How times have changed. With the proliferation of swimming competitions in the last few years, there is little time for dawdling. Gone are the long "Olympic" cycles of four years with long training periods, one or two tapers and competitive peaks, followed by a designated rest. These days, swimming at the world level means being part of an increasingly international showcase where the trend is a go-go-go program of seemingly endless travel and competition. In a twelve month period, many swimmers could typically take in up to five legs of the World Cup, a short course World Championships, a university championships, a leg or two of the Mare Nostrum series, their own country's Nationals, and a Pan Pacific or European Championships. And after all of that, the next big meet is never far off.
January 1998 will see the swimming elite off to Perth, Australia, for the VIII World Aquatic Championships, once the high-point competition mid-way through an Olympiad. Long course and always outdoors, the Worlds were inaugurated in 1973 in Belgrade. They were held again in 1975 and 1978, after which they were put onto a four year cycle to complement the Olympic Games. The 1990s were to be the something-for-everyone decade, however, and in 1993, the creation of the short course world championships ended the reign of the long course swimmer. Along with the increasingly popular World Cup events, the short course worlds brought the glamour back to 25m racing.
Canada's Cheryl Gibson attended three world championships (1975, 1978, 1982) and one Olympics (1976) over the course of her career and remembers the worlds as "big" events with atmosphere, but more manageable and conducive to learning than a Games:
"By the time I went to Berlin I felt like I had much more control of the situation. I had been to a world championships and an Olympics, which are much bigger. Then to go back to a nice little world championships is much less of a scary thing. Worlds are a major competition again but not as overwhelming. They're a lot more comfortable from the athlete's perspective. It's much easier to get around and do things."
Having already hosted a successful Worlds in 1991, Perth is counting down to another powerhouse event with top performances and its own share of surprises. The past year's top performers, such as homegrown Michael Klim and Costa Rican Claudia Poll, will be among those to watch. Sprint Tsar Alexander Popov is expected to impose with his usual class. The Americans, minus Gary Hall but with other tried and true performers and a few hot newcomers, will be looking to re-establish themselves after the beating they took in Rome in 1994. After their performances at their National Games in October, the Chinese women will be under a microscope and so will FINA's testing procedures. The issue of drugs will be paramount, as it is clear that from the inception of the championships, they have been more or less a vehicle for the chemical distortion of the sport.
The first world championships marked the takeover of the East German women who claimed 10 titles and 7 world records. At 14, Kornelia Ender was a formidable talent winning four golds and a silver, while her teammates Ulrike Richter, Anke Hubner, Gudrun Wegner, and Renate Vogel, to mention a few, were also startling in their overwhelming success. Any amazement at the time has since been dispelled; former world champion breaststroker Renate Vogel, among others, has since told how she received anabolic steroids in her early teens and was able to make huge drops in time after the 1972 Olympic Games.
On the men's side, Roland Matthes was a double winner in the backstrokes.
At 1000 metres altitude, the Colombian city of Cali presented a few challenges. The American men, led by triple gold medallist Tim Shaw, were still ruling the pool while the East German women maintained their hold on the women's competition. Of note was Shirley Babashoff of the USA, who stole the 200 freestyle victory from rival Kornelia Ender.
Canadian Nancy Garapick took silver and bronze in the 200 and 100 backstrokes respectively, while Cheryl Gibson remembers the less savoury sides of the competition:
"Cali was my first international team, and I'm quite sure that I didn't know very much about what was going on. I think I was seventh in the 400 IM and all I remember is that I wanted to get out of there and go home. We were staying at a seminary, and they didn't take as much care then with food as they do now. We had to be very careful. They didn't have bottled water or anything so all we could drink was Coke, and that's not really what you feel like drinking every day in those situations. The place we stayed in didn't even have hot water. That was my first taste of international competition, but I obviously got over it, because I carried on!"
Surprisingly, the American women were the stars of the show as the East Germans had an uncharacteristic dip in performances. The likes of Tracy Caulkins, Linda Jezek, and Cynthia Woodhead slowed the advance of the Wundermädchen, who garnered only one gold with Barbara Krause's 200 freestyle. The GDR press agency ADN noted that "our swimmers hadn't been able to make much improvement over their times from the July national championships (...) Two years before the Moscow Olympics, it is a clear warning sign that our methods require re-evaluation." An ironic statement indeed.
Americans dominated the meet with a total of 37 medals, 20 of which were gold.
Canadians shone and were touted as "Canada's best international representatives," bringing home one gold, one silver and four bronze, their best showing ever at a world championships. Graham Smith was victorious with a world record effort in the men's 200 IM (2:03.65) and Olympic silver medallist Gibson took bronze medals in both backstroke events, setting Canadian (still stands) and Commonwealth records in the 200 race.
Cheryl Gibson remembers:
"In 1978 I had just come off the Commonwealth Games where I had swum okay but hadn't really done what I wanted to. World Championships were about two weeks later and that two weeks made all the difference. What I had struggled to do before was suddenly easy. Apart from hitting my taper right on, I think that for me the pressure of having the Commonwealth Games in my home town (Edmonton) was off, and I was much more relaxed in Berlin. I also had a great time in Germany and thought Berlin was just a wonderful city. I visited the Egyptian museum and lots of other things, and had lots of apple strudel too! We didn't get to go to Europe very often in those days so it was different. It was a wonderful World Championship experience for me."
For Canadians 1982 was memorable for the exploits of Victor Davis, who followed up his silver medal in the 100 breaststroke with a blistering 2:14.77-a world record-in the 200 breaststroke. Breaststrokers were on, as Anne Ottenbrite rounded out the medal total with a silver and bronze in her events.
While the Americans battled Montezuma's revenge, the Europeans came back in full force: Michael Gross of West Germany, Jorg Woithe of the GDR, and Vladimir Salnikov of Russia helped to relegate the USA to second place in the medal standing—behind the tiny German Democratic Republic.
The GDR women were back on track and formidable, as Dave Johnson observed at the time, "They could have fielded a relay making finals in the men's freestyle and medley relays." Fifteen-year-old Cornelia Sirch had the best performance of the meet in the 200 backstroke, obliterating the existing world record of 2:11.77 and setting the new standard at 2:09.91. This was cause for some suspicion as Sirch had been ranked only 29th the previous year. Her teammate Petra Schneider dominated the IMs and set a world record in the 400 (4:36.10) that would stand for over fifteen years. And at 16, Kristin Otto won 100 backstroke, her first of a large collection of world titles.
Cheryl Gibson remembers:
"Guayaquil was a big disaster for me. I think I was just not rested enough. We had had Nationals and a training camp and my coach wasn't with me throughout it. It just made the crap-shooting of the taper that much more difficult because there were new people involved. You go through all this work and then you try to taper but there isn't enough time."
After the political boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games, the round-up was an important one, despite the ravaging of several teams by intestinal flu. As had become the trend, East Germany was out in full force, winning a total of 30 medals and leaving the USA in second with 24.
Kristin Otto, foreshadowing her amazing Olympic success in 1988, showed an amazing versatility, winning golds in the 100 free, 200 IM and two relays, and silvers in the 50 free and 100 fly.
Michael Gross, or "the Albatross" of West Germany, repeated his wins in the 200 freestyle and 200 fly. Tamas Darnyi of Hungary won both of the men's IMs, establishing himself as the one to beat for years to come.The drama of the meet was the disqualification of 100 breaststroke winner Adrian Moorhouse of Great Britain. The gold went to Canada's Victor Davis. Moorhouse was disqualified for a butterfly kick on the turn.
Of note in Perth was the small but powerful Hungarian team and the gradual onset of the Chinese women, who went home with 4 golds. Germany showed up for the first time as a unified team, and the disappearance of the GDR women made for a drop in the overall level of the women's competition.
Australians remember the heartbreaking loss of the men's 1500 in which Kieren Perkins battled former East German Jorg Hoffmann, who most recently admitted to having used performance-enhancing drugs for a short time during his career behind the Iron Curtain. Both swimmers bettered the previous world record held by Russian Vladimir Salnikov. Hungarian Tamas Darnyi, unbeaten in the IMs since 1985, reached the pinnacle of this career in Perth, winning both IMs in world record time, and cracking the 2-minute barrier in the 200 with a time of 1:59.36.
Mark Tewksbury, Canada's only medallist in Perth:
"Winning a silver medal means knowing that I can do a best time and race when it really matters. It was amazing how in control and relaxed I was. I knew I had done everything possible to swim fast that day. I remember thinking during the race, 'this is so easy.' I just focussed on my own race, not letting anyone else distract me. With 20 m to go I thought I could win it. I didn't tie up. Finally it all came together. It took three years to get here, but it's well worth it."
The Chinese women were the talk of the championships as they took over where the East Germans had left off and captured 12 of 16 titles in Rome. The anthem played over and over, and the Chinese coaches put all criticism and suspicion down to racism. They had egg on their faces a few weeks later when seven of their swimmers, including two world champions, tested positive at the Asian Games in Hiroshima. This did not affect the numerous world records established in Rome, however.
The exceptions were Australia's Samantha Riley, a double winner in the breaststroke events, and Franziska van Almsick of Germany, whose famous 200 freestyle victory will be remembered for years to come; van Almsick miscalculated in the morning and finished ninth, only to squeak into lane eight when teammate Dagmar Hase, sick with the flu, scratched from the final. In the evening, van Almsick broke the world record, touching in 1:56.78. The towering Claudia Poll of Costa Rica came onto the scene in the same event, taking the bronze in 1:57.61.
In men's competition the Americans took another blasting from the media, with Tom Dolan their only individual gold medallist in the 400 IM. The Russians were strong with double gold medallist Alex Popov, Denis Pankratov, and Vladimir Selkov, but could not catch the Americans, or the Swedes, in the relays.