Slow Strokes

Long Beach, California. The 1976 Olympic swimming trials. Hoisting his 20-month-old son above his head, Gary Hall swims a victory lap and salutes a cheering crowd packed into the Belmont Plaza swimming pool.

At age 24, Hall has just become the second man to make the U.S. Olympic swim team three times with a second-place finish in the 100-meter butterfly. He wants to share the achievement with his son Gary Jr.

Hall's success that afternoon 20 years ago was not just a great personal victory. It was also widely viewed as proof that dedication and determination could lead to the ultimate goal in amateur sports--the Olympics.

Now a prominent Phoenix eye surgeon, Hall is still known in swimming circles for his intensity in the practice pool.

"He was the hardest worker I ever had," says the legendary James "Doc" Councilman, who coached Hall at Indiana University in the 1970s. "He was a fanatic."

Hall's star was eclipsed only by another Indiana swimmer--Mark Spitz, who went on to international fame after winning seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Spitz retired after Munich, but the fire still burned strong in Hall. His desire undoubtedly helped inspire the 1976 U.S. men's swimming team to the greatest performance in Olympic history. At the Montreal Olympics, the U.S. men won every event save one, and that gold medal was taken by a Welshman who trained in America.

Fans packed into the swimming stadium in Montreal could not know that American swimming had reached a zenith. U.S. swimmers had historically done well in the Olympics. Everyone thought the trend would continue.

But it hasn't.
American swimming prowess has been on a steady decline since the 1976 games. This year's men's team, which was selected at the Olympic Trials in March, is favored to win just three gold medals--a far cry from the near-sweep of 15 events at Montreal.

The outlook for the women is worse; none is favored to win gold against a powerful Australian team and the steroid-strengthened Chinese.

"We are definitely the underdog for the first time in Olympic history," says Charlie Snyder, a spokesman for US Swimming, an organization that sanctions American competitive swimming.

The dramatic decline of American swimming can be traced to a complex combination of factors: poor coaching, financial disincentives, stronger international competition and changes in the American family.

But these problems are magnified greatly by another:
The hard-core work ethic that drove American swimming to the top no longer permeates the sport. Instead, many longtime observers say, U.S. coaches and swimmers have turned to training shortcuts, and increasingly they avoid the sport's grueling distance events.

Those trends are threatening to turn U.S. swimming into a second-rate sport, says Councilman, who led Indiana University to a record seven consecutive NCAA swimming championships.

"A lot of talent goes wasted because they just don't work hard enough," Councilman says.

It is ironic that the swimmer with perhaps the best chance to win Olympic gold this year is an athlete who succeeds with very little physical training.

Perhaps it is native ability. Perhaps he possesses an innate understanding of how to win.

Or, perhaps, deep in his soul, Gary Hall Jr. of Paradise Valley still carries something from that day 20 years ago, when his father held him above his head in Olympic glory at the Belmont Plaza swimming pool.

Whatever the reasons for his success so far, the younger Hall's path to the Olympics epitomizes the love affair American swimming has come to have with the sprint events.

But sprints alone won't return America to the top of the swimming world. The only way back to the pinnacle is through hard work over long distances.

"Where it is going to happen is in the practice pool," says U.S. Olympic assistant swimming coach Mark Schubert.

But that's exactly where it isn't happening.

Gary Hall Jr. may be the most naturally gifted swimmer America has seen since Mark Spitz. Coaches gush adjectives--"awesome," "amazing talent" and "beautiful swimmer"--when describing the friendly 21-year-old Paradise Valley resident.

At six-foot-six and 185 pounds, Hall has inherited the perfect build for competitive swimming.

His father was legendary for his skill in all strokes. His uncle was a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic swimming team as a breast-stroker. And his grandfather, Charles H Keating Jr., was a world-class swimmer and a major promoter of U.S. swimming in Cincinnati and Phoenix (before, of course, he landed in federal prison on bank-fraud charges).

The swimming genes are apparent when the younger Hall takes a stroke. He moves tremendous amounts of water with each underwater pull, a skill referred to as "feel" for the water. Most swimmers develop a grip on the water only after years of practice. But Hall doesn't have the decade under his belt like most of the swimmers on the U.S. Olympic team, the oldest ever assembled.