up to do in the women's events," he said, "but it's a good indication when a 15-year-old wins." It took a while for Steinseifer to come to grips with her victory in the 100. Her main concern had been making the Pan Am team, not winning. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "I turned around and looked at the scoreboard and thought it said I was second. I was happy with that. Then I turned around and looked again, and when I saw 'first' I almost went crazy. I'm sure I'll feel pressure on myself to maintain this level of performance, but I don't think it will affect me. Becoming a champion gives you a lot of confidence in yourself." She obviously hasn't been having long chats with Tracy or Mary T.
But, ah, those men. On Saturday, the meet's last day, no fewer than four world records fell. Carey did it again, this time in the 100 backstroke, stripping Naber of his last world mark, also set at the '76 Olympics. Carey broke the record first in the morning prelims with a 55.44, .05 better than Naber's best, then came back that night and swam even faster, taking .6 off his own record. Carey is a good friend of Naber's, and he phoned him the night before the 100. "He helps me out," Carey said. "When it comes to race planning, you can't beat him." Naber gave Carey some sound advice: Get some sleep, have something to do. So Carey took a walk early on Saturday, and then went back to his hotel and watched TV. Following his record in the prelims, Carey was very low key, playing down the achievement. "I thought it was a solid morning swim," he said. That's Carey.
He may not be an animal but Matt Gribble. 21, of the University of Miami's Hurricane Swim Club, assuredly is. Gribble had missed beating the 100 fly world record of 53.81, held by William Paulus, by .2 of a second or less six times in the last two years. Now he broke through the barrier with a 53.44.
The old original animal, Lundquist, capped the day by bettering his own world record in the final of the 100 breaststroke with a 1:02.34. Lundquist, who loves the limelight, was delighted with his showing at the meet. "It's my best performance ever," he said.
In the end, Cohen, who'd won the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles, was given the Kiphuth Award for the foremost female swimmer, while Lundquist was named the top male. Oh, and Gaines gained a measure of encouragement by swimming a 49.78 freestyle leg in the 400 IM relay that helped the Texas Longhorns' "A" team break its own American club record with a 3:45.66.
Afterward, as fireworks lit the sky over Fresno, Gaines draped his arms around his Texas teammates, flashed the "Hook 'em Horns" sign to the crowd and just smiled and smiled. It was like old times for Rowdy and, hopefully, a portent of new and faster times to come.