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Canada’s Baumann Puts Fame, Letdown Behind and Tunes Up for World Championships : He Tests U.S. Waters, 2 Years After the Glory

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Times Staff Writer

The last time Alex Baumann came to Southern California to swim, he won a pair of Olympic gold medals and set two world records.

That may be little more than a vague recollection to most Americans--even in this mecca of swimming pools and swimmers--but it was an accomplishment that vaulted Baumann, 22, into a race with Wayne Gretzky for most popular athlete in Canada. Baumann’s world record-setting performance in the 400-meter individual medley on the first day of the 1984 Games was the first swimming gold medal a Canadian had won in 72 years.

It made for a hectic, yet profitable, 1985 for Baumann. He managed to make almost every public appearance he was asked to, and still found time to fulfill endorsement contracts with eight Canadian interests. He’s currently appearing in television commercials for an oil company, a pool company and the National Egg Board.

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“It was tremendous, going around the country getting standing ovations,” Baumann said. “I’ll never forget it . . . people coming up to me and telling me they cried in front of their televisions after I won.”

There won’t be nearly as much at stake this week when Baumann competes in the Mission Viejo Swim Meet of Champions today through Sunday at the Marguerite Swim Complex. And he probably won’t be swamped by autograph-seekers in the lobby of the Laguna Hills hotel where he is staying.

Still, Baumann sees the meet as an important step toward his latest goal: two gold medals in the World Championships this summer in Madrid.

“We came here to get accustomed to the weather because we’ll be swimming outdoors in the sun in Madrid,” Baumann said. “It was six or seven degrees when we left home (Sudbury, Ontario). We’re coming down (resting) a bit for the meet, but mainly it’s a chance to compete. I’m looking forward to it.”

Originally, Baumann was scheduled to compete in Europe this month, but because of recent terrorist incidents, his coach, Dr. Jeno Tihanyi, changed the plans. The story got a little blown out of proportion, though, and the national news service reported that the Canadian team actually had been threatened by terrorists.

“One of the places we would have competed was Rome, and with the Libya thing and bombs here and bombs there, we decided against it,” said Tihanyi, a professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury. “Then the story got out that we were threatened and every major paper in the country ran it. Then we got some crank calls and my wife freaked out.

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“Things are a bit out of control these days. Everybody is trying to find out where the Americans and British are staying, and then trying to find a hotel a few blocks away.”

So Tihanyi and five of his top swimmers opted for the sunny climate of Southern California instead of the stormy political climate of Europe.

Baumann may have found better competition in the individual medley events in Europe, but he’s not the only world record holder or Olympic medalist in Mission Viejo this week. Mary T. Meagher, Carrie Steinseifer, Jenna Johnson, Pablo Morales, John Moffet and Matt Biondi also will compete

“There’s a bit of tradition here,” Tihanyi said. “We’ve been here four straight years. It serves to test progress. It gives me a good idea of what we’ve got to do to get ready for the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships.

“I’m looking for some very high-quality swims, in a training sense. With a guy like Alex, there’s not much you can do but work on the little things, like his skills off the wall and his transitions from stroke to stroke. Physically, I think he’s in the same shape he was before the Olympics.”

Baumann has already proven he can still go fast. In the Canadian Olympic Trials last month, he recorded a 2:01.42 in the 200-meter individual medley, tying the world record he established in the Olympics.

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“Longer fingernails would have helped,” Baumann said, smiling. “It was a very good time for so early in the season, and the faster I go and the closer we get to the World Championships, the more motivated I get.”

Motivation is often a problem for a swimmer who has already met every challenge his sport has to offer. Baumann, who has been called the most versatile swimmer in the world and the only individual medley swimmer without a weak stroke by many experts, never really gave retirement much thought, though.

He did, however, experience the inevitable letdown. Tihanyi says the depression was well-masked because of the busy appearance schedule, but Baumann remembers the emotions very well.

“It lasted about five or six months,” he said. “You train 10, 11, 12 years of your life for one moment, you finally reach it and then it’s over. Just like that. Where do you go? You say to yourself, ‘I can stick around and try to match that performance or do worse. I can’t really better it.’

“I had to reassess my goals. It’s hard to get up and go train when it’s 30-below, especially when you’ve already achieved what you set out to do. But I’d never won a World Championship (he had an injured shoulder in 1982), and I love the sport. Also, from a financial standpoint, I figured it would help to stay in the public eye.”

Baumann’s earnings go into a trust fund so that he can maintain his amateur standing. The egg commercials are providing a nice nest egg, one that Baumann says will make him financially secure when he does hang up his Speedos for good.

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He maintains that the 1988 Olympics are too far away to think about. But when he does think about it, he’s willing to admit that he doesn’t want to “ruin my Olympic experience.” He also admits that the possibility of failure will weigh heavily when he does decide whether to compete in ’88.

When Alexander the Great does retire, the sport will lose one of it’s most colorful--and talented--stars. He was one of the first to sport the now-popular diamond stud in his left ear. And he was a pioneer of the maple leaf tattoo over his heart, now a trademark of the men on the Canadian National Team.

The tattoo includes the word “Sasa” (pronounced SA-sha), the Czechoslovakian nickname for Alexander. Baumann’s mother, Vera, with whom he lives, was a nationally ranked Czech swimmer in the 1940s, and he was born in Prague. The family moved to New Zealand in 1967 and settled in Canada in 1969, after the Soviet invasion of their homeland the year before.

Baumann started swimming at age 9 and was an instant success, setting nine 10-and-under national records his first year.

He’s been rewriting the record books ever since.

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