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Why Some Age Marks Stand Test Of Time

Dec 5, 2012  - Chuck Warner

Two USA NAG records still stand from 36 years ago, the oldest in the USA. Why - asks guest writer Chuck Warner

During the USA Nationals in Austin, and other meets over the last two weeks numerous USA National Age-Group Records (NAG) have been ripped from the books. 

Last year, Jack Conger had the 17-18 year old 200 yard backstroke record at 1:40.41 but Ryan Murphy smashed it last week with a remarkable 1:38.15. Katie Ledecky walloped her year old standard in the mile of 15:40.38 by twenty seconds setting a new 15-16 year old mark of 15:28.36. Ryan Hoffer became the fastest 13-14 year old ever with a time of 20.45 for the 50-yard freestyle. Even Michael Phelps now sits third on the all-time list for the 15-16 boys in the 200 IM behind the new standard set by Gunnar Bentz of 1:45.17.

Those are amazing swims. However two USA NAG records still stand from 36 years ago, the oldest in the USA. Why?

The oldest USA NAGs are from the 1976 Olympic Trials and the 1976 Olympic Games. The first is Jesse Vassallo’s 13-14 year old standard in the 1500-meter freestyle of 15:31.03. The second record is Bobby Hackett’s 15:03.91 for the 1500, set at the Montreal Olympics for the 15-16 boys age-group. 

Hackett’s swimming career is chronicled in the book Four Champions, One Gold Medal. A few years after the book was published I asked Coach Bob Bowman if perhaps his 16-year old up and coming super-star Michael Phelps might want to play the role of one of the champions if the book  was made into a movie. Bob said: “Michael has his own movie in mind. One Champion, Four Gold Medals.” Indeed! When our laughter subsided Bob added: “But Michael will never break Bobby Hackett’s national age-group record in the 1500.” 

The circumstances that Hackett performed the time add to the luster of this 36 year old mark. The USA men entered the Games with a chance to match the 1948 USA Men’s Olympic Team by winning every gold medal in the Olympic competition. Adding to the challenge, since the ’48 Games, the event program had more than doubled and the NCAA program enhancing the development of swimmers around the world. In the 1500 the reigning world record holder and world champion in the person of Australia’s Stephen Holland stood in the way of the American goal for a gold medal sweep. While the US team had a strong nucleus of veteran swimmers such as John Naber, Joe Bottom, John Hencken and Tim Shaw, they needed ‘the kids,’ like high school seniors to be, Hackett or 17-year old Brian Goodell to beat Holland to reach the team’s goal.

The price Bobby Hackett paid for that record was to keep his cool under pressure and swim the best race of his life at the most important time. But the price also consisted of immense preparation in the form of hard work leading up the Olympic Trials and Games. A staple endurance set for Bob was 100 x 100s yard swims on 1:00. He first completed it in the fall of 1975 and repeated the set several times in 1976. 

Bob didn’t have much training in a long course pool, but did train with tremendous fortitude. On the evening before his team flew from New York to the winter US Nationals in California in 1976, he completed 100 x 100s. After practice the team held a good luck party for those going to nationals at the pool. After the party, Bobby’s coach, Joe Bernal ordered him back to the pool. He then completed 2 x 1650s, one of which was butterfly. Bobby was surprised at his coach’s request but thrilled by his performance on the 1650 fly. Does anyone know someone that would react that way?

Bobby Hackett worked very hard, for a long time to swim that fast for 30 lengths of the long pool. Training 15 times per week was not unusual in that Olympic year. Jesse Vassallo was in the same era of a huge endurance commitment at Mission Viejo at the same time, and unlike Bobby, had teammates like Brian Goodell and Casey Converse to chase in practice. 

Their commitment might be illustrated with a smile by repeating the story of a chicken and a pig. The two animals are walking through an impoverished village. The chicken says to the pig, “I think we should cook up some ham and eggs for these folks, they are starving.” The pig says, “To you that meal is a temporary inconvenience, for me that’s a full commitment.” 

Bobby Hackett was fully committed to being the best swimmer he could be. So was Jesse Vassallo. They were willing to do virtually anything known to the sport in 1976 to get there”which was most especially hard work. 

To be the best endurance swimmer for your age for 36 years in America requires more than a temporary inconvenience. For Bob Hackett the full commitment enabled him to beat Stephen Holland in that race, win a silver medal and help his country continue toward their goal of winning every gold medal in the men’s competition “ until USA trained David Wilkie derailed the effort in the 200-meter breastroke. 

Jesse went on to break world records in the individual medley and in his college years Bob was a part of an American world record setting 800 freestyle relay splitting 1:49. 

Years later there is a greater payoff for those that learn the lessons that the great sport of Swimming offers. 

Hackett earned entrance to Harvard University and had a great college swimming career. He went on to graduate from the Harvard business school and enjoys a wonderful life and career in corporate real estate today, while sneaking in a little swim coaching for fun. A few years ago, at a swim camp, a young swimmer asked him, “Do you tell people in your work that you are an Olympian?” Bob’s answer was, “No, but I use the same things I learned in swimming to be successful in my work. I determine the most appropriate goals to set, focus to achieve them and work hard.” 

Owning a record for 36 years has much more payoff than the record itself. The lessons from the process are enduring as well. 

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