On Wednesday of last week Rick Carey, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Texas, hurled himself off the wall at the Clovis West High School pool in Fresno, Calif. and swam to a world record in the 200-meter backstroke. It was a whale of a way to get the U.S. National Long Course championships perking, and before the week was out there would be four more world and two American records set. Sad to say, though, American men were a long way ahead of American women in terms of prowess on an international scale—so much so that there was near despair over the women's Olympic chances at Los Angeles in '84.
But back to Carey and the good news. His 200 mark of 1:58.93—in a qualifying heat, no less—bettered the 159.19 swum by John Naber way back in 1976 at the Montreal Olympics. Carey had spent the previous evening lolling around his hotel room eating tortillas, watching The A Team on television, drinking "about four gallons of apple juice" and contemplating his race plan, which was kind of laid back. "I want to do about two minutes," he said. "Play it by ear, and then turn it on strong with the last 50." Carey swam the first 150 meters just off world-record pace, and then went flat-out for the last leg, stroking it in a fast 30.66. "I feel kind of numb," he said afterward. "I didn't think I'd do that well. The importance of what I did today, though, was not so much what I did, but that it took seven years to get past Naber's record."
It was hot when Carey swam—104° that afternoon and 95° for the evening competition—but few of the 1.285 competitors in the meet were complaining. The nationals were serving as the trials for this week's Pan Am Games, and Caracas would no doubt be hotter than Fresno.
Carey went out fast in the final, registering a world-record split of 27.51 for the first 50 meters. But he was unable to maintain the pace and finished in 1:59.27, .34 second off his own mark and slower even than Naber's old record. The pressure of holding the world record was getting to Carey already. "I kind of pushed too hard," he said. "I made a lot of dumb moves and I was uptight. All day long I couln't stop thinking about the record. Everyone kept stopping me on the deck and congratulating me. I couldn't go anywhere without thinking of it."
Next to fall on Wednesday was the U.S. mark in the men's 800 freestyle. Jeff Kostoff, 17, of Upland, Calif., easily lifted it from Tony Corbisiero after qualifying second to Tony in the prelims. Kostoff touched in at 7:58.31, .19 second better than Corbisiero's record but nearly six seconds away from the world mark of Vladimir Salnikov. Kostoff had beaten Salnikov in a 400 in Bonn last February, but he was not ready to launch an 800 challenge at the Soviet swimmer. "Firstly, Vladimir is still better than I am," Kostoff said. "Secondly, this isn't a Pan Am event, so everybody swimming in it was thinking, 'I'm not going to kill myself.' Besides, you don't want to shoot your wad the first day."
Maybe not, but the men's 200-meter breaststroke is a Pan Am event, and Steve Lundquist, 22, an SMU graduate, had come up to it off tough workouts with SMU Assistant Coach Eddie Sinnott. At a prerace press conference, Lundquist, who had damaged a shoulder two years ago in a motorcycle accident, declared himself fighting fit. "I've had some problems with my shoulder lately," he said, "but I've been taking some great drugs. Aspirin." Lundquist, already the world-record holder in the 100 breast (1:02.53), thereupon claimed the American 200 record with a 2:15.38, 1.88 seconds better than John Hencken's 1976 mark.
After Wednesday's race Sinnott said of his prize student, "Lunk is learning how to stay in control, lengthen his stroke, to swim his race and not look around. When he goes too fast he spins in the water. In the 200 he only looked around once, in the first 50 meters, when he checked out John Moffet. But he still has a better race in him. He's an animal, the type of guy who won't train for the silver medal. He wants the gold."
The animal never looked back. On Friday Lundquist and American-record holder Bill Barrett went head to head in the 200 individual medley, finishing in a dead heat to equal Barrett's mark of 2:03.24. "I had no idea who won," Lundquist said later, "I looked up at the scoreboard and saw two ones. Then I looked at the times. Deductive reasoning came into play. Tying and equaling a record, that's pretty bizarre." And then he hummed a few bars from the theme of The Twilight Zone.
Off in his own zone, meanwhile, was Rowdy Gaines, 24, who graduated from Auburn last year. The American- and world-record holder in the 100-meter freestyle at 49.36, Gaines won that event Wednesday night in 50.21 but could not savor the victory because he hadn't gone as fast as he felt he was capable of. On Thursday night he stood behind the blocks before the start of the 200 freestyle, twitching with nervousness. He is also the American-record holder in this event (1:48.93), and held the world record until Michael Gross of West Germany took it away from him in June.
At the gun Gaines was sizzling, and at the halfway point had a world-record split of 52.45. But he touched in at 1:50.32, 2.04 off Gross's mark and, worse, finished second to UCLA's Bruce Hayes. When he walked into the press trailer to be interviewed, Gaines looked shell-shocked. He struggled for words and shook his head in frustration. "I swam exactly the same race I always do," he said. "I go out and go for it. I've always had a great last 50." He bowed his head. "I've never swum this way in my life. Before this, every year I got faster and faster." As he walked away he said, "I have no confidence. It's like I have this line drawn down the middle of my body. One half wants to quit, the other half remembers all the great competition and wants to swim. I must have watched Rocky III a hundred times. He was afraid. He was afraid to lose. And if you're afraid to lose, you'll lose. On the blocks tonight I was starting to imagine what it would be like to lose. I'm not about to swim next year if I can't overcome that fear." Gaines turned and walked away, and there were tears in his eyes.