The Paper Chase Can Wait : Pablo Morales Puts Off Law School to Devote a Year to the Olympics

Times Staff Writer

Law school at Cornell was put on hold. Pablo Morales wanted a year, an entire year, unhindered, to prepare for the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul.

He had taken off one semester at Stanford to prepare for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where he won two silver medals in individual swimming events and one gold on a relay team.

Not bad for a first try. But Morales is putting more effort into it this time. That’s just the way he is.


No matter what happens, he won’t have to wonder if it was for lack of effort. Or sacrifice.

It really was a sacrifice to put school off for a year. Law school at Cornell means a lot to a guy whose parents emigrated from Cuba and made a lot of sacrifices of their own to send him to the best private schools so that he could one day handle Stanford and Cornell.

But the Olympic Games mean a lot to him, too. He has been swimming competitively for more than 16 years. He is driven, perhaps by the example of his parents, although they never preached to him about what they expected him to achieve. They certainly never pressured him about his swimming.

As his mother, Blanca, put it, “I only wanted him to learn to swim so he wouldn’t drown.”

An admitted perfectionist, Morales kept at it until he was a world record-holder.

Morales holds two world records, in the 100-meter butterfly and in the 400-meter individual medley. But that does not guarantee him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.


No one gets a guarantee.

Pablo Morales won’t forget watching Bill Barrett slowly swim the width of the pool to congratulate him after the 200-meter individual medley at the 1984 Olympic swimming trials at Indianapolis. Barrett, who had been denied the Olympics by the boycott in 1980, was also the U.S. record-holder in the event. But he was not one of the top two finishers in that race and therefore, did not qualify for the ’84 Games.

Morales saw the pain in Barrett’s eyes. Morales understood, then, the finality of the numbers on the scoreboard. The rules are clear and not subject to interpretation, sentimentality or even better judgment. Hit the electronic touch pads at the ends of the lanes first or second in the final heat of the Olympic trials, or stay home.

Morales was 19 at the time, and although he had not been expected to earn his way into the 200-meter individual medley competition, he had already made the team twice over by winning both the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly titles.

He wasn’t one of the real surprise entries on the roster such as, say, Matt Biondi. But he was young enough to speak for the youngsters who were beating out the likes of Bill Barrett. At those trials four years ago, Morales said:

“There is a whole new wave of swimmers waiting to break through. The worst thing that could happen is for someone to go unchallenged year after year. We need to keep the competition up. Being unchallenged doesn’t help the person on top.”

So how does he feel about it now that he has Olympic gold to defend? Now that he’s a world record-holder?

Exactly the same way.

Morales will compete in the Olympic qualifying meet, the Phillips 66/U.S. Swimming Long Course Nationals, this week at the University of Texas Natatorium at Austin, knowing that the only way he makes the team that goes to Seoul is by finishing first or second.

“There are a lot of people who second-guess our system because it pays no special regard to world record-holders,” Morales said. “Other countries assure their stars of a place on the team. But our system gives the late bloomers a chance. It puts you in a similar situation to what you’ll face at the Olympic Games. Swimmers must perform under that pressure. It’s hit or miss; do or die. But that’s the kind of athlete the U.S. wants in the Olympic Games.”

Morales also contends that the trials will identify the best swimmers. “It’s a very honest sport,” he said. “There has not been one performance (in my career) that didn’t directly relate to the time I spent or the work I did.”

Which tells a lot about how much time and work Morales has devoted to swimming.

He started setting records in his age-group competition. He set the world record in the 100-meter butterfly at 53.38 seconds when he qualified for the ’84 Olympics and bettered that time during the Games, swimming a 53.23 only to be beaten out for the gold by West Germany’s Michael Gross, who lowered the world record to 53.08. Morales reclaimed the record at the World Championship trials in 1986 with a 52.86.

Morales also won the Olympic silver medal in the 200-meter individual medley in ’84 and won a gold medal for swimming the butterfly leg on the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team.

He holds the world record in the 400-meter medley relay, 3:38.28 which he set in the Pan Pacific Games at Tokyo in 1985.

Morales led Stanford University to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title three of his four years there and became the winningest swimmer in NCAA history by winning 11 national titles. (He broke the record of 10 set by John Naber of USC.)

Yet for all that success, Morales can go on quite philosophically, about the way all swimmers have to learn to accept failure.

“The nature of the sport can be very fickle,” he said. “Disenchantment of the sport is so much a part of it, and some swimmers haven’t been able to deal with it. It is the nature of our sport that it seems, at times, to be permeated with failure.

“Twice a year a swimmer can peak. The rest of the time he seems to be mired in a pit of tired workouts and less than peak swims--that feels like failure, and it’s disappointing.

“Swimmers have to learn to deal with that in a positive light.”

It means that swimmers have to constantly remind themselves about the difference between short-term goals and long-term goals.

After a workout with his Concord-Pleasant Hill swim team a few weeks ago, Morales talked about how he and former Stanford teammate John Moffet (another ’84 Olympian) try to deal with pressure, with the mind-set that must be in order to stay sharp.

“I’m a dreamer, like anyone else, and I sometimes imagine myself winning in some glorious moment, but the challenge is to keep from doing that,” Morales said. “I try to avoid thinking about the end result of a race. Even if it’s the exultation of standing on the awards stand. John feels the same way. He did not want to think about it in the abstract, the feeling of winning, the wide focus, the fans and all. It distracts you from the little details that will lead to that feeling.

“John said that when he had that image, he would try to picture it like it was on a glass movie screen and then he would pick up a rock and throw the rock through that image.

“It’s more important to see yourself being in great shape, getting a good start, feeling the first strokes, thinking about where your hands should be, how the stroke should be flowing, when to accelerate . . . all the details that are crucial.”

Morales, like so many other swimmers, concentrates on his own times and tries not to think about what the competition is doing, about the factors over which he has no control. He has always been able to follow his own course, unencumbered by the pressures of other peoples’ expectations. That is, he never either rejected or reveled in the label, “The next Mark Spitz.”

The comparisons to Spitz were inevitable with Morales coming from the same Santa Clara Swim Club, training with Mitch Ivey (who swam with Spitz), breaking Spitz’s high school records, swimming some of Spitz’s events, even resembling Spitz.

But Morales is an original. A one and only. He knew it all along.

He probably isn’t going to end up with as many Olympic gold medals as Spitz. Morales’ fans don’t mind.

Among his fans is his coach at Stanford, Skip Kenney, who spent years telling everyone how special the kid was.

Kenney once told Swimming World: “When I talked to the admissions office at Stanford while I was recruiting Pablo, instead of me saying I need this swimmer, they told me, ‘You’ve got to get him for Stanford.’ He’ll do a lot more for Stanford in his life than Stanford will do for him.”

Biondi, also a world record-holder, recalls how Morales treated him when Morales was a national swimming hero and no one had ever heard of Biondi.

“I was a nobody then,” Biondi said. “Pablo Morales was somebody who went to the Pan Am Games and the Sports Festival. I saw him on TV. But when I would see him at a meet, he would be so nice. I remember when he asked me where I was thinking about going to school. He was genuinely concerned. I was impressed by that.”

No one has ever accused Morales of being cocky.

Maybe it’s because of his humble beginnings. He was born in Chicago in December of 1964, less than 10 years after his parents had left Cuba in search of a better life.

Morales is proud of what his parents did for themselves and their children.

“Some people would say that my parents haven’t reached the upper strata in social-economic terms,” Morales said. “Their accomplishments, in many peoples’ eyes, might be very humble. But when you think of what they did, coming from Cuba, not knowing the language, having limited education . . . they both had to work. But they were able to send us to fine preparatory schools (he attended Bellarmine Prep, a Jesuit school in San Jose) and they were able to raise us in a household that was very comfortable.”

It was a household with a strong work ethic that Pablo seemed to pick up. Besides getting his English degree from Stanford on time (despite the semester off in 1984), and besides swimming all those hours every day, Morales also managed to write for the school newspaper and do volunteer work with the elderly.

But what if he has a bad week in Austin? Or has the flu? Or pulls a muscle? Will law school have waited a year for nothing?

Not the way Pablo Morales sees it. True, he’s competitive, and he expects his work to pay off in gold medals. But if not? If he, for some reason, suffers the fate of Bill Barrett?

Morales said: “I require no more justification than the desire to improve myself.”