Amid splashing water, charged emotions and deafening cheers, Bruce Hayes launched himself into the Olympic pool, ready for the swim of his life. It was late on the afternoon of July 30, and Hayes, a toothy UCLA senior, was anchoring America's 4 X 200-meter freestyle relay team in its Olympic final. He came up from his dive with a nine-foot lead (1½ seconds), normally a safe margin—except that the man closest to him was 6'7½" Michael Gross of West Germany, the Games' most feared swimmer. After 60 meters of his leg, Hayes glanced to his right and saw Gross virtually at his side. He was stunned. The Albatross, as Gross is known, had gained nearly nine feet on him in just over one length of the pool. "I thought, 'Oh God, I'm in trouble,' " Hayes would say later. "I felt like I was turning my arms over three times as fast as he was, but all I could see beside me were these long smooth strokes, keeping him right there."
Building was the most frenzied and dramatic race in a week full of frenzy and drama. If this was America's best week ever of Olympic swimming—and it just might have been, with U.S. swimmers not only winning gold medals in 20 of 29 events, but also tying or lowering seven American records and setting five of the 11 world marks established at the Games—the Olympics were also a showcase for Gross, the 20-year-old from Frankfurt. He would leave L.A. with two world records and four medals, more than any other male swimmer. But Monday's relay was threatening to be his comeuppance. And a fervently pro-American crowd of 10,923 was aching for just that.
In Monday's first final, the 100 butterfly, Gross had upset gold-medal favorite Pablo Morales of the U.S. and taken away Morales' world mark by .30 with a 53.08. A day earlier Gross had won the 200 free in a world-record 1:47.44. "Whenever you see a human being who's unique, there's a kind of aura about him," said Morales, 19, who had obviously seen one. Morales seemed almost glassy-eyed, realizing that his 53.23, well under the old world standard, had earned him "only" a silver medal. Gross had passed him in the last 10 meters, stretching to the wall with loooong arms that spread to a 7'4⅝" wingspan. "It's pretty hard to outtouch him," said Morales.
The strategy of America's relay team was to avoid a touch-finish against Gross by running away from his West German teammates on the first three legs. "We wanted to get ahead early and swim through clear water," Jeff Float, the U.S.'s third leg, would say later. "We wanted them to catch our waves."
An American B team had already washed away West Germany's world mark of 7:20.40 in the morning preliminaries with a 7:18.87. But the final race would be faster. Much faster. America's leadoff swimmer, Mike Heath, 19, the silver medalist behind Gross in the 200 free, blazed a 1:48.67 leg against West Germany's Thomas Fahrner to give the U.S. a seven-foot lead. Already the Americans were more than a second under world-record pace. The crowd was up.
Into the water went David Larson, 25, one of 16 U.S. Olympians from the boycott team of 1980 who had hung on to make the '84 squad. Until last week it had been difficult to measure the pent-up frustration of '80 boycott victims; in Los Angeles, however, 11 of the 16 American swimming holdovers won medals—a total of 21—and nearly all competed with astonishing intensity. In Larson's case he was all too eager; he blasted through his first 100 in 51.29 and then crawled home in 57.72. For his part, Dirk Korthals, Larson's West German pursuer, trimmed three feet off America's lead with a 1:48.75.
That brought up Float, 24, the inspirational U.S. team captain. Rendered almost totally deaf as an infant by spinal meningitis, Float, a many-time national team member, had helped pull together the American squad with his calming advice and readings from both his daily journal and books on positive thinking. He told his teammates of having lived just a block from the site of the Olympic pool while a USC undergrad and of watching the facility rise from a muddy hole in the ground. Since January, he said, he had been "eating, sleeping, dreaming, living, laughing and loving" thoughts of the Games. As he came to the blocks, he was fighting off tears.
Float's 1:49.60 leg against Alexander Schowtka added three feet to the U.S. margin. The crowd, which all week would be hailed by swimmers as the noisiest they'd ever heard, was in full roar. Now Hayes was in the pool. And then Gross.
When Gross quickly ate up the American lead, Hayes told himself: Don't panic. Ever since the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June, Hayes had trained solely for this event, the only one in which he'd qualified. A ferocious finisher, he'd worked on every fine point of a relay leg, from start to touch. Here he stayed with Gross through 100 meters, holding as much in reserve as he could. Then Gross gradually moved ahead.
When Gross turned for home with a lead of two feet, the crowd grew quiet. Having seen Gross's earlier performances, they assumed the race was over. Heath and Larson weren't sure themselves. "I said to Mike, 'We're going to get the silver! That can't happen!' " Larson recalled later. He and Heath tried to revive the crowd with windmilling arms. And suddenly there was life. Hayes, with 30 meters to go, surged back and caught the Albatross. With 20 to go, Hayes was ahead.