By the time the starter trills his ready whistle, and the crowd at the Sydney Aquatic Center begins to hush, and the four hulk-shouldered, body-shaved U.S. swimmers have exchanged a few last looks of anxious resolve, the swimmers will each have won a spot on what may prove to be a historic medley relay.
Either these four will defend their nation's 40-year Olympic legacy in this event -- the U.S. men have never lost it and, in fact, have never failed to notch a world record -- or these four will be "out-touched," by the hosting Australians most likely, who, for the first time, have mustered a foursome to rival the world's best. A foursome that could possibly upset the world's longest current unbeaten streak, by any country, in any Olympic sport.
The pressure will lie with the U.S. To lose would invite the stigma of failed expectations. To win would mean the grateful extension of a phenomenon that isn't fully understood. How is it that the U.S. men always triumph in the relay, despite not always fielding the world's best in each stroke? How is it that they manage to succeed as a hastily assembled "team" -- selections are based on whoever swims best in the preceding individual events -- in a sport where team efforts go relatively unprepared for? Is it their uncommon familiarity, from the age of 5 on up, with the sort of big-event relay swimming oft featured domestically and oft neglected abroad? Or is it some combination of rise-to-the-occasion patriotism and prideful overachievement that has carried this streak to 2000, where, according to sports psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg, it will either buoy the U.S. four with can-do confidence or sink them with performance-killing fears of "messing up."
It is a notoriously lonely sport. It is a sport of water-logged monotony, year-round regimen and predominantly solo goals. Which is to say, what will bond the U.S. four come race day, more than any sudden enchantment with red, white and blue, is a certain commonality of sacrifice. Or as Phoenix's Gary Hall Jr. (a relay hero in '96 and the nation's most infamous Olympic hopeful in 2000) puts it: The bonds will flow from "the knowledge that no matter our differences, we've all logged the same long hours . . . those endless laps."
To get this far, for a swimmer to win one of these high-honor, high-stakes U.S. medley spots demands years of chlorine-killed hair and dried-out rashy skin, foot-rot between the toes and, above all, a youth pegged by deadening two-a-days that taper only every few months, for a hit-or-miss big-meet payoff.
It demands underwater filming to perfect technique; vitamin C overloads to stave off colds; and lucky genetics to allow these four terrestrial creatures to marshal their breathing and move through the water with enough pace to make them stand out as distinct competitors -- now called to leave behind hometown swim clubs, fly to Sydney and unite.
Until the mid-August Olympic trials in Indianapolis, no one will know who will represent the U.S., and even then, the identities of the relay swimmers will not emerge until Olympic events unfold in mid-September. But, knowing that each relay swimmer will have excelled at his stroke, it's possible to envision a medley with these favorites and hopefuls -- a Russian-born immigrant, a former golfing ace, an inner-city long shot and, of course, the aforementioned Phoenix-based Hall.
And it's possible, also, to imagine what this hypothetical relay might look like as these potential entrants lean in close for a moment of communal reflection, before each turns inward to focus on the private demons of his specialty stroke.
The pool yawns 50 meters long, 10 lanes wide, with the outside lanes left empty to absorb chop. The race involves two laps for each swimmer, a splashy progression from back, to breast, to fly, to free. And so the idea for the backstrokers who lead off is to explode rearward out of a starting crouch that begins with both feet underwater, leveraged against the pool's vertical wall, while the hands grip the starting block and the chin tucks in. Then the gun, and a violent uncoiling, and an airborne instant when each swimmer's form will scribe the lines of a banana -- after which all thoughts of historical streaks should, for peak output, give way to the blank-mind muscle-memory of the exquisitely prepped.
An underwater bit follows, and it's here that many leads are gained or lost, as a swimmer's submerged speed off the start or later off the 50-meter turn generally exceeds his speed while actually swimming. The upshot is that a big part of every race calls for maintaining "wall speed." And a big part of that calls for diving in or pushing off semi-deep (to dodge turbulence); kicking like a dolphin (to sustain thrust); and holding tight in an arms-extended glide for 15 meters, the most allowed, before popping up. Whereupon, if all odds hold true, the world will see the 24-year-old square-jawed visage of the U.S. team's 6-foot-2, 180-pound, Russian-born, now naturalized, Lenny "The Backstroke King" Krayzelburg already out in front.
He is the world-record holder, by dominant margins, in both Olympic distances that his stroke is swum. He has won televised races against elite fields in which the second-place finisher, upon The King's final touch, has yet to appear onscreen. He owns the most lucrative Speedo contract -- a six-figure deal -- ever bestowed upon a swimmer who has yet to make the Olympics. He is very fond of sweets. He loves day trading and Lakers basketball. His lung capacity is such that once, while learning to scuba, he blew through 50 minutes of oxygen in 20 minutes. His workouts are such that once, during a three-week injury layoff, he gained 11 pounds. The younger girls are said to love him. The older girls are said to laugh at his dance moves, which, his best friend Slavic Sukharev confides, resemble those of a "standing-up dolphin, wiggling around."
In the pool, though, he is, by popular admission, the one backstroker other backstrokers study to learn more about swimming fast. And his videotaped underwater work is now the stuff of great scrutiny among the Australians as they toil to trim his advantage. It is, for the Americans, a vital advantage, as their edge in the next leg, the breast stroke, is much slimmer, and the Australians figure to take the last two legs by enough to make the race's final outcome excruciatingly close.
"What I'll need to do," Krayzelburg says, his accent blunting his words, his voice a long-distance postpractice drone, "is get out in front," which is important, he explains, not just because it's expected of him, but also because it will allow him to seize the "flat water" -- which is easier to swim through -- for his teammates who follow. What he'll need to watch out for, he continues, is the temptation to obsess, to let the streak over-rev his engine, so that he pushes too hard too early and loses out at the end.
"If I swim my own race," he reasons, "and everyone else does what they're supposed to, we should win. But that's on paper. And when you have 17,000 fans cheering for the other guys . . . ." His voice trails off. He changes subjects. The prospect of losing remains distinctly shunned.
In swimming, at the levels The King rose to in college, the strokes are said to choose their champions, and the backstroke, in this case, chose a young man whose long body, hyperextensive elbows and downward ankle flexion made him a good candidate for dorsal success. The long body because both the backstroke and freestyle favor the tall -- the world's best are all 6-feet-plus. The hyperextensive elbows because, The King says, they allow him to "pull more water." The downward ankle flexion because the flutter kick requires it, and the backstroke relies on its kick as much as any stroke.
It will take him some 20 strokes to hit the 10-meter flags, and another two strokes to hit his flip turn and push off, submerged, for his customary 14 dolphin kicks, though he may drop to 13 to account for his Olympic excitement and his tapered (thus unusually rested) state.
And then, for the rest of the race, it's a thigh-burning, nose-snorting sprint to give his teammates a lead to last. The motivation here, he says, will come in part from another U.S. medley he once raced on, and its unprecedented loss to these same Australians at the World Championships in 1998 -- "the sorriest feeling I've ever had in swimming, like the world had ended, I felt so bad." The confidence to avenge that loss, he says, comes from the belief that he trains harder than anyone else -- 10 workouts a week, eight to 12 miles a day, with weights mixed in and no special-occasion respites, not even for his own college graduation.
In the end, for The King's final surging stroke, he will throw back his head and dive, without breaking rhythm, toward the wall. It's a move that works as apt punctuation for his swim -- his lead, if he breaks his own world record, may approach a full body length -- and it's a move, also, that works to help the team's young breast stroker calibrate his takeoff, from above, to the hundredth of a second.
With their relay selections finalized just days before, the U.S. men will have spent their last few warm-ups rushing to synch their timing, running through a dozen or so starts meant to acclimate each swimmer to the last-stroke quirks of the man he follows. Because to the naked eye, a well-timed relay takeoff looks like a disqualification or jump, and perfection, as measured by the electronic touch pads in the water and on the blocks, calls for one swimmer's toes to depart at the exact moment of the other swimmer's finger-tipped arrival. Without fail, the ensuing launch -- a bit of slightly piked aerial grace -- is thrilling to watch, especially when performed by the world's top sprint breast stroker, a 20-year-old phenom who, at just 5-foot-10, has the hops to dunk a basketball and the finesse to be a near-scratch golfer, which is what he was until three years ago, when he realized he could swim really, really fast.
His name is Ed Moses, the United States' most promising breast stroke hope, and his sudden rise to prominence in the sport's oldest stroke has (to paraphrase his mother) parted the waters of the swimming world. There are those who begrudge him -- "He hasn't paid his dues" -- and look for him to fade under pressure at the international level, where he's only swum once. And then there are those who hail him as a stopgap savior for a sport in decline, a sport that finds it ever harder to entice the best young athletes before they're drawn toward snowboarding or Hacky Sack or who knows what else. Without dispute, though, Moses' rise has made it possible, once again, for sane people to grant the U.S. men's medley a fighting chance in Sydney, to uphold what former swimmer-turned-broadcaster John Nabers calls "our winning fraternity . . . the source of our pride." It's a statement meant, he explains, to get at the way the streak compounds the tension (and desire) of this year's entrants by linking them to the past -- this family of victors -- and, at the same time, exposing them to the jeopardy of uncharted loss.
Underwater, where it's silent, Moses will glide. He will then power through one double-armed pull plus one frog kick before popping up, to the crowd's bellowing, which will now condense into a toneless slur, with waxing peaks and waning valleys, all timed to the surface-skimming hypnosis of the breast stroke.
It is said to be the hardest stroke to master, and those who manage it are said to be a breed apart -- a breed that waddles rather than walks and acts out whenever possible. Beyond a few complicated anecdotes, however, much of the stroke's oddball rep probably stems from its oddball mechanics, which tend to demand a segregated training regimen (the other strokes are much faster) and a freakish ability to turn one's feet out, far past first position, toward a 180-degree extreme that, if you catch Moses stretching, will make you wince.
This is not to say that Moses' talents are simply God-given because, like The King, he's known for his work ethic. Consider, for example, that his "signature move," his explosive push off the 50-meter wall, is a move he's perfected with a devotion to squat jumps up stairs that one fellow swimmer, at a recent meet in Seattle, called "sick." Or consider that when asked later that day, over a Wendy's grilled chicken sandwich, about how he might cut loose and indulge, at season's end, before diving back into his training, Moses scratched his stubble, palmed his crew cut and ventured, between bites, that maybe, just maybe, he might allow himself a slim slice of cheesecake.
In Sydney, on his return lap, after his required two-handed touch, is when Moses, always the cocky one, figures to "kick some butt." Because, unlike some swimmers, Moses holds relay swimming in high regard -- "You've got these three guys pulling for you, and it's like they're family, and you're swimming for them, too, and for your country, and for this tradition and everything it represents." His effort here, he says, will be most intense. And because his stroke is so efficient, it's the second lap, when lactic-acid buildup and oxygen debt begin to hurt, that his technique, relative to his rivals, ought to trump. While his rivals' strokes degrade, Moses' should hold up. His hips should stay raised. His frog kick should stay narrow. His shrugging out-of-water recovery, at the completion of each arm pull, should stay long -- overlapped hands shooting forth, palms up, knuckles to the surface, in the manner of one diving through a small opening to catch some rain. In profile, he will look like a scooting water bug. From the back, you will see his lats bulge and flex. From the blocks above, his extra-long glides (riding the kick, it's called) will make him easy to time, as he strokes toward a finish that, if the U.S. team is very lucky, will pass on a two-second lead (and plenty of confidence) to the 24-year-old butterflyer, just taking off.
He calls himself "The Duke" after a native Hawaiian swimmer who medaled in four Olympics between 1912 and 1932. His given name, Sabir Kasib Muhammad II, translates into "patient winner, worthy of praise." And at 6-foot-7, with enough upper-body cut to give the impression of constant breath-holding and enough athleticism to mix boxing, wrestling and gymnastics into his dry-land routine, his start, in terms of reaction time and distance aloft, may be the world's best. Likewise, his underwater dolphin kick, post entry, may be the world's best, his length amplifying his undulations like a whip crack -- size 15 feet on the end. His stroke, though, the actual forward lurch of his arms and the boom-BOOM of his kick in an Olympic-size pool for more than 100 meters, is far from the world's best (he is the nation's most talked about long shot), which would only make his presence, if he makes it, that much more dramatic. For him to be here would mean he's recovered enough, after recently losing his elite butterfly ranking, to try the fly again at trials, rather than limiting himself to the speed freestyle. It would mean that he's beefed up his conditioning enough to finish strong in the sport's most taxing stroke (some breast strokers may contest), with a frame so lean and well-muscled it tends to sink. And it would mean, most of all, that U.S. swimming has finally found its first black Olympian.
He was 8 when his mother (who says she "can't swim a lick") became a community-pool locker-room attendant at the same time the city of Atlanta was looking to start its first black swim team. He was a gangly youngster then, still learning his strokes, when he found himself, along with eight other youths, tapped for a series of meets against the rest of Georgia's mostly white, mostly suburban swim clubs. In his first long-course (50-meter pool) outing, he stopped short to clear his nose and walk, as soon as his feet could touch bottom. Some years later, to fuel both his growth and his training, there came a day, according to his mother, when he felt the need to "[go] up to his daddy, big tears in his eyes, [and say,] 'Daddy, I'm not getting enough to eat.'" And then some years later still, as a well-fed college freshman, he broke one of Stanford's most hallowed butterfly records and started a buzz.
In 1996, however, after taking second in the 100-meter fly at the '95 Nationals, he swam poorly at trials, missed the Olympic cut and considered quitting the sport (the pressure to break the color line had worn him out), until the sight of a torch-bearing Muhammad Ali, a distant family acquaintance, persuaded him to try again. In 1998, he broke three American records. In May 2000, in a guest appearance on Baywatch Hawaii, his character was future-framed as the Tiger Woods of swimming, provided, of course, he could first win an Olympic gold.
And to do that, The Duke says, he'll need to "clear his head," get to a "higher state," a state that feeds off nervous energy and "feels electric, like I could grab a light bulb and light it up." He's seated on a deserted pool deck in Seattle (the site of last spring's Nationals), still dripping from an off-hour warm-up, and he's been talking about what it might mean to swim this Olympic relay, how he'd like, more than anything, to "share a gold" with some teammates, "because that's a more powerful feeling, a more social feeling, if it's not just about you." Yet when it comes to explicating more technically how he might do this, The Duke begs off and heads back, alone, for another nap in his hotel room -- he doesn't want any more distractions -- leaving his mystified coach, Andy Deichert, to explain just this: If The Duke manages to keep his head down like a track star for his first few strokes, his breathing will feel easy, the water will feel thin and he will pass by you, if you happen to have a subsurface vantage, like the dark rush of a passing train. Which, of course, is exactly what he'll have to do, should this relay scenario unfold, with the world's fastest butterflyer, out of Australia, surely gaining, knowing that The Duke tends to die, and knowing, too, that if he reels The Duke in, the race will come down to dueling freestylers, the top-ranked Australian vs., perhaps, if he feels up to it, the ragingly talented, incorrigibly flaky conundrum that is Gary Hall Jr.Freestyle
He already owns two golds and two silvers from Atlanta in '96. He already owns the fastest U.S. relay split ever clocked. He's already come to be known as the nation's top sprinter who, if he makes this year's medley, could give his teammates a lone veteran to look up to when the pressure to win for the 10th straight time has the relay's less experienced entrants wigging out.
And yet, Hall, at age 25, has also come to be known as the nation's greatest athletic waste, a swimmer blessed with such champion pedigree (his father was a three-time Olympian), pure form (his stroke has been called "biomechanically perfect") and divine construction (he stands a willowy 6-foot-6) that he ought to dominate all comers, the thinking goes, if he'd only train in earnest. Instead, his critics will tell you, "Gary does what Gary does," which is a phrase oft used to reference the whole of Hall's "antics."
On the pool deck, where the conventional garb tends toward country-club casual, he has worn, among other things, leather pants, tie-dyed shirts, purple hair, a garish wig, a golden tooth and a black armband, inked about his bicep, on the occasion of Jerry Garcia's sudden death. On the subject of workouts, he once bragged about missing "as many, if not more" than any swimmer in U.S. history. On the subject of sports marketing, he once suggested swimmers race in body paint, pro wrestler-style, in "dash for cash" events on which the public could bet. His straight-faced post-Olympic dream, he says, involves either rock stardom or space travel "to a planet with a good climate and cheap rents." He owns several Gibson guitars, a Chihuahua named Tikki, another Chihuahua named Farnsworth and a fully restored 1962 VW Kombi that once won first in class at the all-Southwest Bug-O-Rama.
In a 1996 Tonight Show appearance, he expressed his swimming philosophy as: "Think like a fish, drink like a fish." In January 1998, he traded a world-championship gold medal for an airline upgrade. In May 1998, he tested positive for marijuana and received a subsequent three-month suspension from FINA (swimming's governing body) and a call from Speedo, his main sponsor, telling him, as he recalls it now: "Basically just, 'Hey, you're fired.'" And then, while draining his savings to fight back in court -- pot, the argument goes, is far from performance-enhancing, plus FINA hasn't always listed it as a banned substance -- things got worse.
It was the spring of 1999, a party, and Gary had been battling dizzy spells and bouts of blurred vision. He careened home, got to a hospital and received a diagnosis to explain both his current swoons and, as it happens, his past distaste for practice. It wasn't a lack of will, a well-to-do upbringing or a lingering angst over his grandfather's tragic fall (the man is convicted savings-and-loan baron Charles Keating). It was Hall's pancreas, a lack of insulin, diabetes. And when told that the disease might one day blind him, make him impotent or cause him to lose his legs, he flew to Costa Rica for a few weeks of long ocean swims through sharky waters and dark, fate-tempting thoughts. "He'd just swim straight out," his fiancée, Elizabeth Peterson, recalls, "swim for miles, until he'd disappear . . . . [And then later], while we were still down there, he told me he still wanted to live, which for Gary meant, of course, he still wanted to race."
His return to competition, after the suspension, the diagnosis and the thoughts of death -- "I didn't know if I wanted to keep on trying" -- is the stuff of legend.
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In August of '99, at U.S. Nationals, in baggy Louis Vuitton bathing trunks (a gift from Peterson) worn, he says, to irk the powers that be at Speedo ("I didn't care to endorse a company that supports the Chinese women's team, with something like 27 positive tests for steroid abuse, and yet takes this firm stance on a non-performance-enhancing substance like marijuana."), he not only beat a field of world-class sprinters sporting the sleekest of swimwear, but he set a personal best of 22.13 seconds, fifth-fastest ever, and a time that would have won in Atlanta. It's also a time that he knows he'll have to near, on his first lap in the Olympic medley, if he's to hold off the Australians on their home turf and honor the faith of his coach to put him here, as the relay's sole veteran, with so much still to prove. If behind, he knows, the Australian swimmer will be drafting, holding close to the lane line, hoping to ride in his wake. If even, he says, the two of them may flip together and push off as one for a torrid, strategy-free dash -- Hall's favorite kind; he doesn't like to overthink it -- that will leave him, win or lose, in a hallucinatory state.
His teammates will urge him on. The crowd will stand to scream. Two billion onlookers will watch on television. And the drive to finish first, for the lone U.S. swimmer still in the water, may come down to ephemeral things that may, in turn, say as much about this 40-year winning phenomenon as anything else.
"It's about working together," Hall says, "working together and doing your part, and getting to experience these moments, for once, with three other guys . . . . In '96 I swam with Jeff Rouse, Jeremy Lynn, Mark Henderson. . . . And it's not like we keep in touch, but in a strange way, after all we went through, it's kind of like we're war buddies. Like, I know it sounds corny, but I still consider them my best friends for life."
Shane DuBow is a freelance writer from Chicago who swam competitively for 15 years.