Slow Strokes: The Decline of the U.S. Olympic Swim Team
Long Beach, California. The 1976 Olympic swimming trials. Hoisting his 20-month-old son above his head, Gary Hall swims a victory lap and salutes a cheering crowd packed into the Belmont Plaza swimming pool.At age 24, Hall has just become the second man to make the U.S. Olympic swim team three times with a second-place finish in the 100-meter butterfly. He wants to share the achievement with his son Gary Jr.Hall's success that afternoon 20 years ago was not just a great personal victory. It was also widely viewed as proof that dedication and determination could lead to the ultimate goal in amateur sports -- the Olympics.Now a prominent Phoenix eye surgeon, Hall is still known in swimming circles for his intensity in the practice pool."He was the hardest worker I ever had," says the legendary James "Doc" Councilman, who coached Hall at Indiana University in the 1970s. "He was a fanatic."Hall's star was eclipsed only by another Indiana swimmer -- Mark Spitz, who went on to international fame after winning seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics.Spitz retired after Munich, but the fire still burned strong in Hall. His desire undoubtedly helped inspire the 1976 U.S. men's swimming team to the greatest performance in Olympic history. At the Montreal Olympics, the U.S. men won every event save one, and that gold medal was taken by a Welshman who trained in America.Fans packed into the swimming stadium in Montreal could not know that American swimming had reached a zenith. U.S. swimmers had historically done well in the Olympics. Everyone thought the trend would continue.But it hasn't.American swimming prowess has been on a steady decline since the 1976 games. This year's men's team, which was selected at the Olympic Trials in March, is favored to win just three gold medals -- a far cry from the near-sweep of 15 events at Montreal.The outlook for the women is worse; none is favored to win gold against a powerful Australian team and the steroid-strengthened Chinese."We are definitely the underdog for the first time in Olympic history," says Charlie Snyder, a spokesman for US Swimming, an organization that sanctions American competitive swimming.The dramatic decline of American swimming can be traced to a complex combination of factors: poor coaching, financial disincentives, stronger international competition and changes in the American family.But these problems are magnified greatly by another:The hard-core work ethic that drove American swimming to the top no longer permeates the sport. Instead, many longtime observers say, U.S. coaches and swimmers have turned to training shortcuts, and increasingly they avoid the sport's grueling distance events.Those trends are threatening to turn U.S. swimming into a second-rate sport, says Councilman, who led Indiana University to a record seven consecutive NCAA swimming championships."A lot of talent goes wasted because they just don't work hard enough," Councilman says.It is ironic that the swimmer with perhaps the best chance to win Olympic gold this year is an athlete who succeeds with very little physical training.Perhaps it is native ability. Perhaps he possesses an innate understanding of how to win.Or, perhaps, deep in his soul, Gary Hall Jr. still carries something from that day 20 years ago, when his father held him above his head in Olympic glory at the Belmont Plaza swimming pool.Whatever the reasons for his success so far, the younger Hall's path to the Olympics epitomizes the love affair American swimming has come to have with the sprint events.But sprints alone won't return America to the top of the swimming world. The only way back to the pinnacle is through hard work over long distances."Where it is going to happen is in the practice pool," says U.S. Olympic assistant swimming coach Mark Schubert.But that's exactly where it isn't happening.Gary Hall Jr. may be the most naturally gifted swimmer America has seen since Mark Spitz. Coaches gush adjectives -- "awesome," "amazing talent" and "beautiful swimmer" -- when describing the friendly 21-year-old Paradise Valley, Arizona resident.At six-foot-six and 185 pounds, Hall has inherited the perfect build for competitive swimming.His father was legendary for his skill in all strokes. His uncle was a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic swimming team as a breast-stroker. And his grandfather, Charles H Keating Jr., was a world-class swimmer and a major promoter of U.S. swimming in Cincinnati and Phoenix (before, of course, he landed in federal prison on bank-fraud charges).The swimming genes are apparent when the younger Hall takes a stroke. He moves tremendous amounts of water with each underwater pull, a skill referred to as "feel" for the water. Most swimmers develop a grip on the water only after years of practice. But Hall doesn't have the decade under his belt like most of the swimmers on the U.S. Olympic team, the oldest ever assembled.In fact, he didn't start swimming on a year-round team until his freshman year in high school, and only after his father got sick of seeing him slack around the house."He said, 'I want you to do something productive, pick something,'" Hall says. "I didn't.""So he said, 'That's it, you're swimming.'" Hall says he hated it at first; his initial goal was to find "partners" on the team who would ditch workouts with him. But his desire picked up when he realized he had real talent and a college scholarship was on the table."I got serious," he says.But as he took the sport more seriously, Gary Hall Jr. kept the mental coolness necessary to win the sprints.Sprints are as much a mental as a physical effort. The 50-meter race takes just 22 seconds. A bad start, a moment's lack of concentration, can spell disaster. Yet that intensity -- the moment of competition -- is what Hall savors most."It is easy for a lot of athletes to look at it as pressure," Hall says. "I'm looking at it as opportunity."His upbeat, hang-loose approach to competition is paralleled by a less-than-rigorous practice regime. He clearly has not inherited the work ethic of his father, who once broke out of the Indiana University infirmary, where he was being treated for pneumonia, and made his way to the swimming pool for a solo midnight practice.The younger Hall rarely swims more than 10,000 meters a day -- and most of the time, far, far less."I believe in quality over quantity," he says.Many U.S. coaches and critics believe Gary Hall Jr. is wasting his untapped talent and will have a tough time defeating the world-record holder, Alexander Popov of Russia, in the 100-meter freestyle in Atlanta. Strength and endurance will be larger factors in the longer race than in the 50-meter event."Popov is doing 90,000 meters a week and Gary is doing 20,000 to 25,000 meters," says Swimming World magazine editor Phillip Whitten. "Tell me who you think is going to win."Hall remains unflustered in the face of questions about his workout schedule."You have to accept the results as they work out," he says, grinning.Hall seems to enjoy swimming differently from most world-class swimmers. He sees many ties between the sport and the music he loves -- especially the work of the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.Last August at the Pan Pacific Championships, Hall and his three teammates dedicated their world-record 400-meter freestyle relay swim to Garcia's memory. The guitarist had died just days earlier.Hall contends that swimming and Garcia's music give him the same feeling. "It's a very peaceful experience coming in and swimming in the afternoon," he says.But many swimmers and coaches say peaceful feelings won't be enough when the world's best swimmers climb the starting blocks in Atlanta.The winners, they say, will be the warriors.In the past, America's top swimming coaches created water warriors by emphasizing tremendous amounts of distance training for all swimmers -- sprinters and milers alike. This was particularly true for high school swimmers, whose skills were still developing and specialties not yet refined."All of the great swimmers have started out as distance swimmers," says Whitten of Swimming World, the nation's leading swimming journal. "That's not happening now."This approach created not only great distance swimmers, but also the best sprinters in the world.Mark Spitz won four individual gold medals in the 1972 Olympics over short distances -- 100 and 200 meters. But Spitz's first world record came during high school in the 400-meter freestyle and he once came within a second of the world record in the 1,500 meters.John Naber won individual gold medals at the 1976 Olympics in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke; he took a silver in the 200-meter freestyle. But Naber was also an American record-holder in the 1,650-yard freestyle."I trained in the animal lane, the distance lane, and tapered in the stroke lane," says Naber, now a sports analyst for ABC News.Melissa Belote (now Ripley) won individual gold medals in the 1972 Olympics in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke. But she trained as a distance swimmer and perfected all four swimming strokes (freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breast stroke)."My goal each year was to qualify for the national championships in every single event," says Ripley, a coach at the Phoenix Swim Club.In the two decades since these swimmers dominated their events, there has been a steady shift away from distance training and a much stronger emphasis on sprint training. As a result, America's once-dominant hold on the distance events is nearly gone."We are not the leaders in the world anymore," Councilman says. "The leaders look like Australia. They are still going with hard work."Not only is America's grip on distance events deteriorating in the face of improving times from around the world, America's best male distance swimmers are slower than they were 20 years ago.Carlton Bruner won the U.S. Olympic Trials this March in the 1,500-meter freestyle with a time of 15 minutes, 12.85 seconds. In the 1976 Olympic games, U.S. swimmer Brian Goodell took home the gold medal in 15:02 -- ten seconds faster than Bruner's time, and 20 years earlier. There were two other Americans on Goodell's heels in 1976. Bruner's time in this year's trials wouldn't have qualified him for the '76 Olympic team.The focus on sprints hasn't even resulted in American domination of the short races. While the U.S. is showing strength in the 50-meter freestyle, an event added to the Olympics in 1988, America's current group of male Olympic sprinters is slower than the top sprinters of 20 years ago.A few weeks after the '76 Olympics, Jonty Skinner set the then-world record in the 100-meter freestyle. Skinner's time of 49.44 seconds -- achieved in an old, shallow and wavy pool in Philadelphia -- would have won the U.S. Olympic Trials this year.Skinner is now sprint coach for the National Resident Team, a group of swimmers that trains in Colorado Springs. Skinner says attitudes have changed over two decades. Now, many swimmers just aren't willing to do the work to become champions."There doesn't seem to be as many people out there day after day busting their butt to get to the Olympic games," he says.One possible reason for the apparent lack of dedication is a change in competitive swimming's reward system.Winning a swimming gold medal in the 1970s rarely translated into instant money and fame. Except for Mark Spitz, most of America's champions faded quickly from the public's eye. Swimmers were driven by internal factors -- the desire to improve, the need to perform at their best for mastery's sake alone.But the commercialism that began with the 1984 Los Angeles games, combined with the entry of professional athletes to an Olympic field that once held the amateur sacred, has brought a new reward to the sport of swimming -- big money.Lucrative endorsement contracts, television appearances, clinics, speaking tours and world travel all await an American swimmer who finds gold in Atlanta.Such financial benefits have already come to America's best female swimmer, Janet Evans. In many ways, Evans is a throwback to the old days, when distance swimming was the way to the top. But she is swimming nowhere near as fast today as she did eight years ago, when she set her world record in the 400-meter freestyle.Evans now endorses nine national product lines. There is, of course, no way to know the precise effect money and fame have had on her performance. For whatever reason, though, her drive to win just doesn't appear to be what it once was."If I win a medal, that's awesome," says Evans, the only American woman on the team with a world record to her credit. "Whatever I do, I'm going to leave satisfied."Evans, 24, has proven herself a durable champion in swimming's toughest events. That she's still the best America can offer to the '96 Olympics raises serious questions about the training regimes of younger swimmers.Naber says American swimmers are overemphasizing the importance of external rewards. The self-gratification of hard work, Naber says, "is being lost because so much attention and so much reward is being placed on the end, the gold at the end of the rainbow."The rainbow spans more than the Olympic stadium.The gold that appears to be most effectively eroding the quality of American swimming sits inside natatoriums at the nation's universities and colleges. At the university level, that gold comes not in the form of a medal, but as a scholarship worth $20,000 a year or more.During the last decade, longtime observers note, National Collegiate Athletic Association swimming coaches have placed so much emphasis on sprinting that there is little incentive for a high school swimmer to train for longer events.In 1988, 200-yard sprint relays were added to the NCAA and conference championships across the country. Relays are worth twice as many points as individual events in championship competition. Suddenly, a successful collegiate swimming team no longer needed an array of swimmers who could score points in both distance events and shorter races.With the added relays, a college coach could win his conference or the national championship by loading his team with sprinters and hoping to win the 200-freestyle and the 200-medley relays. The swimmers who compete on these short relays would also likely swim the traditional 400-yard relays; coaches were getting twice the juice from each sprinter.Coaches have to look long and hard before they offer a full scholarship to a distance swimmer who might score some points in the 500-yard and 1,650-yard freestyle, but add nothing when it comes to relays. After all, men's collegiate teams are limited to nine full scholarships. The women have just 14."It doesn't pay as much anymore to be a distance swimmer," says men's Olympic head coach Skip Kenney. "I think that is really a shame."Kenney, also the men's swimming coach at Stanford University, says he supports eliminating 200-yard relays from NCAA competition, even though such a move would damage his team, which has historically done well in the relay events."I would still like to eliminate them for the best interest of U.S. swimming," he says.But change is unlikely.Don Gambril, chairman of the NCAA swimming rules committee, says most college coaches want to keep the 200-yard relays because they believe the shorter events add excitement and glamour to a rather tedious spectator sport."It comes up every year, and the vast majority of coaches vote to keep the sprint relays," says Gambril, who coached the distance swimmers on the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympic teams and is opposed to the sprint relays.The NCAA emphasis on short events filters down to the club level, where 191,000 young American swimmers compete on a year-round basis. There are about 2,600 year-round swimming clubs in the country, and many of these provide coaches with full-time jobs and salaries.Club coaches hoping to expand their teams often customize their programs to win as many college scholarships for high school athletes as possible. The emphasis on sprints also makes life easier for coaches. Rather than watch over three-hour practices laden with long swims needed to develop world-class distance -- and sprint -- swimmers, coaches can run a sprint workout in 90 minutes or less.The change in workout philosophy has been profound. Twenty years ago, swimmers generally gravitated to the programs that offered the most grueling workouts. Now, some coaches try to lure top swimmers to their programs by offering to give them easier practices. And sprint workouts are enough to propel the Michael Jordans of swimming to national fame and college scholarships.Unless they swim in Michigan.America's new swimming mecca lies in the most unlikely of places -- the cold Midwestern city of Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, guts still come before glory.If Gary Hall Jr. is arguably America's most talented swimmer, America's most effective male strokers are coming out of a back-to-basics program in Ann Arbor directed by taskmaster coach Jon Urbanchek.Urbanchek has developed a training program that centers on distance swimming and the mastery of all four competitive strokes. The Hungarian exile, now a naturalized American, requires his swimmers to attend ten workouts a week, averaging 8,000 yards a practice."You make a commitment -- or don't bother," he says.The swimmers who accept his challenge often excel. Urbanchek has six male and two female swimmers on the 1996 Olympic team. Urbanchek's male swimmers won six of the 13 individual events at the Olympic Trials, mostly in distance events. His program's success is not going unnoticed."Urbanchek is showing a lot of leadership in the way people should be training," says co-Olympic coach Mark Schubert.Among Urbanchek's students is perhaps America's most complete male swimmer, 20-year-old Tom Dolan of Arlington, Virginia. Dolan is the world-record holder in the 400-meter individual medley, a brutal event that requires the competitor to swim 100 meters of each stroke. Dolan could also strike gold in the 200-meter individual medley (a sprint version of the 400-meter individual medley) and the 400-meter freestyle, although he will face tough competition in both events.Two Australians, a New Zealander and Michigan teammate John Piersma will be in a dogfight with Dolan for the 400-meter-freestyle crown. The 200-meter individual medley features a half-dozen swimmers whose times differ by less than a second -- making it a wide-open race.Programs like Urbanchek's, however, are few and far between. The talent pool in the distance events in the United States remains thin, and without depth there is little pressure to force improvement.The lack of strong distance programs is only the most obvious problem facing American swimming. Other factors are eroding what was once America's strongest amateur sport.After the political boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles games, international swimming reduced the number of Olympic slots per nation from three per event to two.The reduction in the number of swimmers qualifying for the Olympics has been a major disincentive for many top swimmers, who have to decide whether to undergo grueling training in hopes of snagging one of a very limited number of Olympic slots."I think you take away a lot of kids' dreams when they did that," says Olympic coach Skip Kenney.Changes in family structure in the last 20 years have also hurt American swimming."I had parents who would drive 30 or 40 miles each way to bring their kids to work out, sometimes twice a day," Don Gambril says about his days as a club coach in the 1960s and 1970s. "Now those mothers are working."The talent pool feeding top swimming programs has also thinned. Other sports are luring top athletes out of the pool and into events that didn't even exist two decades ago: mountain biking and inline skating, for example."Swimming is at a crossroads," says Phoenix Swim Club coach and former Olympian Melissa Ripley.Which way it turns will depend on the answer to a question that Don Gambril raises -- and is bedeviled by."How do you get people to swim up and down for two hours looking at the bottom of the pool?"For part of that answer, American swimming might revisit the incentive Doc Councilman used when he was producing the world's greatest swimmers in the 1970s. It wasn't money, or trips, or cars, or the promise of less work.Councilman relied on swimmers to motivate themselves to achieve excellence. He also threw in a couple of jellybeans to sweeten the practice.May 1996. The Speedo Invitational Grand Prix of Swimming. Mark Schubert takes a seat in the shade, out of the 100-degree heat reflecting from the cement decks at the Phoenix Swim Club.The U.S. Olympic team has converged at the meet, using it as a tune-up session for the Atlanta games in July. Finals won't begin for four hours. Schubert has a moment to talk about this year's Olympic team.Schubert has been a coach for every Olympic games since 1980. Over the years, he's coached scores of Olympic, world and national champions. But he has never gone into the Olympics with a team as untested and unheralded as this year's squad."We need to really improve to fulfill our potential," Schubert says.Reaching its potential may not be enough for the U.S. team. U.S. swimmers just aren't cutting through the water as they once did.Historically, the U.S. Olympic Trials were the most competitive swimming meets in the world. American and world records fell in the preliminaries, only to be broken again in the finals.But this year, no world records fell at the trials, held in Indianapolis. No American record was broken. That hasn't happened since 1920.Like most coaches, Schubert is loath to dwell on the negative. He points to a good mix of young athletes and seasoned world-class competitors on the team. He suggests the blend could make for an explosive performance in Atlanta.The women have three 14-year-olds -- backstroker Beth Botsford and breast-strokers Amanda Beard and Jilen Siroky -- on the team. Nobody knows how fast they can go. The team also has experience; 400-meter freestyle world-record holder Janet Evans is competing in her third Olympics.The U.S. men are led by world-record holders Jeff Rouse in the 100-meter backstroke and Tom Dolan in the 400-meter individual medley. Gary Hall Jr. is joined by David Fox and Jon Olsen in the sprints. Any of the men could win gold.The Speedo Invitational in Phoenix gives Schubert and other Olympic coaches their first look at many of the swimmers since the Olympic Trials. U.S. swimmers have been scattered across the country practicing with their home clubs.The U.S. swimmers won't come together as a team until ten days before the games. Then, they will meet in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a training camp. At that point, the swimmers will either be ready to win, or they won't.It is clear that at least some of the U.S. swimmers are ready to respond.A special race has been added to the lineup at the Speedo Invitational. It is a relay. America's top four female 50-meter freestyle sprinters will race against four men.The women scorch the pool, edging out the men and setting an unofficial world record for the event.Schubert says the performance showed a spark he'd been looking for. "That could be a real sign of leadership on this team."It could be. After all, the swimmers the women have just beaten are Olympians.But then again, these men haven't been Olympians since the 1970s. Now, one of them is an eye surgeon in Phoenix named Gary Hall. Senior.