David McCagg occasionally feels old enough to have seen diplodocuses flopping about in the primal sea. He's 25, which makes him a first cousin to the dinosaur in the pool of competitive swimming. McCagg, a sprinter, and his buddies, Kyle Miller and David Larson, both 24-year-old middle-distance men, arrived at the U.S. National Long Course championships in Fresno, Calif. this summer by way of the Mesozoic Era. Twenty-four is practically the afterlife for Olympic swimming aspirants.
The three are the prize relics of the Florida Aquatic Swim Team (FAST). They competed at the Fresno championships against yeasty high school and college kids. "I can't see myself still swimming when I'm that old," said their teammate Tracy Caulkins, who at 20 isn't too far from extinction. "But it's nice to know that it can be done." She paused, and then added, "With enthusiasm."
McCagg, Larson and Miller are hanging on because they want to swim in the Olympics. They missed the last Games in their own epoch because of the boycott. Swimmers often get only one shot at Olympic glory, and the U.S. Government's refusal to allow American athletes to go to Moscow smashed the hopes of the 1980 team the way Moby Dick shattered the Pequod. "People will never realize what it did to a dedicated group of athletes, maybe the most dedicated there is," says FAST Coach Randy Reese.
"My parents have been divorced, but nothing hurt me more than the boycott," says McCagg, who had finished eighth in the 100-meter freestyle at the '76 Olympic Trials and was world champion in that event in '78. "It tore me up inside. I hated everyone who had anything to do with it. It didn't accomplish a damn thing."
McCagg was so devastated that he quit swimming for four months. In fact, all three have quit for periods of at least half a year. Swimmers tend to drop out after college. Among other things, they've lost their financial underpinnings. Besides, the rigorous training that swimming requires is more or less incompatible with the demands of adulthood.
Swimming exacts a terrible physical toll as well. "There's not a morning that I don't wake up sore with aches in my joints and sharp pains in my shoulders," says McCagg. "But when I have doubts, I just sit down and think how I'd feel having to watch the Games on television."
McCagg, a rugged 6'4" native of Fort Myers Beach, Fla. who attended Auburn, is a semi-reformed beach bum. He sees the world from behind Richard Petty shades. He has long, thick forearms and a powerful kick.
To hear McCagg and his pals tell it, they're all just a bunch of thrill-seeking party animals. Well, maybe fish, as befits athletes who spend half their lives in water. "I'm a barracuda." McCagg says. "I'm naturally mean, not real understanding or polite. And I'm probably seen as a jerk by the other swimmers."
In 1981 McCagg quit swimming again, this time for more than a year. He wanted to become an actor and tried his luck as a model in California, but he wound up tending bar. He returned to FAST in April of 1982 and finished second to world-record holder Rowdy Gaines in the 100 free at the long-course championships that August in Indianapolis.
McCagg credits his success to Reese's unorthodox training methods. "Randy's always inventing things," says McCagg, "and he keeps varying our routines so that they never get monotonous." They range from kicking with tennis shoes on to "baskets"—tying a rope around a swimmer's waist and then anchoring the other end of the rope, via an overhead pulley, to a milk crate loaded with weights on the side of the pool. Reese once even considered having his swimmers sluice through a one-lane tank filled with baby oil.