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Too Green To Gather Gold
Craig Neff
August 16, 1982
Lacking international experience, U.S. swimmers flopped at the Worlds, but Steve Lundquist (left) was a shining exception—and our divers excelled
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August 16, 1982

Too Green To Gather Gold

Lacking international experience, U.S. swimmers flopped at the Worlds, but Steve Lundquist (left) was a shining exception—and our divers excelled

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On the bleak fringe of Guayaquil, Ecuador last Thursday afternoon, diver Christina Seufert of Ann Arbor, Mich. watched a 30-foot-high cyclone of black dust swirl through dirt fields behind La Pradera Diving Complex. "This has been one strange meet," she said, and the cyclone abruptly dissipated. Seufert, 25, who five days earlier at the IV World Aquatic Championships had won a silver medal in the women's three-meter springboard, then took her seat in the stands to witness another unlikely sight: 17-year-old Wendy Wyland, a tiny (5'2", 110-pound) high school senior from Mission Viejo, Calif., leading the heavily favored Chinese divers with just two rounds remaining in the women's 10-meter platform finals.

As Wyland stepped up for her seventh and penultimate dive, one of the poolside judges began waving his arms in distress. "Wait—I can't see," he shouted. Some observers had already suggested that, but in fact the judge, a Colombian, claimed the sun was in his eyes. While Ecuadorian attendants vainly tugged and heaved at his lifeguard's chair—the judge was still in it—U.S. Diving Coach Ron O'Brien stood on the opposite side of the pool, fuming. "He should've at least waited until the end of the round," O'Brien said. Several minutes passed before Wyland was allowed to dive.

She moved to the very edge of the concrete platform, turned her back to the water and inched out until only the grip of her toes held her in place. Then, perilously, she started to wobble. Stiff, steady winds—strong enough to have shredded one of the flags (Great Britain's) flying over La Pradera—had prevailed throughout the 10-day meet. They had even slowed some of the swimmers. Now, an especially strong gust was blowing at Wyland's back.

She stepped forward onto the platform and smiled at the ludicrous situation. Wyland had been so relaxed all afternoon that she'd read a thriller, Eye of the Needle, between dives. "I really wasn't rattled," she said later. Said O'Brien, "I was a nervous wreck."

At last the wind subsided and Wyland launched into a back 2½ somersault, pike position. The somersaults were quick and sharp. She entered the water softly. "Hoooo," screamed Seufert as a small U.S. cheering section sprang to its feet. In a moment the board flashed 69.60 points, Wyland's highest score of the meet. She had clinched the gold medal.

The American divers needed only one more victory to complete an unprecedented sweep of the four world-championship events. On Saturday, the meet's final day, University of Michigan freshman Bruce Kimball and defending world champion Greg Louganis of El Cajon, Calif. would compete for the men's platform title. Louganis had already turned in the most spectacular springboard performance in history at the meet. Kimball had used the world championships as a motivational goal during the eight months of rehabilitation that had followed his near-fatal auto accident last October. Both divers were ready.

The U.S. swimmers, in contrast, were struggling. Going into Saturday night's finals at the Alberto Vallarino Pool in downtown Guayaquil, they had won just seven of 24 events. At the last world championships, in West Berlin in 1978, they had taken 20 of 29. "If we were living up to our own expectations, everybody else's wouldn't matter," said National Swimming Coach Mark Schubert, whose team had expected—and been expected—to break half a dozen or more world records. Instead, the Americans had swum unaggressive, sluggish, even stupid races. Former Auburn star Rowdy Gaines, the world-record holder in the 100-and 200-meter freestyles, had finished second in both events, losing to Jorg Woithe of East Germany in the 100 and West Germany's Michael Gross in the 200. World-record holder Craig Beardsley of the University of Florida had also come in second in his specialty, losing to Gross in the 200 butterfly. It was the first time Beardsley had been beaten in more than two years. Tracy Caulkins of Nashville, who had won five gold medals in West Berlin, had gotten only two bronzes in Guayaquil, in the 200 and 400 individual medleys, losing to Petra Schneider's world-record in the 400 (4:36.10) and to the East German's near-record 2:11.79 in the 100. Gross, Schneider and the U.S.S.R.'s Vladimir Salnikov, who won the 400 and 1,500 freestyle, were the only swimmers to get two individual gold medals during the meet.

It was too early in the summer for the Americans to be both fully trained and fully rested. They had been forced to peak for this spring's NCAA and national short-course championships, and they had swum in arduous trials only two weeks earlier in Mission Viejo. Moreover, they were inexperienced in international competition because of the 1980 Olympic boycott. Only seven of the 43 U.S. team members had ever swum in world championship competition, and that greenness showed. For example, when 18-year-old Rich Saeger of Mission Viejo, confused by the starter's signal, thought there had been a false start in his preliminary heat of the 200 freestyle, he gently coasted up from his dive and pulled to a halt. Five other swimmers in his heat didn't stop and Saeger failed to make the finals. The next night he swam a relay lead-off split that would have won him the 200-free bronze medal.

All the swimmers had to perform in the less than inspiring Vallarino complex, set between the bleached hovels and high-rises of Ecuador's largest city. Scores of grim-faced soldiers, bearing automatic rifles, lined the pool and the cement stands. (A military coup was widely rumored to be scheduled for this week.) And the crowds, though proud that Ecuador was hosting the meet, didn't know the first thing about swimming. During most of Schneider's brilliant 400 IM, the only sounds at the pool complex were the swimmers' splashes and a snarling dog on the street outside.

In addition to Schneider's record, Canada's Victor Davis broke the world 200 breaststroke mark and Ricardo Prado of Brazil and Mission Viejo—one of many U.S.-trained foreigners at the meet—established a world record in the 400 individual medley. Cornelia Sirch of East Germany, the nation that led all with 12 gold medals, took more than a second off the world 200 backstroke mark. But going into Saturday night, the Americans' only world record had come in the 400 free relay, in which they'd lowered their own mark from 3:19.74 to 3:19.26. They might have gone faster, but the second and third legs, Robin Leamy and David McCagg, had queasy stomachs from something they'd eaten, and the anchor, Gaines, encountered the largest wave this side of the Rio Guayas. (The pool lacked wave-absorbing drains at its ends.) "I saw it coming at me and I couldn't believe it," said Gaines. "It jerked me right up out of the water. It looked like something from Hawaii."

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