Swimming has always been an individual sport. That is, until this year's Goodwill Games. A points system was devised to turn an individual sport into a true team sport, modeled on the NCAA college dual meet. In individual events, teams get five points for a first-place finish, three for second, and one for third. Winners of relay races pick up seven points. A total of 62 points wins the meet. Invited teams from Russia, China (women only), Germany, and a World Team composed of individuals from many different countries were to dual meet the U.S. in an evening-only competition with live television coverage on the Turner Superstation TBS over six consecutive days.
In the first night of competition, the women took centre stage as the United States, led by Jenny Thompson and six straight 1-2 finishes, dismantled China, 88-34. This came after South Africa's Penny Heyns and Holland's Inge de Bruijn helped the World Team top Germany, 64-58.
"I think the format is a very good thing because it's a new competition," Germany's Franziska Van Almsick said. "Swimming normally is a sport where everyone swims for themselves. Now the team is the most important thing."
Others do not like the format. Swimmers from China, the country often accused of using performance-enhancing drugs since an unprecedented run of records four years ago, looked lethargic in their first meet.
"No one really tried that hard. We were not prepared. Our goal was to test out our opponent," China's Qian Yan said. "We lacked the strength because we were not used to the food here."
The American women gained a 65-57 victory on the second women's session over the World Team with a relay triumph anchored by Thompson. But Thompson said the real hero was Cristina Teuscher, who won the 800 and 400 freestyles and swam an outstanding third leg on the final relay.
The dual-meet victory over the World Team put the Americans on the inside track for the team gold medal. The two teams each won seven of the 14 events, but the United States won the meet because it finished 2-3 in five of the seven events the World Team won. The American team, led by Cristina Teuscher and Jenny Thompson, won the team gold after defeating Germany 78-44, its third straight dual-meet win at the Goodwill Games.
"I didn't have any concrete goals, just to swim good times," Thompson said. "But I'm real happy that the team was undefeated. The dual-meet format made things more exciting."
A total prize of US $50,000 was up for grabs for the winning team. The money will come in handy for the four U.S. women swimmers who won it. Since only four of the 18 team members are out of college, those four get to share the loot. Jenny Thompson of Dover, New Hampshire, captain Lea Maurer of Crestwood, New York, Richelle Fox of Scotia, New York, and Ashley Tappin of New Orleans will take home $12,500 each for the team gold medal.
"I just bought a '96 Tahoe that I have $15,000 left to pay on, and this money will go straight to that," Tappin said. "As long as I have been swimming, it has never been money oriented. So for me to come away with all this money is unbelievable. I just thank my lucky stars."
Individual accomplishments are also rewarded. Team members can earn US $1,000 for the fastest time per event, and if a world record is broken the athlete wins $50,000.
For some, like de Bruijn, who set a Goodwill Games record in the 50-meter freestyle, the new format is a good thing.
"This is totally new to me," she said. "The fact that it's different makes it very exciting to me. I did a meet in France that had a similar format. This is a great idea. I'm used to swimming as an individual. I enjoy the team concept."
Penny Heyns also set Goodwill records in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. She agreed with her teammate, but knows that the new format might not appeal to all.
"This format is tough," she admitted. "I swam at the University of Nebraska for four years, so I've done it before. I haven't done it for two years, though. With this format, the focus is more on the team, which is different for me."
Heyns, a double Olympic champion, set the only world record of the competition, with 30.95 seconds on the way to winning the 100-metre breaststroke gold in 1:09.46. The previous world's best for 50 metres was 31.58, set by Silke Horner of East Germany in 1988. Goodwill officials, however, said Heyns did not qualify for the big prize because the 50-metre breaststroke was not a Games event, even though the sport's ruling body, FINA, recognizes the 50-metre record.
After learning she would not receive the world-record bonus, Heyns expressed bitter disappointment. Goodwill Games officials later decided she would be awarded $10,000, pending ratification of the result by FINA.
The men's events were fast. Five winning events produced the fastest times for 1998, among them Curtis Myden's 2:00.38 in the 200 individual medley. However, the dual meet format so successful for the U.S. women's team did not produce the anticipated dominance by the American men. They lost all three dual meets.
The loss to Germany on the first day of the men's competition, 63 to 59, was painful. The United States led by three points going into the final race. But the relays are worth seven points for the winner and none for the loser, and the Germans' time of 3:21.48 —1.25 seconds ahead of the Americans—decided the outcome. After the first leg, Aimo Heilmann had a body-length lead over Josh Davis, a triple relay gold medallist in the 1996 Olympics, and the other three U.S. swimmers couldn't catch up. U.S. men have never lost an Olympic 400 freestyle relay.
"We've always had great freestyle sprinters, but now it's a new generation, and we lost Gary Hall Jr. to drug circumstances," Ron Karnaugh said, referring to Hall's suspension for marijuana use.
But the American defeat at the hands of the World Team was downright embarrassing, with six 1-2 sweeps by the World team in 12 individual events. World Team 78, U.S. 43.
Russia dealt the Americans their third straight dual-meet loss, carried by four 1-2 sweeps and victories in both of the relays that the U.S. men have traditionally dominated.
One of the Russian sweeps came from Alexander Popov and teammate Roman Egorov in the 50-metre freestyle, a race won by Bill Pilczuk in the World Championships earlier this year. This time, Pilczuk was a badly beaten third.
"I think maybe there was too much pressure on Bill," Popov said.
"I got worse as the meet went on," Pilczuk admitted. "I'm tired. I was really aggravated I got third. I should have had second."
The United States countered the four Russian sweeps with five of their own. Losing both relays, and the resulting 14 points, to the Russians was pivotal.
"It's almost impossible to win one of these dual meets without winning a relay," U.S. coach Bill Wadley of Ohio State said. "That's 14 points right there. We knew we probably couldn't compete with them in the freestyle relay, so we went all out in the medley. We came up a little short." Russia 63, U.S. 59.
Fernando Scherer of Brazil, who lives and trains in Florida, became the fourth man in history to break 49 seconds in the 100 free, joining Americans Matt Biondi and Gary Hall Jr., and Russian Alexander Popov, the world record-holder at 48.21 seconds. Scherer was timed in 48.91, and Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands was second in 49.61.
"I knew I had swum a great race when I finished, but I wasn't sure how good my time would be," said Scherer, who was fifth in the Olympic 100 free two years ago. "I felt great until the last 5 metres, when my legs felt dead." The final indignity came in the 400 freestyle relay, as the World Team, anchored by Scherer, won in 3:22.42, 2.73 seconds ahead of the Americans.
"This is the fastest pool I've ever been in," Scherer said.
On the final day of multi-event Games, Scherer clocked 22.18 seconds, equaling the fourth fastest time ever for the men's 50 metres freestyle.
"I missed the wall by just a little," he said. "Just a quicker touch and I would have been a little faster."
Josh Davis: "Americans come in to win every race, every day," said Josh Davis of San Antonio, one of the few U.S. winners. "Wednesday was just a bad day in the office. It was an off day. We pride ourselves on having one of the strongest swimming programs...The World Team is a lot stronger than the rest of the competition. They have an advantage because they have some of the best in the world mixed on one team."
Alexander Popov: The world's fastest swimmer in the 1990s said the media created a rivalry between him and U.S. sprinter Gary Hall Jr. in the 1996 Olympics that didn't really exist.
"It made me mad. I am kind of sick of it," Popov said.
Popov also took the opportunity to take a shot at the U.S. men's team in the Goodwill Games.
"I was watching the news last night, and they said the U.S. team is weak because it doesn't have Gary Hall," Popov said. "Well, I saw Gary Hall at Perth (at the World Championships in January), and he wasn't that good."
Popov's comments about Hall came as the U.S. men's team was reeling from a close dual-meet defeat to Germany.
"It doesn't bother me that Gary is not here," Popov said. "He should be disappointed that he is not here."
Popov shrugged off his World Championships loss in the 50 to Pilczuk that broke a seven-year winning streak in that event.
"The 100 is my favourite, and he didn't beat my winning streak there," Popov said. "In the 50, you can't make any mistakes, or you lose... I think Bill will find out that the Olympics are much more serious than the world championships," But he agreed with Pilczuk that the Goodwill Games are more for fun.
"There's no pressure here that you've got to win," Popov said. "People just thank you for coming."
So what went wrong for the U.S. men?
The diagnosis, according to Ron Karnaugh, M.D.: We just don't work hard enough anymore. Karnaugh, a medical doctor and a swimmer on national teams since 1986, said that's why a rare U.S. loss in the 400 freestyle relay gave the Americans a dual-meet loss against Germany at the Goodwill Games Wednesday.
"There's no shortcut to success in swimming, and some of our younger kids don't work as hard as they should," said Karnaugh, 32, who won the 200 individual medley just before the freestyle-relay defeat that allowed Germany to win 63-59. "They believe they can get by just on talent," Karnaugh added. "But you get out of it what you put in it."
Curtis Myden: When the World Team trounced the U.S., Curtis Myden (the only Canadian to take part) beat Ron Karnaugh in the 200 I.M. Myden's winning time of 2:00.38 was his lifetime best, and a Goodwill, Commonwealth, and Canadian record. Careful pacing made the difference. "I was only in fourth at the 100 but really working the second half made a big difference. Curtis liked the evening only format, without having to swim prelims.
"I could focus completely on my event."
In the first dual meet against Russia, Myden won with an easy 2:04.61 over flyer Steve Parry, 2:07.85, and Alexander Tkachev, 2:17.48, who held back as there were only three swimmers in the race.
On the final dual meet against the Germans, Myden won with 2:02.06 to Jirka Letzin's 2:03.20 and German Chris-Carol Bremer's 2:05.71, and Steve Parry was fourth in 2:09.13.