ATLANTA - It was hot and it was humid. 110ö F (43ö C), in the shade.
Well on its way to being finished, the new facility at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre looked impressive. Open air without the glare. As somebody put it, the 100 foot-high roof over the 50 m pool "looks like a place to park a zeppelin." A giant car port. A backstroker's dream. And by the time the surrounding structures are finished, there will be seating for some 15,000 spectators. They're planning on a big crowd next year.
Other perks: a racing pool that is a uniform 3m deep, a so-called "optimum" depth. Most of the swimmers gave it rave reviews. The word "awesome" was frequently heard.
A time board that has the capacity to post national, championship or world records instantaneously, thereby allowing the crowd to be right on top of the game. No more fiddling through crumpled heat sheets to check if he or she "did it."
Since their inauguration as a test event in 1983, the Pan Pacific Championships have evolved into an entirely different meet. Originally conceived as an alternative to the European Championships for non-European nations around the Pacific, the competition now includes countries like South Africa, Egypt, and Kazakhstan. And it has taken on the same importance for those nations involved as the Europeans on the continent. This year's meet was particularly important as it was serving as an official test event prior to the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta next July.
A terrific opportunity for our swimmers to familiarize themselves with the Olympic venue. To walk onto the deck and see themselves as part of the Olympic team. To feel the thrill of being among the world's best.
The Pan Pacs were characterized by three things this year. One was the absence of the Chinese and a strong anti-doping sentiment among coaches and swimmers. Right down to the buttons that read "World Swimming-No Drugs," depicting a syringe with a red bar through it. Athletes were noticeably more ready to make their views on the issue public, which shows a growing solidarity amongst those who are most deeply affected by cheaters.
Second was a very strong Australian presence—the Aussies scored 13 golds to the Americans' 15, and that was with the disqualification of a surefire gold medal in the women's breaststroke. The victory of the Australian men's 4x200 free relay over the USA sounded a warning knell for American swimming. While the US is counting on the home crowd hype to help them along, there are a lot of foreign competitors who have only one thing in mind for next summer: gold on US soil.
Third was the unusually high number of disqualifications of top-level athletes: Samantha Riley, Australia's double world champion and world record-holder in the breaststroke; Hitomi Maehara of Japan, top seed in the women's 200 IM; Rodolfo Falcon of Cuba in the 100 backstroke; a near out for Australia's flyer Susan O'Neill.
There were many complaints regarding US Swimming's running of the event, complaints about the overzealous behaviour of officials, and a mistakenly biased Jury of Appeal had to be revised. The Aussies encountered enough problems to warrant them being worried about coming back to Atlanta next year. But they'll be back, tougher than ever, and ready to prove that they are number one.
Also worth mentioning was a good showing by the Japanese, whose 13 medals included 4 golds.
In the context of the meet, Canada's performance was troubling. While there were a great number of personal best times and seven national record performances, the medal count when all was said and done was a disappointing 6 - tied for the lowest ever with the 1993 Pan Pacs.
"We're improving," said Head Coach Dave Johnson, "but we're going to have to improve at a steeper rate if we're going to keep pace with the rest of the countries in the world." In the face of such a daunting Aussie and American onslaught, there is no choice but to be realistic. Johnson maintains that the program in Canada has generated 13 national records since March, but as he says, "We've got to bear in mind that our targets are moving targets. They're not stationary targets." While many of the Canadian records stood still for a number of years, the rest of the world swimming nations did not sit around and wait. A very successful Summer Nationals in Winnipeg saw a good number of those records come down, but in the world scheme of things, Canada is only slightly closer to a level that many other countries have long ago surpassed.
Keeping things in perspective then, Johnson adds that, "That augures well for the future because these athletes are understanding that the responsibility of coming away and representing their country involves a performance expectation, and I was very happy to see the way the teams managed to embrace that and feel positive about themselves, and about what we are trying to do with the National Team program."
No doubt the experience will pay off. In Johnson's words, if the Pan Pacs are any indication, it is going to be a very fast Olympics. There is a lot of work to be done before the rendezvous next year in Atlanta, where Canada, with its limited support for elite athletes, will have to remain realistic in its expectations.
The athletes know what they are up against, and they themselves can only give it their best. Surely, for some of them, their best will mean a spot on the podium.