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About halfway through the NCAA swimming meet last Friday night, there was one brief moment when mighty Indiana looked like it might be in trouble. The Hoosiers' No. 1 star, Mark Spitz, had lost his second race, and now, on the scoreboard in the University of Utah's new natatorium, the numbers read: USC 114, Indiana 113. In the stands people were sitting up and watching with renewed interest. Maybe, after all, the Hoosiers weren't the surefire, foolproof, guaranteed cinches the experts said they were. And maybe this Spitz kid was just another pretty face. And maybe Indiana's rotund, fidgety coach, Dr. James E. (Doc) Counsilman, had better begin to sweat a little bit.
No way. "I know what we have coming up," said Doc serenely.
At the end, after Indiana had out-scored USC 332-235 to win its third straight NCAA championship, everyone else knew, too. As soon as the Hoosiers fell behind, two of their talented freshmen, Gary Hall and Larry Barbiere, went out and picked up a couple of quick gold medals, each winning in NCAA record time (Hall in the 400-yard individual medley and Barbiere in the 100-yard backstroke). That gave Indiana breathing room, and then on the final night, under the severest kind of pressure, Mark Spitz added the finishing touch. Besides electrifying the crowd by winning his specialty, the 100-yard butterfly, Spitz won a big victory over himself and Doug Russell of Texas- Arlington, a ghost who has been haunting him since the 1968 Olympics.
The outcome of the meet was not completely satisfying to the Hoosiers, who had expected to win more than their five gold medals. Nevertheless, Indiana's margin of victory was the second largest in NCAA history—surpassed only by its 121-point spread last year.
By far the biggest conversation piece of the week, however, was the environment—the natatorium and the rarefied air ( Salt Lake is 4,200 feet above sea level). Almost all the swimmers liked the natatorium, but there were complaints about the atmosphere and some imperfections in the pool itself, both of which tended to make for slower times. But nothing bothered Tennessee's Dave Edgar, who won both freestyle sprints, and Stanford's Brian Job, who set NCAA records while winning both breaststrokes. And then, of course, there was UCLA's tireless Mike Burton, who ended his college career in fine style. The meet's only triple winner, Burton got a standing ovation on the final night after winning his specialty, the 1,650-yard freestyle.
While everybody else was making off with the gold, Indiana made excellent use of baser elements—depth and persistence. Diver Jim Henry was the only Hoosier to score two victories, but Indiana was picking up points—a third place here, a fifth there—in almost every event.
The team's world-class swimmers, especially Mark Spitz, were lackluster. On the first night, for instance, after USC's Frank Heckl beat Hall in the 200-yard IM, Spitz finished second to Edgar in the 50. The fact that Spitz lost was only slightly more surprising than Counsilman's decision to scratch him from the 500—a race he won last year—and put him in the 50, which Spitz has never swum in major competition.
"Mark hadn't been swimming the 500 well," explained Counsilman, "and he won't be as tired the rest of the way by swimming the 50. Also the altitude has been on his mind ever since the Olympics, where it hurt him. It's gotten to be a mental block."
On Friday, Spitz fared even poorer in the 200 free, an event in which he shares the world record with Don Schollander. He got so far behind that his strong kick only got him a third in back of Michigan's Juan Bello and Heckl. After the race Spitz returned to his motel room and began thinking about his next race—and Doug Russell.
The rivalry between Spitz and Russell dates back to 1967, when they began swimming against each other in meets all around the country. Spitz won every race until the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when Russell beat him out for the gold in the 100-meter fly. Right away Russell's admirers claimed their man was the world's best swimmer, and Spitz' fans retorted by saying that the Olympic win was a fluke. There the matter simmered until last Saturday night, when the two met for the first time since the Olympics. As Spitz said, "There were almost duplicate circumstances here, with the altitude and the pressure. It was kind of like a second dream, or an instant replay, almost."