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On the opening night of last week's United States Long Course Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif., Tracy Caulkins pulled quickly away from the field in the 100-meter breaststroke, the first Olympic event contested in the meet. When she neared the wall for her turn at the 50-meter mark, the P.A. announcer told the crowd, "The gold-medal split is 33.79. The world-record split is 33.68." Caulkins made her flip and all eyes in the crowd jumped to the scoreboard high above the Heritage Park Aquatics Complex. There, frozen for an instant, was Caulkins' race-leading split—33.03. The crowd roared, then rose to its feet cheering madly.
Atop the scoreboard were now displayed the times set by the three medalists in Moscow, led by East German Ute Geweniger's gold-medal-winning 1:10.22. Urging Caulkins toward that goal, the crowd chanted louder and louder, "Go! Go! Go!" Caulkins made a last lunge at the finish, then quickly looked up at the scoreboard. For a second the numbers scrambled, then her winning time suddenly stopped clear. It was the fastest that Caulkins, America's best all-round woman swimmer, had ever recorded in the event. Her time set meet, American and U.S. open records. But instead of raising her arms in triumph, Caulkins slumped on the lane ropes. The crowd groaned in disappointment. Caulkins' 1:10.40 was good enough for an Olympic silver but .18 of a second short of the Moscow gold-medal time still displayed for all to see.
As Caulkins' frustration demonstrated, American records and American titles were not what last week's U.S. championships were all about. Technically, the meet was a combination of the national championships originally scheduled for mid-August and the Olympic Trials originally scheduled for mid-June. When the boycott took effect, these two meets were merged and switched to the week immediately following the swimming competition in Moscow. The result was a mock Olympics. The theme in Irvine: BEAT MOSCOW.
United States Swimming, Inc., the sport's governing body in this country, did its best to dramatize the notion of an Olympic showdown. The scoreboard at Heritage Park normally has eight lines for results, corresponding to the eight lanes for swimmers in the championship pool. Last week three more lines were added to the top of the scoreboard to accommodate the times of Moscow's gold, silver and bronze medalists, three ever-present ghosts in the water at Irvine. As the swimmers headed into each turn, the upcoming split of the gold medalist would appear at the top of the scoreboard as a standard to be compared with the split that would flash below when an American swimmer touched the wall. Throughout, the P.A. announcer exhorted the crowd to cheer ever louder to bring the Americans home. "We're going for gold!" he would say.
The stage was set for the Americans to shatter the record books, rewrite swimming history and blow the Commies clear out of the water. And every once in a while they did just that. In the men's 200-meter butterfly, for instance, the first three finishers all surpassed the Moscow gold-medal time, and the rest of the eight finalists bettered the silver-medal standard. The winner, Craig Beardsley, a 19-year-old Florida junior with the Oriental features of his Chinese mother, set a world record of 1:58.21, though he did it in the preliminaries. In the women's 200 butterfly final, 15-year-old Mary T. Meagher, a high school sophomore from Louisville, lowered her own world record to 2:06.37, which was more than four seconds faster than the winning Olympic time. In swimming, four seconds ranks somewhere between an eon and an age. That's showing 'em, Mary T.
As often as not, however, the Americans didn't live up to expectations. Something was missing in Irvine. "I could guarantee you that if this were the real Olympics, 90% of the swimmers here would go faster," said Mike Bruner, who won the award as the meet's top male performer but lost the 200-meter butterfly world record he had set at Montreal. "Our officials did everything they could possibly do to build up this meet, but this isn't an Olympics. I know. I've been there." In the end, the best that could be said for Irvine was that the Americans had proved what everyone had known all along—as a nation the U.S. is still No. 1 in the world in swimming.
By the time the five-day meet came to a close last Saturday with a visit from Ronald Reagan and a red, white, blue and—you guessed it—gold fireworks display, the scorecard showed six new American and three world records. And then there was the ongoing count of Olympic medals, a bogus exercise in the eyes of most of the swimmers. "Beating the Olympic time doesn't really prove anything," insisted another Florida swimmer, Rowdy Gaines, whose winning times in the 100 and 200 freestyles were good enough for a gold in the former but only a silver in the latter, an event in which he holds the world record. "I know I could have won the 200 in Moscow, and that's not bragging. There's no substitute for head-to-head swimming."
Right you are, Rowdy, but everyone kept adding up the medals anyway. In the 11 individual Olympic events swum by both men and women, a comparison of times indicates our men would have won six gold, eight silver and three bronze medals: our women, four gold, four silver and two bronze.
Those totals may seem disappointing to swim fanatics who recall that the American men won 10 of 11 individual golds in Montreal and the women, while shut out of Olympic gold, took seven individual titles at the 1978 world championships in West Berlin. But the bottom line is that the swimmers at Irvine would have produced more golds and more overall medals than any other nation at Moscow.
Beardsley's and Meagher's world-record swims in the 200 butterflys were voted the outstanding male and female performances of the meet. The third world record, UCLA junior Bill Barrett's 2:03.24 in the 200 individual medley, may have been overlooked because it isn't an Olympic event.