Slow Strokes

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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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty