They're different from you and me. They're better. With grace, and speed and sweat, a few Peninsulans are going to the Olympics.
From somewhere above and behind comes the coach's voice. "Go! Gooooooooo!" In the middle of doing eight 100s. Swimming eight 100-meter laps in a 50-meter pool — four at 130 and four at 120. Sixteen times up and back. Your clock going the whole time, breaking the 800 meters into intervals of a minute and 30 seconds, then a minute and 20 seconds. Breaking down the performance and sizing it up. Take a turn. On the recovery, coming out of the water, concentrate on elbows coming out first and pointing on the free style. Hit the wall hard and turn fast. "Finish! Finish!"
OK, now pulling through the water, no kicking. Plastic paddles on the hands, a Styrofoam buoy gripped between the legs keeps the body floating, a rubber ring around the ankles for extra drag. Eight 50s at 110. Hammering the shoulders. The fatigue sets in. And no matter what, it's going to hurt. "Four more!" What kind of pain is it? An ache? A phantom? God, no, not an injury. Am I feeling sorry for myself? Am I making the pain worse than it is? Up and down the lanes racking up 12,000, 14,000 meters. From numbness to aching to gut-wrenching twinges, throbs, blue-white flashes of nausea, knives in the stomach, all over tiredness, exhaustion. "Okay now, 200, FAST!"
"They're living the dream," Skip Kenney, the men's swimming coach at Stanford, says matter-of-factly. They are Olympic hopefuls, pursuing a medal four inches in diameter and an eighth of an inch thick, gilded with six grams of 92.5 percent pure gold.
From an early age, they were made aware of their physical prowess — the gift of God, genes, and good nutrition. You're Olympic material, they were told. "Coaches start talkin' to 'em when they're 10, 11, 12 years old — 'Hey, you can go to the Olympics,' " says Stanford women's coach George Haines, who has coached seven Olympic teams.
In 1975, John Moffett thought he was a typical eleven-year-old, a sixth-grader with nothing to do during the Southern California summer. His parents gave him a choice: take swimming class or go to summer school. "The decision was pretty easy," he says. The instructor of the swimming course was also the coach of the local swim club, and as soon as he saw Moffett swim, he recruited him. By the age of 12, Moffett was breaking national records. At 14, he was making the cut for the national meets. At 15, he finally believed that he was Olympic material. At 16, he made the 1980 Olympic team.
Olympic material! The manifest natural ability of such children causes almost every coach they ever have to reverently slate them for the Games. At an early age, Erica Wheeler was told flat-out by her coach that she had a "real possibility of going to the Olympics" in swimming. When her family moved to another city, she had to leave the swimming program behind, so she took up track and today throws javelin. Lisa Bernhagen's "big sport" was ice-skating. When her family moved and left the rink behind, she too picked up track. "You have the potential to be the first seven-foot high jumper," was the new refrain, something she heard so often that she had to start taking it seriously. Olympic material!
At four p.m., the air is cool and the sun is bright and the aquamarine competition pool at Stanford heated to 87 degrees is crowded. Middle-aged Japanese ladies in bathing suits with skirts, professorial types with beards and concave chests in swimming trunks, grad students finished with theses and orals are pale and thin in Speedo racing suits. Five lanes are for them, and five are reserved for the men and women who are Olympic hopefuls, sleek, muscled, their skin burnished by sun exposure and their hair bleached by the chlorine, but they seem life-sized. In the pool, they are in their element: surrounded by water, sure-footed in it, they look masterful, competent, full of power.
An athlete of this caliber knows far more about his body than you do about yours, and is constantly evaluating and collecting information. Sitting at an outdoor café, drinking herbal tea, Brian Marshall unconsciously massages his legs: patting them, crossing and uncrossing them, giving them little stretches. He's a high jumper who trains at and competes for Stanford, although this year he represents Canada at the Olympics. "Most jumpers are skinny — skinny legs, skinny arms, everything," he analyzes. "But I'm pretty big for a high jumper. I'm more of a power. The skinny ones are speed jumpers and use their quickness. I need to develop power, because I have more body mass. I'm pretty heavily built. It's not typical to have huge legs and my calves are bigger than most jumpers are, more muscular, more bulky. I've done a lot of weights just to get that power." A few months ago Marshall set a Pac-10 record, jumping, sailing, floating over the pole with all his might at a height of seven feet, five and three-quarters inches. Olympic material!
Their bodies are their jobs now that Olympic trials loom. They do almost nothing but train, and then they do it some more. At Stanford, they swim for an hour-and-a-half in the morning and two hours or more in the afternoon, at least 12,000 meters a day. They do dry land work and indulge in arcane practices such as stretching huge rubber bands this way and that. Three days a week they work in the weight room, sometimes with instructions to go to failure.
They strap themselves in and bench press to the point where they need assistance, where their muscles say "Forget it" and "Get somebody over here to help."
"Good athletes aren't divinely tapped on the head by an athletic muse," says Moffett. "It sucks. I mean, it's really hard and it's no fun getting in and hurting yourself day in and day out. You just learn to deal with it."
In the East Bay, Pablo Morales trains all day long every day. "Everything I do is focused around the training," says Morales, who swims the prettiest but most deadly and difficult stroke in swimming — the butterfly. In 1984, Morales brought back two silvers in the 100 and 200 meters butterfly and a gold in the 400-meter relay. In order to do it again and better, he spends five hours a day training in a pool and seven or eight hours a week on dry land. In the mornings, he swims, then works out — a one- or two-hour weight session follows. At noon, he stops to eat. "I've got to feed, to nourish myself to keep all this up," he says. In order to recover before the afternoon workout, he might take a nap. Then its back to the pool, more laps, more weights, more stretches, more training — a schedule so physically demanding that at times, Morales says, the goal is "just managing to survive it."
In these early summer months, Olympic hopefuls are hunkered down swamped by their training schedule, preparing. Physically and mentally. Because, any coach will tell you, they have seen less physically gifted athletes beat more physically prepared athletes who were not mentallyprepared. Mental preparation: the ongoing process, the continuing focus, confident reflection.
High jumper Bernhagen argues with the "little voices" in her head. "I don't know if you can make it. . . . Yes, you can. You're going to do it." Morales sets a goal at the beginning of the season and carries it through his training, down to setting goals for every minute of each workout. Marathon runner Nancy Ditz imagines her family at the finish line, a magnet pulling her toward them.
Tell yourself you're better and you might be, goal-setting, psyching up, positive thinking, visualization. Jenna Johnson came back with Olympic gold in 1984 for the 4000 freestyle relay and the 400 medley butterfly. You're apt to visualize Johnson, six foot, titian-haired and sleek, in the pages of Vogue, but she visualizes herself quite differently. "I think about myself actually swimming from different points of view," she says. "Being inside my own body, swimming, how it looks when I go up and down through the water . . . What it looks like from other perspectives, the sidelines, the spectators . . . from a bird's eye view if you looked directly down . . . and then from the front." You have to practice it, you have to get it down, it's not easy, this cerebral stuff, but it helps, it helps a lot. The mental and the physical — you have to catch that balance.
Like in judo, the gentle way, the way of the Samurai. Not punching and kicking, it is closer to wrestling, all flips and throws, using your opponent's balance against him, learning how to win and how to take your falls. Five-foot-nine, blonde and green-eyed, the first American to win the World Judo Championship since 1956, hopefully the first American to win the Olympic gold in judo, Mike Swain invites you to picture him in this gi, this California surfer type from San Jose, on a mat in Tokyo with 200 Japanese.
Judo is a way of life — maximum efficiency with minimum effort. "This way of life is achieved through physical and mental training," says Swain. "When I say mental, I don't mean yoga or sitting in some corner meditating. I mean going through six or seven hours of practice until you just want to puke and die. That is what I mean by mental — getting through all that. Overcoming yourself, physically and mentally. What that does is build up character and the character you build through training helps you go through life. It makes you a better contributor, because you understand what is going on."
And, at the end, they have this world view, a surprisingly consistent, adult, philosophically sound way of looking at things; shaped by stretching and racking and pushing their bodies and minds, and tempered through competition and the spectre — please, God, no! — the reality of injuries.
"Dealing with injuries is discipline and patience and waiting to come back. Once you're injured you have no control over it," says Erica Wheeler, who has had to wait and come back more than once in her short career. Swimmer Susan Rapp sat out the 1984 Olympics after surgery on both her knees.
And at the '84 U.S. trials, John Moffett defeated Steve Lundquist in the 100-meter breaststroke and took away his world record. But during the Olympics, pushing off the wall at the 50-meter turn, he tore a muscle in his right thigh. They taped it and shot him up with xylocaine, but that was it. "Everything sucked," he says. But, hey, he shrugs — he flashes a 1000-watt, sign-me-up-Madison-Avenue grin — as if to say, that's life. "I have my moments," he says of his disappointment. "Actually, I don't think I've ever verbalized that it's not fair — I mean, that's stupid. It happened and there's nothing you can do about it." Today is point zero. Another chance. Still Olympic material.
At times, they construct elaborate rationalizations for their all-out involvement in sport. Like David Lundberg, a solid, soft-spoken, 27-year-old swimmer, who attended Harvard and Stanford, worked as a chemical engineer, and spent two years on a Mormon mission to Guatemala before concentrating on an Olympic training schedule. "My justification for spending so much time in such a self-serving, individualistic sport as swimming is that people will be able to see me do it on TV or at the Olympics and they'll enjoy and be enriched by that performance and my having performed it will serve them as well as serving me," he says. "Instead of going out and marketing a product, adding to the gross national product, I'm adding to the aesthetic, the real enjoyment of people who see what I do not only on an athletic plane, but also on an intellectual plane."
The lives of these athletes are, in fact, paradigms of the Calvinist ethic, which held that there were certain people predestined to be saved: the "elect," the Olympic material. You never knew if you were one of the elect, but you could assure yourself by steeping your life in good works. Olympic hopefuls are athletic Calvinists, blessed with powerful, potent physical talent and therefore destined to succeed. But it's only through grueling, mind-numbing workouts that they experience a conviction of their talent and assure success.
And the coaches are their presbyters — father figures, confessors, buddies, role models, teachers. Coaches spend five, six, seven hours a day with them, banter with them, travel with them, take the pain and the heat with them. They know them better than anybody. Family problems, school work, lovers — the coaches hear about all of it and they take care of it. Tutors, an arm around the shoulder, a practice cut short because the concentration isn't there. And all the time they're coaxing out an extra quarter-inch or shaving seconds and tenths of seconds off times.
"Come on, you can do it." Big, blonde, square-jawed Dave Wollman, an assistant track coach at Stanford, is cajoling another practice out of Lisa Bernhagen. "Don't get into a stride. You don't want a stride on the take-off." At the other end of the field Stanford grad Pamela Dukes is winding up, throwing a metal ball that weighs four kilos — eight pounds and 13 ounces. Fifty-eight feet, once, twice, 10, 20 times. Men idle on the track, waiting for her marvelous smile, calling out to her with initiations to dinner. "Now with Pam," says Wollman, "it used to be a guessing game. If I gave her the wrong number of throws," he raises his hands, "she'd pout the whole practice. So I had to guess right as to how she was feeling that day."
"You have to relate to each athlete and try to motivate him, find out what pushes his button and gets him going," explains Stanford baseball coach Mark Marquess. "Some kids respond to a lot of negativity, criticism. Some kids you have to really get on. Another player, if you say anything negative, he'll go into a shell and won't do anything. You have to find out how that athlete will respond and adjust to him a little bit."
Coming off a back-to-back College World Series win with the Stanford Cardinal, Marquess will coach the U.S. baseball team in Seoul. Now this is a coaching assignment of a different color. "I'm not going to change anybody's pitching motion or batting stance," he says. "They got here because they were doing it a certain way. And I don't have them that long. I'm kind of just a guide, okay? My biggest problem is to bring all of these people from different programs, all these stars, into one team and get them to play as a team. Which is easier said than done, because they're all used to being the main guy, so you have 25 superstars on one team."
Ah, but it's such an enviable position. The alumni, they come to these events in their BMWs and Mercedes and they walk up to the swimming coach, Skip Kenney, who drives a Dodge Shadow, and they say, "Jesus, I'd love to have your job." And the kids, the kids follow them anywhere. They pick schools and homes based on where certain coaches are. Jenna Johnson "can't conceive of swimming at Stanford without George Haines," who has announced his retirement this year, though he may very well be selected as the swimming coach for the U.S. team for the eighth time.
The coaches are the mentors, the gurus for Olympic material. Dave Lundberg was eight when he started swimming competitively in Provo, Utah. One of his swimming teachers recognized his ability and encouraged him. When he was 14, he caught the eye of a coach from Brigham Young University, who had a friend who was a coach in the Peninsula area. So Lundberg began spending his summers with a family in Los Altos Hills and training at Ladera Oaks Aquatic Club. When, four years later, the coach moved to Walnut Creek, Lundberg spent his summers there.
They shepherd, shape and fine-tune the talent. Dave Wollman paces the grassy inner field of Stanford Stadium talking Olympic material. Shot-putter Pam Dukes: "She was on the team to be a socialist, then she got serious. . . . Her physical abilities, gee . . . she is extremely talented, she's been blessed." High jumper Lisa Bernhagen: "The most talented, but the weakest desire. . . . She has so much else going for her in life." Javelin thrower Erica Wheeler: "She's had a lot of injuries . . . the most determined . . . she goes overboard . . . people like that either lose it all or get it all, this year she's got it all." High jumper Brian Marshall: "So gifted. . . . His weakness is his lack f acceptance of it. . . . I don't think he knows how talented he is. . . ."
At the far end of the competition pool, on the diving platform, John Moffett is complaining. "I can't dive with the buoy between my legs," he yells. Coach Skip Kenney paces back and forth, putting his hands to his mouth, amplifying his words, "A great athlete," he yells back, "has one ability: he can do what he expects to do." He smiles. Moffett laughs and prances on the diving board, "A great athlete . . . ," he mocks. And his teammates join in. Moffett dives with the buoy between his legs and loses it. Tries again, loses it again. Finally, okay, he's swimming down the lane. Olympic material on the road to The Games.
The Games. Competition. The Arena. Have you ever stood in the center of a stadium that holds 80,000 people? A field that's 150 yards long in rural San Jose suddenly looks puny. It is hard to arrive at a point of reference, there is a sense of vertigo, it makes you weak at the knees. It is part of the deal for athletes.
Failure. They don't call is losing, they call it failure. The dark side of the sport. Athletes have an intimate relationship with it. It doesn't take long to realize you've blown it at a big meet. Three opportunities to throw the shot-put. They only take the top eight to finals. Pamela Dukes was failing. "I threw three feet less than what I was capable of and I didn't think I would make the finals, so I just say right down and I cried," she says.
In 1984, doe-eyed California blonde Aimee Berzins arrives Boom! Shock! at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis. "This gorgeous pool, everything about it is white. It's big and airy and it is just huge," she remembers. "To walk in there, it made me dizzy. It finally hit me that this was what I was working for, this was the Olympic trials, capital O L Y. . . . The names I was up against. I suddenly seemed so small. . . . And I knew then that was my downfall. I knew what I had done and it was almost irreversible once I had set the ball rolling the wrong way. It was the intensity, the intimidation. Its amazing how awful you can swim when things like that happen." Head Games.
Attendance in Seoul will be in the millions; the stadiums seat 75,000 for baseball and 100,000 for track and field. "You just have to put it out of your mind," drawls Todd Lichti.
"If you don't win, you're pissed," says Moffett. "I mean, you are pissed!" Athletes scowl and curse and cry and rail at the Fates. The failure lingers and you beat it up and psychoanalyze it, intellectualize it, chew it up and spit it out. "Every failure can be turned around to a success," says an older and wiser Berzins. "Nothing is a complete failure unless you let it be. That is one of the hardest things to learn. You sit back, you look at what you've done, why you consider it a failure, what caused it. You break it down into little parts that you can work on later. Never let failure become overwhelming."
Because, as Pablo Morales says, "Essentially, a swimmer is allowed three times at most during the year to swim at peak performance. You are rested completely, you are shaved, you are mentally ready. The rest of the year, you're mired in a pit of exhausting workouts and hard training schedules. . . . During those times there is a great deal of failure, not swimming up to par. . . . How the person deals with that failure has a lot to do with their success in the sport. . . . You have to push yourself through the failure. . . . Push yourself so hard that you fail but your body becomes stronger because of the effort." Mind Games.
The Moment! The best that day, that event, at that time. All those years when nobody paid any attention, little step by little step coming up in the competition, it's all behind. "To win, that is the best feeling there is," says Berzins. "To win and make it a personal win, a personal best, best time, to win, to be first, to have a record." The peak meet, the sweet moment, the flow state where you swim the race and everything comes together, it's effortless, and you don't really remember anything that happened, but you've shaved seconds off your performance. Winning! A supernatural high! You're Olympic material! The Games!
"Every kid dreams," says Lichti, "to be on that free throw line at the end of the game when you're down by one point and you've got two shots. And to hit both shots! And to have that feeling after you've made those two shots . . . that is what we strive for. And if they don't, then I don't know what it is they are striving for."
The winning is the prize. Remember, this is amateur athletics. No government stipends here. No handouts. Athletes scrounge and scramble and scrape by. The stipends available from the U.S.O.C. and other athletic governing bodies aren't big — $200 a month, $1000 if you're Mary Slaney or Carl Lewis — and there aren't many of them. So athletes worry about the cost of getting to a meet and the cost of staying there. If you're not in a college program, you have to have a coach, a club, massages, equipment. Two days before Jenna Johnson must move out of her dormitory, she is still looking for a place to live for that part of the summer she must train here. She bedded up on a futon on the floor of a teammate's rented room.
Money Games. "It is literally impossible to pursue athletics as a career," says Carol Cady, who will compete in the shot-put and discus. "You have to have a career and pursue athletics on the side." Cady works for Stanford University doing research. John Moffett boards with a family in Los Altos Hills and has a job at a physical therapy clinic. Pamela Dukes works part-time in the varsity weight room at Stanford. David Lundberg holds part-time jobs and his parents help him out.
One form of corporate sponsorship is the Olympic Job Opportunity Program. It brings together potential employers with athletes. CEO Gordon Campbell of Chips and Technology, a San Jose semiconductor company, hired Mike Swain through the program. Swain works under the agreement that he can take time off to pursue his training and competition, all the while making inroads with a career that will sustain him after he brings home the gold.
And finally, Political Games. The Korean police, a special anti-terrorism unit, 30,000 private security guards, U.S. Marine battalions and one aircraft carrier battle group will also participate in the 1988 Olympics. Tainted, a little tarnished by terrorism and superpower politics, the 1988 Games represent the first chance for some of these athletes to collect on the promise of being Olympic material.
John Moffett was in the grandstands at the nationals with his dad the day the 1980 boycott came down. Years of training, a few months from the Olympics, and the United States pulled out. "And we were standing next to each other (after the boycott)," says Moffett, "me and my dad, and we were looking at the flag and after the Star Spangled Banner was done, he looked at me and said, "Sounds a little different now, doesn't it?'"
Moffett, Susan Rapp, Mike Swain, they sat out the summer of 1980 on the Honorary Olympic Team. And in 1984, the Soviets and their Eastern Bloc boycotted in kind. And the gold medal winners like Johnson and Morales heard the intimations and slurs. "Well, if they had been there, would you have done that well?" 1988 is a chance to make it real.
Maybe the last chance for most of them. Future Games? They don't want to talk about the future. Ah, come on, how can we think about the future? . . . It's the furthest thing from our minds . . . first there's the trials . . . first there's Seoul. . . . It is torture to think of not making it, because most of them will not be back in 1992. Some have another year or two of college eligibility and will return to school and inter-collegiate competition. But then who knows?
Susan Rapp received a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in sociology from Stanford in May and will retire after this year to look for a job in her field. Basketball player Todd Lichti plans on going pro, the NBA. Swimmer Pablo Morales has been accepted at Cornell Law School. Judo competitor Mike Swain will go back to international marketing at Chips and Technology. Marathon runner Nancy Ditz has been married for 12 years and it's time to think about children. But then, she muses, there are the World Championships in 1991 and 1992, The Games. . . .
Provocative fantasies. The stands, the spectators, the banners, U.S.A., mounting the block, the national anthem, the gold. Once in a while, when they're not thinking about all the things that could go wrong — injury, fatigue, intimidation, the wrong approach, a bad turn, a poor finish — they allow themselves to collapse in a whirlwind of colorvisions. They crank up the stereo, kick back and get high on a rock 'n' roll fantasy of the Perfect Race, the Perfect Jump, the Perfect Throw.
Right now, winning and losing Olympic gold is not part of the athletic lexicon. After the trials are over and the rosters written, they go to Hawaii and Tokyo to ready, coming down in yardage, giving themselves rests, increasing the speed work, regenerating and rebuilding for Seoul. Then, physically fit and mentally ready, humbled by the sacrifice, worthy from the hard work, they will dig deep and strain hard to fulfill the goal — a righteous win! Olympic gold! The Games!