Olympics: A Tidal Wave off Winners

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U.S. swimmers, men and women, left opponents in their wake

The shape of a swimming race, when form holds, begins as a shallow V, swept back from Lane 4, where the fastest qualifier starts, to the humble wing positions of Lanes 1 and 8. The V sharpens until, if No. 4's lead is great enough, it looks like the prow of a ship. When this fails to happen—when the V does not take form, or when its point is unbalanced to one side or the other—the spectator high in the stands comprehends the surprise first not as an aberration of numbers, of hundredths of a second, but as a jarring visual distortion; and here in the women's 100-meter freestyle, the first race of the '84 Olympic Games, there was no V.

Nancy Hogshead of the U.S. had qualified fastest on the first day of competition, but only marginally. She is 22, a prelaw student at Duke and old for a swimmer, like many of the other veterans on a squad that regards itself as covered by vines and lichen. Of 43 team members, 36 are 18 or older. Hogshead was on the 1980 Olympic team, then slogged through the emotional swamp caused by the U.S. boycott. The next year, worn by a practice routine that had her up at 4:45 every morning from seventh grade through high school, she quit swimming, "I could eat cookies for lunch," she recalled last week. But after a year and a half in dry dock, she returned. "I hadn't finished my career the way I wanted to," she said. She had been a butterfly and individual-medley specialist, but she turned herself into a freestyle sprinter. Hogshead was prepared for this race: all 20 nails were painted red.

But she did not dominate from her Lane 4 position, and was second at the turn. In Lane 3 was the third-fastest qualifier, Hogshead's teammate Carrie Steinseifer, 16, a high school junior from Saratoga, Calif., who was also her Olympic Village bunkmate (Nancy upper, Carrie lower). Steinseifer, a happy camper whose blond hair had just been whacked off in Olympic punk style by Hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, had been only vaguely concerned with the 1980 boycott because "I wasn't really into swimming then." Last year she won a gold at the Pan American Games. Now here she was, wearing out the water with her thrashing crawl. Then, on the other side, in Lane 5, Annemarie Verstappen of The Netherlands, a lanky and apparently boneless 19-year-old, pulled to the slightest of leads. But 25 meters from the finish, Hogshead caught Verstappen, and Steinseifer was catching Hogshead, chopping through a communal bow wave. The Dutch racer faltered, and the two Americans surged on. The Scoreboard at first registered Steinseifer as the winner, then corrected itself: the first two times were identical, 55.92 sec. For the first time ever, two gold medals were awarded in an Olympic swimming race. Verstappen got the bronze.

That was the splashy beginning of a week of competition that had both swimmers and sinkers in the audience awash in noisy enthusiasm. And on the point of drowning in home-grown chauvinism, it should be said. When it was over, the U.S. had won 20 firsts in 29 events (counting the unprecedented double as one). Raw-meat roars of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"—part innocent glee and part boorish excess—greeted the appearance of each U.S. swimmer and the bemedaling of each new national hero.

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