- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The world's best all-round woman swimmer stood on the starting block at the United States Swimming International in Gainesville, Fla. last week. She was Tracy Caulkins, of Nashville, the U.S.A. Or, if you please, Petra Schneider of the German Democratic Republic. The 400-meter individual medley, the ultimate combination of endurance and versatility, was about to begin, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle—that's where the "all-round" comes in. The "best" was equally obvious. Caulkins. winner of 27 national championships, one of the world's great butterflyers and breaststrokers, until recently had held world records in both the 200 and 400 IM.
But Schneider broke both marks last May, then bettered the 400 again to win the gold medal in Moscow in July. The Olympic silver medalist finished a full 10 seconds back, but she wasn't Caulkins, of course, nor any other U.S. swimmer. That's why this Caulkins-Schneider race—the whole meet, in fact—was more than just another international get-together. Though the luster of the Olympics may have been missing, many of the stars who performed at Moscow were at Gainesville. The Russians, for example.
To the surprise of many, the full Soviet national swimming team was there to compete against the G.D.R. and the U.S. for the first time since the 1978 world championships. Swimmers from 16 other nations were entered as well, including a delegation from the People's Republic of China—six swimmers and a coach. No Chinese team had previously competed against either the U.S.S.R. or the G.D.R.
On hand were 15 of the 22 swimming gold medalists from Moscow. Naturally, there were those who saw the meet as a second Olympics. But most of those were Americans. The two other great swimming powers saw it differently. East German Coach Wolfgang Richter said, "The high point of our season will be the European championships in September." And Soviet Coach Sergei Vaitsekhovsky put it this way, "This is not an important competition for us. We have not prepared for it. It's just a chance to meet American swimmers once again. The boycott was not their decision, and we do not want to go four more years before competing with them."
But wasn't the meet an opportunity to compare the Soviet Olympic champions with the best Americans?
"No," Vaitsekhovsky said. "We have our gold medals. We do not defend them here. There is an old Russian saying: 'After the fight we do not shake a fist.' "
Based on what took place at the International, it was hard to know how serious Richter and Vaitsekhovsky were. Great swimming times require strong competition, and so many records fell at Gainesville that a sigh could be heard from the grandstand whenever an event failed to produce one. The pool was 25 meters long, so world records, which can be set only in 50-meter pools, couldn't be broken, but 25-meter world best times were fair game, and when the three-day meet had ended 19 of them had fallen. Caulkins, in her first major backstroke competition, broke one in the 100. Then she did the same in the 200 IM. In the men's 100 backstroke, New York high school senior Rick Carey lowered the record by .29 seconds, and Auburn graduate David McCagg broke the 50 free mark, though he was second to another record breaker, the G.D.R.'s Jorg Woithe.
In the men's 800-meter freestyle, the mark of 7:56.65 was trimmed by more than four seconds by Leningrad's Aleksandr Chayev, the 1980 silver medalist in the 1,500, and by the G.D.R.'s Rainer Strohbach a split second back. Pretty fair performances for two "unprepared" swimmers.
But the Americans really dominated the International, taking 19 of the 34 events and setting 11 world bests. Carey, who started swimming at the age of six when his brother threw him into a pool (he sank to the bottom), shaved .2 of a second from his own world best mark in the 200 backstroke. And Craig Beardsley of Harrington Park, N.J., just turned 20, bettered the world best time in the 200 butterfly, by 1.04 seconds. In third place was the U.S.S.R.'s Sergei Fesenko, the 1980 gold medalist in the same event. "It's early in the season," Beardsley had been saying. "I'm not feeling any pressure." Fesenko, who likes to read Jack London novels, claimed to have swum not a stroke all last fall.
In a preliminary heat of the women's 100 breaststroke, Caulkins broke her own record by .32 seconds. In the finals she broke her new record by more than twice that margin. In seventh place was China's Liang Wei Fen, who had won the event at the Hawaii International Invitational in August. But after Liang's seventh, no other Chinese swimmer even made a final for the rest of the meet.