Book Review

Four Champions, One Gold Medal

The true story of four swimmers who battled for the same Olympic dream.
By Chuck Warner
Sports Publications Inc., 196 pages, US $19.95


Nick J. Thierry

The domination of men's distance freestyle by Australian swimmers during the 1990s had its origins in the mid 1970s. Stephen Holland, who is one of the four champions of the title of this book, brought home the only medal of a predicted 10 for Australia from the 1976 Olympics. The expectations from him were so great that his bronze medal was deemed a failure. Stephen broke 11 world records during 1973-76 in the 800 and 1500 freestyle.

He retired from the sport at age 18 and was hurt by the lack of appreciation of his achievements by many of his countrymen.

Ironically, it was on the night of the finals of the men's 1500 freestyle at the 1976 Montreal Olympics that Australian lawmakers introduced important legislation that would lead to the current ascendancy of Australian sport.

Stephen Holland lacked the facilities and financial incentives so generously available now, in no small part due to his efforts 23 years ago.

In many respects, this is an extraordinary book. It is the story of a special period when there was rapid evolution in training volume and methods due to innovative coaching and the fantastic rivalry of four great athletes who established 28 world records during 1973-78.

Chuck Warner, the author of this book and the head coach at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has done a great service to the sport in documenting in detail what made these four the great athletes they became.

The period between the 1972 Munich Olympics and 1976 Montreal Olympics was unprecedented. The 1976 winning time in the 1500 free was a 50-second improvement over 1972, it was the greatest percentage of improvement ever in the event in consecutive Olympics.

The stage is set with a brief history of distance swimming through the 1960s and early 1970s. The leading personalities were Australians and Americans. During the 1970s the Americans moved into the lead due to the intense rivalry among Tim Shaw, Bobby Hackett, and Brian Goodell.

It all came to a climax during the men's 1500 freestyle final in Montreal. It was a golden age for American swimming.

Warner says the majestic achievements of Brian, Bobby, and Tim can be traced to their talent, the environment in which they lived and trained, and the competition within America during its world dominance in distance swimming. Swimming experts perceive that the three foundation stones of success are talent, opportunity, and hard work. But each of these young men faced obstacles that were overcome by a fourth crucial factor: their personal character.

There are chapters on the three Americans and Stephen Holland from their formative stages to 1973, then more detailed descriptions of the years leading towards the 1976 Olympics.

The gradual demise of American men's distance freestyle supremacy is explained.

The addition of women's university scholarships as a result of the 1972 Title IX had the unintended effect of weakening men's programs. The swimming scholarship pie didn't get any bigger, but had to be split in half to allow for an equal number for women. This was great for women's swimming but considerably weakened men's. In fact some prominent universities cancelled men's swimming altogether. The addition of 4x50 sprint relays meant that scholarships were not as readily available for endurance event males.

The current lack of aerobic (distance based) talent is also related to the introduction of Junior Nationals in 1974, which encouraged youngsters to sprint at an earlier age.

There was no sprint 50 free at the Olympics until 1988 and some of the shorter events like the 200 individual medley and men's 4x100 free relay were relatively recent additions to the Olympic program.

Warner concludes with an analysis of the current situation. He suggests American swimming is in deep trouble due to parent-controlled clubs. This has weakened the once strongest-in-the-world club system and many talented coaches have opted for a more secure setting in a university, rather than remain in the pressure cooker that exists today in club coaching.

During the 1960s and 1970s, California swimming was the strongest in the world but has become just ordinary today. Training has been compromised for the sake of additional competitions and divisions within these. This has decreased the number of head-to-head races among the best. Warner draws other conclusions as well.

The book concludes with examples of the workouts that the four distance champions did in their most successful years as well as in the period immediately preceding the 1976 Olympics.

Warner, by focusing on the men's 1500 freestyle, has made a singular addition to swimming literature.