Slow Strokes

Once dominant, U.S. swimmers have fallen back in the Olympic pack. And some observers are questioning whether Gary Hall Jr., the world-class sprinter from Paradise Valley, has the work ethic to find gold in Atlanta.

"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.

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