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They've Stroked Their Way to L.A.
Craig Neff
July 09, 1984
Three world and five American records tumbled as 43 swimmers gained Olympic berths at the U.S. trials
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July 09, 1984

They've Stroked Their Way To L.a.

Three world and five American records tumbled as 43 swimmers gained Olympic berths at the U.S. trials

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It was a poignant and compelling scene, the first sampling of the joys and shattered hopes that would mark last week's U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Indianapolis. Moments after the women's 100-meter freestyle final on Monday night, fourth-place finisher Dara Torres, 16, of the Mission Viejo (Calif.) Nadadores swim club, clung to the edge of a warmdown pool, alone, sobbing. A normally cheery high school junior, she had painted F-I-F-T-Y F-I-V-E! across her fingernails in sky blue and yellow as a public declaration of her time goal, 55 seconds. But Torres had missed that goal—and nearly a berth on the American team—by clocking a 56.36. Although she made the 4 X 100 free relay, she had dreamed of much more. And so she cried.

Nearby, third-place finisher Jenna Johnson, also 16, lay passed out on the pool deck. Johnson, a tall, slender, quiet girl with flaming red hair, had pushed herself relentlessly in the race, past the pain of burning muscles and into a state of light-headedness and nausea. Afterward, when a U.S. Olympic Committee doctor pricked her finger for a blood test, she fainted. "It was a combination of things," her Industry Hills (Calif.) club coach, Ed Spencer, would say. "The race, the confusion, the pressures." Yet for all her effort, Johnson, too, had qualified for only a relay spot. New Olympic swimming rules pushed through in 1980 by a Soviet-Third World bloc now limit each nation to just two entries per individual event instead of the traditional three; the U.S., the country deepest in swimming talent, suffers most. Johnson's time of 56.20 left her short of a qualifying spot by .02 seconds—the equivalent of one inch.

Meanwhile, winner Nancy Hogshead, 22, (56.03) and runner-up Carrie Steinseifer, 16, (56.18) met on the deck in a relieved embrace. "With only two going [to the Games] instead of three, this meet will be cutthroat," veteran Jesse Vassallo had warned. "It'll be outrageous." And indeed, in the course of the six-day meet, several big-name swimmers would struggle to qualify, three world and five American records would fall, and all 650 swimmers entered would feel pressures more intense than at any U.S. competition since the last true Olympic trials in 1976.

Competition was so fierce at Indianapolis that Ray Essick, executive director of U.S. Swimming, was correct in calling the trials "the toughest meet in the world." Fully 200 of the swimmers in Indy would be fast enough to reach an Olympic final this summer, but just 43 of them would make the U.S. team. Sue Walsh, the U.S.-record holder in the 100 backstroke, finished third in that event and failed to make the squad. American-record holder Craig Beardsley also missed out in his specialty, the 200 butterfly, placing a shocked third behind Stanford freshman Pablo Morales and Florida sophomore Patrick Kennedy. Jill Sterkel, 23, winner of a relay gold in '76, did become the first U.S. woman swimmer since Eleanor Holm (1928, '32 and '36) to make three Olympics, but just barely, placing sixth in the 100 free to claim the last slot as a 4 x 100 free-relay alternate. Said Sterkel, "There's a lot of electricity going on around here."

Such was the emotional intensity on Monday night that the eventual women's 100-back winner, Betsy Mitchell, grew hoarse from trying to scream for her Cincinnati Pepsi-Marlin teammates over the din of 3,000 spectators in the Indiana University Natatorium. What set the crowd abuzz following Hogshead's victory was the 100-breaststroke duel between world-record holder Steve Lundquist, 23, and his longtime challenger, Stanford sophomore John Moffet. Moffet, for one, had been ready for this for weeks. "He's been doing world-record swims in practice," said Cardinal coach Skip Kenney. "The problem has been holding him back."

Lundquist, on the other hand, had been slow to recover from a separation of the left shoulder he suffered while water-skiing last September. For a month after the accident his left arm was numb from elbow to fingertip, and not until December was he able to raise it over his head. As recently as the indoor nationals in late March, he swam miserably.

As if Lundquist didn't already have enough to be concerned about, the chlorine in the pool caused him to develop itchy, scaly blotches all over his arms. Further, he had to face up to his parents and both his grandmothers, aged 84 and 90, about a story in PEOPLE magazine that discussed his wild life-style and included a picture of him, posing for an ad, on a bed with an apparently naked young lady. "There are some things you just shouldn't have to explain to a 90-year-old woman," said a family friend.

Moffet had pulled Lundquist to a world record of 1:02.28 in the 100 breast at last summer's Pan Am Games in Caracas, fading to finish just inches behind him in 1:02.36. At Indy he decided to make Lundquist chase him again. Moffet blasted through the first 50 in 29.14, nearly a second under world-record pace. "I got a little excited," Moffet admitted later. "Coming home I bogged down in the last 10 meters." As Moffet was dying, Lundquist surged. At the touch it was impossible to tell who had won. Then the scoreboard flashed the official result: Moffet first in 1:02.13, Lundquist second in 1:02.16. Moffet was the new record holder. Lundquist didn't seem to mind. "Hey, I made the team," he said. "I'm a happy camper now."

The happiest camper of the night was University of Pittsburgh junior Sue Heon, 22, who leaped four feet straight up out of the water after overtaking her Germantown, Pa. swim club teammate, Polly Winde, for second place in the final 30 meters of the women's 400 individual medley. Though Heon finished nearly five seconds behind U.S.-record holder Tracy Caulkins in the race (4:41.72 to 4:46.37), she'd swum a PR by three seconds. Heon's uncontrollable giddiness contrasted with the crushed spirit of Winde, who had come in three seconds behind her. Winde's boyfriend, All-America catcher B.J. Surhoff of North Carolina, is a member of the U.S. Olympic baseball squad, and he and Polly had dreamed of going to L.A. as teammates. Said Caulkins, winner of three events (200 and 400 IM and 100 breaststroke), "You just try not to look."

Monday ended with an American record by 19-year-old Florida sophomore Mike Heath. Heath, a blocky 6 feet and 170 pounds, had a 1:48.58 in the morning preliminaries of the 200 freestyle to lop .35 off Rowdy Gaines's 1982 U.S. mark. In the final, Heath shot past Gaines and 1980 Olympian David Larson in the last lap to record a stunning 1:47.92, the No. 3 time in the world, behind the 1:47.55 and 1:47.87 of West Germany's Michael Gross.

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