Slow Strokes

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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.

"We need to really improve to fulfill our potential," Schubert says.
Reaching its potential may not be enough for the U.S. team. U.S. swimmers just aren't cutting through the water as they once did.

Historically, the U.S. Olympic Trials were the most competitive swimming meets in the world. American and world records fell in the preliminaries, only to be broken again in the finals.

But this year, no world records fell at the trials, held in Indianapolis. No American record was broken. That hasn't happened since 1920.

Like most coaches, Schubert is loath to dwell on the negative. He points to a good mix of young athletes and seasoned world-class competitors on the team. He suggests the blend could make for an explosive performance in Atlanta.

The women have three 14-year-olds--backstroker Beth Botsford and breast-strokers Amanda Beard and Jilen Siroky--on the team. Nobody knows how fast they can go. The team also has experience; 400-meter freestyle world-record holder Janet Evans is competing in her third Olympics.

The U.S. men are led by world-record holders Jeff Rouse in the 100-meter backstroke and Tom Dolan in the 400-meter individual medley. Gary Hall Jr. is joined by David Fox and Jon Olsen in the sprints. Any of the men could win gold.

The Speedo Invitational in Phoenix gives Schubert and other Olympic coaches their first look at many of the swimmers since the Olympic Trials. U.S. swimmers have been scattered across the country practicing with their home clubs.

The U.S. swimmers won't come together as a team until ten days before the games. Then, they will meet in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a training camp. At that point, the swimmers will either be ready to win, or they won't.

It is clear that at least some of the U.S. swimmers are ready to respond.
A special race has been added to the lineup at the Speedo Invitational. It is a relay. America's top four female 50-meter freestyle sprinters will race against four men.

The women scorch the pool, edging out the men and setting an unofficial world record for the event.

Schubert says the performance showed a spark he'd been looking for. "That could be a real sign of leadership on this team."

It could be. After all, the swimmers the women have just beaten are Olympians.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty