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.

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.

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