U.S. team again in position to assume dominating presence in multiple events


After the 1988 Olympics, there weren't too many U.S. swimmers who left Seoul, South Korea, with a good feeling. Only two -- Janet Evans and Matt Biondi -- won gold medals in individual events. In all, the United States won eight gold medals and 18 overall, its lowest total since 1960.

But the 1992 U.S. swimming team appears set to return to a position as not just a swimming power but a superpower.

"I think we'll have a lot more medals than in '88," said Summer Sanders, a 19-year-old Stanford University sophomore who made the team in four individual events, more than any other swimmer. "It started at the World Championships [where the United States won 23 medals, including 13 gold]. That's where we started dominating, and hopefully we can keep that going in '92."

A similar team performance in Barcelona, Spain, is not unrealistic. Results in the Olympic Trials in March left the United States the early favorite in as many at least 10 women's events and seven men's events.

But as women's head coach Mark Schubert of the University of Texas said, the trials only set the standard for other nations, which will conduct their trials later.

"We have to go [to Barcelona] and swim better than we did here," Schubert said at the trials. "If we don't expect that of ourselves, other people are going to go there and swim better than we did here because we are now the target."

After the trials, Schubert's women's team has the fastest performances in the world in the past year in nine of 13 individual events. It could be as good as the 1968 and 1984 women's teams.

The U.S. women had their best Olympic performance in 1968 in Mexico City, where they won 26 medals, including 11 gold. In Los Angeles in 1984, they won 19 medals, including 12 gold.

As for the men, outside world-record-holding favorites in five events, they'll have to improve significantly if they hope to rival their 12-gold, 27-medal performance of 1976 in Montreal.

But thanks to the earliest selection meet in history, they'll have four and a half months to get better before the Olympic swimming competition begins July 26.

"In the past we've asked them to spend three years focusing on the Olympic Trials and making the team, and then we gave them three, four or five weeks to forget about all that and start all over and refocus on a bigger and better effort in the Olympics," said national team director Dennis Pursley.

"If you're a step away from where you want to be and you've got five months, you've got a heck of a lot better chance of taking that step than if you've only got five weeks."

Men's coach Eddie Reese of the University of Texas agreed.

"I actually offered Mark money so I could coach the women's team after [Jenny Thompson set a world record in] the 100 freestyle," Reese said. "But I think it's a real good men's team, and we have a lot of people who will get better."

The women's team will have only a few Olympic veterans, such as three-time gold medalist Evans and her training mate at the University of Texas, Erica Hansen. Although Evans didn't make the team in the 400-meter individual medley, one of the events she won in Seoul, she proved she's still the best in the 400- and 800-meter freestyles.

Without the 400 IM, Schubert said, "Janet can focus on the 800 and 400 and do a lot better with more specific training for those races."

Hansen was second to Evans in both distance freestyles and also made the team in the 400-meter individual medley.

The bulk of a group of 19-year-olds who emerged on the U.S. swimming scene in 1990 and became known as "The New Kids on the Block" made the team and will have a tremendous impact.

New kid Jenny Thompson set a world record in the 100-meter freestyle and had another new kid, Nicole Haislett, right behind her. In the 200 free, they reversed the order of their finish, and Schubert thinks both will be capable of breaking the world record this summer.

When you add Dara Torres and Angel Martino, who set an American record in the 50 freestyle in the 1988 trials only to be disqualified for a positive steroid test, to the lineup, the United States also will have a heavy favorite in 400-meter freestyle relay. "The only way to beat us in the relay will be to break a world record," Schubert said.

In addition to Sanders, Janie Wagstaff, another new kid, made the team in multiple events. Wagstaff leads the United States in the backstrokes.

And then there is Anita Nall, a 15-year-old high school sophomore whom Evans affectionately calls "little one." Nall won both breaststroke events, and set a world record in the 200. With Nall, Schubert said, the U.S. women will take a breaststroke favorite into the Olympics for the first time since 1968.

Chrissy Ahmann-Leighton at 22 is a veteran of world class competition but made her first Olympic team with a 58.61-second performance signaling that Mary T. Meagher's 1981 world record of 57.93 is in jeopardy.

The men's team includes six world record holders: Tom Jager in the 50 freestyle; Matt Biondi in the 100 freestyle; Jeff Rouse in the 100 backstroke; Melvin Stewart in the 200 butterfly; Mike Barrowman in the 200 breaststroke; and Pablo Morales in the 100 butterfly. All but Morales, who set his world record in 1986 but didn't make the 1988 team, will be favorites in their events.

Barrowman has broken the 200 breaststroke world record five times in the last three years. But in the trials, training mate Roque Santos handed Barrowman his first defeat since the 1988 Olympic final.

"Barrowman gets nipped in the breaststroke, but in the current world rankings, those are the top two times," Reese said. "Barrowman's three seconds off [his world record] and gets beat by a teammate. That's fine here. I just didn't want him third."

Outside the relays, the U.S. men will not be favored to win the remaining events. However, Nelson Diebel, who set an American record in the 100 breaststroke in the trials, has moved to within 11-hundredths of a second of Hungarian Norbert Rosza's world record.

Royce Sharp has another American record in the 200 backstroke, and his time, 1:58.66, would have won the gold medal at either the 1988 Olympics or the 1991 World Championships. However, Spain's Martin Zubero, whose world record is more than two seconds faster, remains a heavy favorite.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad