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Reese's most grueling water torture is staged in Florida's Ichetucknee River. Once a week he requires his team to swim three miles upstream against the strong current. "It's the hardest thing I've ever imagined doing or ever done," McCagg says. The exercise can last three hours and leaves the swimmers looking something like William Holden floating face down in Sunset Boulevard.
Occasionally a snake will slither across a swimmer's path, and Reese, leading the way in a canoe, will try to dispatch it with a paddle. McCagg is afraid of snakes. "I don't like anything that can put me under," he explains. "I don't like snakes or alligators or sharks."
The only shark he gets along with is Larson. "I'm a great white," Larson says. "They're natural survivors; they never really had to evolve. To stay on top, all I've had to do is keep fit and dominant. Living in the sea, you either eat or get eaten."
A lean fellow (6'1", 180 pounds) with flinty resolve, Larson has been dining on the 200-freestyle field. He won the 200-yard free at the national short-course championships in Indianapolis in April.
Since 1979, Gaines and Larson, a native of Jesup, Ga. and a graduate of the University of Florida, have won nine U.S. 200 freestyle titles between them, but Larson has never beaten Gaines in long-course competition.
When Larson defeated Gaines at the 1983 short-course nationals, he, McCagg, Miller and Jeff Smith, a Zen-spouting dentist friend, had a legendary bacchanal in which they downed 10 dozen oysters, 14 dozen chicken wings and enough beer to fill a sensory deprivation tank. The idea was to stay up and go water-skiing early the next morning. They made it—a case of mind over matter.
Miller, who's from the same town and school as Larson, credits a book, The Man Who Tapped the Secrets of the Universe, by Glenn Clark, with helping him decide to stick with swimming through the '84 Olympics. He is a steady if unspectacular performer who makes up for his lack of size (5'10", 160 pounds) with textbook-perfect technique. "I've always been right in there, but never on top," he says. "I told myself I'd hang up my suit when I didn't improve anymore." Last year he was third in the 200 free at the trials to select the U.S. team for the world championships. He may be the best 300 IM swimmer in the country, but, unfortunately, he isn't too proficient in the breaststroke, and the IM is a 400-meter event, breaststroke included.
Miller is a Siamese fighting fish. "I'm at ease when I'm by myself in a bowl," he says. "But when I'm in a race, it's match play."
The best of the oldsters may be Gaines, 24, the one who got away. The world's top 100- and 200-free swimmer, he set his first world record while swimming for Reese. Gaines retired in April '81, but a year later became a member of the War Eagle Swim Team, a club based at Auburn. Now he swims for Longhorn Aquatics, where he works with Richard Quick, his old coach at Auburn, and Reese's brother, Eddie.
Gaines is a breed apart; he identifies more with porpoises than killer fish. "Sharks don't mess around with porpoises," Gaines says, which may explain why he's done so well against Larson. "Porpoises are graceful, friendly and easy to get along with. They know they're bad and they don't have to prove it."