"...and told me, 'Hey, we're tied,' " said Steinseifer with a grin. The meet officials confirmed it. And so together the two had become America's first individual women swimming champions since the 1972 Munich Games. "I knew we were close, but not that close," said Steinseifer. "This whole team is really close," noted Hogshead.
No Olympic swimming final had ever ended in a tie, although in the men's 400-meter individual medley final at Munich, both Gunnar Larsson of Sweden and Tim McKee of the U.S. (ironically, one of Hogshead's former coaches) had recorded official times of 4:31.98. That race was awarded to Larsson when they took the times out to thousandths of a second; Larsson had touched .002 sooner than McKee, the equivalent of about one-tenth of a inch.
The protests that followed that '72 race, however, led to a turning back of the clocks; international swimming rules no longer allow for the use of thousandths in timing. It's not that the timing devices aren't accurate enough, but rather that the pool walls themselves aren't perfectly uniform. A swimmer could finish .001 ahead because his electronic touch pad happened to be a tiny fraction of an inch closer than his rival's. And so on Sunday, Hogshead and Steinseifer each received a gold medal, and their nearest pursuer, Annemarie Verstappen of The Netherlands, was given a bronze. No silver was awarded.
The closeness of the women was no mere joke line. Hogshead and Steinseifer had been roommates all week at the USC Olympic Village, and on Sunday afternoon had watched the Three Stooges on television together. Steinseifer, a young swimmer on the rise, was amazed to learn that Hogshead had started her swimming career in 1969—one year after Steinseifer was born—yet had not taken up the 100 free until this year. In turn, Hogshead, who's retiring after the Games, fed off Steinseifer's teenage energy. Said Hogshead, who had retired from swimming—and been in a pool but once—between September 1981 and January 1983 because of mental burnout, "This is the best experience of my life by far. It's like fantasyland." She hated to see Sunday night end.
Both Hogshead and Steinseifer had benefited from the presence of a third roommate-teammate, veteran Tracy Caulkins. "I can't express to you how much I respect Tracy," said Hogshead, who had competed against Caulkins in senior nationals as far back as 1977. "She's a nice friend and a team leader. She had lunch with Carrie today because she knew Carrie was nervous. Tracy's like that, kind of behind the scenes."
Caulkins, 21, still has the familiar lantern jaw and the softly polite Nashville accent and the marvelously fluid swimming strokes that have carried her to 66 world and American records in the last seven years. But until Sunday's 400 IM final, she had gone through her entire career—and become the world's best-known swimmer—without either competing in an Olympics or enjoying the one culminating moment of public acclamation that she deserved. Sunday's race, at last, offered her both.
The 400 IM final itself, of course, was really no race at all, for no one but East Germany's Kathleen Nord (missing because of the Soviet bloc boycott) can even begin to challenge Caulkins in the event. At the end of 200 meters, off a strong backstroke leg (1:10.28), Caulkins was not only nearly a second ahead of American-record pace but almost five seconds—roughly 23 feet—ahead of the field. After the third leg, 100 meters of what Caulkins later called "the best breaststroke of my career," she was leading by more than eight seconds and was even further ahead of U.S.-record pace. As Caulkins entered her final, freestyle, leg the spectators rose to their feet.
The applause built as she turned for home with 50 meters to go. It built for the memory of that frail 15-year-old who had smiled through a mouthful of braces back at the 1978 world championships in Berlin even as she was winning five events, including two relays, setting four world records and leading the U.S. women to their finest swimming showing of the last decade. It built for the Florida senior who has now earned 48 national and 12 collegiate titles, more than any other swimmer in history. It built and built until Caulkins had touched her final wall and put up on the scoreboard a time of 4:39.24—1.37 seconds better than the American record she established in 1980. Even Nord has never swum that fast in her life. Silver medalist Suzanne Landells of Australia, meanwhile, finished more than nine seconds back.
When she received her gold medal and spray of flowers, and put her hand to her heart for the national anthem, the normally undemonstrative Caulkins finally gave in to tears. In a press tent afterward she was still fighting for control. "People told me regardless of what happened I'd done a lot for the sport...that they'd still care for me," she said. When the award ceremony was mentioned, both Caulkins and Landells began crying. "I start getting teary-eyed just thinking about it," said Tracy. "It's just...a once-in-a-lifetime thing." Having missed out on a possible four Olympic medals in 1980 because of the U.S. boycott, Caulkins had every reason to savor her victory, which she did.
All that was left of Sunday's competition was the first flight of the Albatross—Michael Gross, West Germany's 6'7�", 20-year-old wonderbird. Gross, the double world-record holder from Frankfurt, was set to face new U.S. freestyle star Mike Heath of Dallas, 19, in the 200. Few Europeans expected Gross's world mark of 1:47.55 to survive the race; many Americans, on the other hand, suspected that Gross himself would also crumble. "All I know is the press is making him out as God and he could go out of here with nothing but silver medals—or less," said 200 freestyler Jeff Float, a U.S. team captain. "I'm going to be right on his tail and he's going to be sweating."