Diff'rent Strokes

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.

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Shane Dubow