Staged as they were in a country under a recently imposed state of siege, the World Aquatics Championships produced a hero so suited for the role that he might have come from Central Casting. Indeed, if U.S. swimmer Tim Shaw's primary mission in Cali, Colombia was to win gold medals, his secondary one appeared to be avoiding any land-bound acts or utterances which might further inflame the passions that had resulted in rifle-toting shock troops sullenly patrolling all three pools where the championships were held. Yet there was the feeling that a few carefully considered words from the quiet and pensive Shaw could have immediately defused any but the gravest crisis.
As quickly became evident beneath Cali's orange-tiled roofs and towering royal palms, Shaw was capable of working his tempering influence in various ways. Emerging as the star of the 10-day championships, which also included competitions in diving, water polo and synchronized swimming, the 17-year-old freestyler displayed his versatility by winning three events at distances ranging from 200 to 1,500 meters, meanwhile doing his level best to disabuse onlookers of the persistent notion that he was another Mark Spitz. Peering out from behind bookish glasses, his pale and well-chiseled features virtually expressionless, Shaw said repeatedly, "Spitz and I are totally different." Asked by one persistent interviewer whether that meant in water or on land, he replied, "Both."
Shaw also responded with sobriety following the disqualification of the U.S. relay team, a blow that deprived him of both a fourth gold medal and a share of a world record. The 800-meter freestyle crew that also had included Robin Backhaus, Jim Montgomery and Bruce Furniss had splashed home in 7:30.35, nearly three seconds under the mark set by the U.S. at the first world championships held in Belgrade two years ago. The Americans were still whooping it up when it was ruled that anchorman Furniss had entered the water before Shaw, who swam the third leg, had touched the wall. Runner-up West Germany was declared the winner, leaving Furniss, a teammate of Shaw's at the Long Beach (Calif.) Swim Club, disconsolate. Backhaus and Montgomery comforted him as Shaw calmly tried to lay the matter to rest. Putting an arm around Furniss, he said, "We're not mad at you one bit. It could have been any of us." Then he went off to watch a water polo game.
At such moments Shaw, his tender years notwithstanding, gave the appearance of being a battle-hardened veteran. As well he might. At the 1973 Belgrade championships Shaw, then 15, was the youngest member of the U.S. men's team, yet swam to fourth place in the 400 freestyle. Then, last summer, he came into his own, and has been on a world-record spree ever since. Due to enroll at hometown Long Beach State this fall, the 5'11", 170-pound Shaw is the current world-record holder in the 400-, 800-and 1,500-meter freestyles. He also held the 200 freestyle record until Furniss broke it in the U.S. world-championship trials in June.
Once so shy as to be unapproachable, Shaw has begun to loosen up. He is even capable of hellishness, as he showed when he greatly inconvenienced some of his Long Beach Swim Club teammates by spiking their orange juice with Ex-Lax, but he still feels ill at ease with the press. He spoke of this while relaxing one morning in the courtyard of the Cali hotel housing the U.S. team. "It embarrasses me when I'm with my friends, and reporters come around," he confessed. "They're all good athletes, too, and I don't want to be singled out as anybody special."
But the only place Shaw could be sure of eluding newsmen was in the water—and there no one could catch him. Competing in the 6,000-seat pool built for the 1971 Pan American Games, he began by outswimming Furniss in the 200 freestyle, coming from behind to win in 1:51.04, just .15 off Furniss' world record. Two nights later he again defeated the unfortunate Furniss, falling less than a second shy of his own world record of 3:53.95 for the 400. Finally, last Saturday, he fought off the combination of American rival Brian Goodell, a light drizzle and a touch of turista to take the 1,500. The time was 15:28.92, some eight seconds above his world record. In fact, only five world records were set at the meet, a relatively meager haul for so major a competition in a sport where the most durable records date back only 35 months. The dearth was blamed by some on blustery weather and by Dick Jochums, Shaw's Long Beach coach, on Cali's 3,140-foot elevation.
"The altitude isn't too high here, but it's enough to affect longer races," said Jochums. "At sea level I'm sure that Tim's time in the 400, for example, would have been three seconds faster."
Whether or not Jochums' estimates of the amount of time lost because of the altitude are correct, the fact is that none of the five world records came at distances requiring an individual to swim farther than 200 meters: the G.D.R.'s Birgit Treiber broke her own mark in the 200-meter backstroke with a time of 2:15.46, Kornelia Ender set a 100-meter butterfly record (1:01.24), the East German women's 400-meter freestyle relay team of Ender (who simultaneously set a 100 free mark of 56.27), Barbara Krause, Claudia Hempel and Ute Brückner was timed in 3:49.37, and the U.S. men's 400 free relay team of Furniss, Montgomery, Andy Coan and John Murphy established a new mark of 3:24.85.
All his protestations notwithstanding, Shaw's performance at Cali did invite comparison with the fabled deeds of Spitz, who in winning his seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, swam no distance greater than 200 meters. Shaw's feat of winning the 200, 400 and 1,500 establishes him as the farthest-ranging freestyler since Australia's Jon Konrads in the late 1950s. Shaw himself says it is virtually impossible to simultaneously train for such diverse distances. "You train for the 1,500," he said. "Then, when you start resting, you hope to pick up enough speed for the 400 and 200."
Slightly tarnishing Shaw's win in the 1,500 was the absence from Cali of Australia's Stephen Holland, his archrival at the distance and one of a handful of top swimmers who stayed home, apparently preferring to concentrate on the '76 Olympics. Among other notable absentees were world record holder John Hencken (breaststroke) and U.S. record holder John Naber (backstroke). In their absence Britain's David Wilkie won the 100-and 200-meter breaststrokes while the backstrokes were divided up, East German's aging Roland Matthes winning the 100, then being upset by Hungary's Zoltan Verraszto in the 200.