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Seoul ’88 / Tracy Dodds : Even Powerful East Germans Can’t Go as Deep as U.S. Swimming Team

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Wolfgang Richter, coach of the East German swim team, scouted the U.S. Olympic Trials at the University of Texas Swim Center this week and was decidedly impressed with the depth of both the men and women. It wasn’t news to him, he said, that the U.S. has depth, but it was interesting to see for himself just how long and how strong the U.S. team is.

And that was before Matt Biondi lowered his world record in the 100-meter freestyle, going 48.42, followed by Chris Jacobs at 49.45, Tom Jager at 49.88 and Troy Dalbey at 49.91.

That’s long and strong and makes for an incredible 400-meter relay team.

Richter was explaining, through an interpreter, that although East Germany has several women who are world record-holders, and in some events two or three elite athletes, the GDR just doesn’t have the pool of talent from which to choose its team.

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In fact, he said, the GDR chose not to enter a swimmer in the butterfly at either 100 meters or 200 meters. That also eliminates the 400-meter medley relay. And the GDR will enter just one swimmer in the 100-meter breaststroke and none in the 200.

Asked if he was referring to the men’s team, he laughed. “Of course!”

The East German women are still the dominant force in the world.

As U.S. Olympic Coach Richard Quick put it when he summed up the United States’ chances at Seoul, “I have confidence that we’ll win more medals, and more gold medals, than any other country. On the women’s side, it’s primarily the East Germans. We’re No. 2 there. We’re the challenger. We want to surprise them, to close the gap. . . . We’re not in awe.”

Even Janet Evans, 5-feet 6-inches, not quite 100 pounds, promised not to be intimidated. She said, “I don’t care what country they’re from or how big they are, when it comes time to swim, they’re just competitors.”

A small teen-ager about to compete in two events in which she holds world records can be so bold.

Mary T. Meagher, who made the U.S. Olympic team that didn’t compete in 1980, and who won three gold medals in the 1984 Olympics when the East Germans didn’t compete, was simply trying to say that she was looking forward to the all-out competition when she said, “It’ll be great to stand up next to them and race, and may the best man win.”

She cringed when that drew chuckles, as if she were making a veiled reference to steroids. It was just a figure of speech. “I mean, may the best woman win,” she said.

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Quick made no bold predictions about how many medals his newly selected women’s team might win, but he did say that there will not be a repeat of 1976, when East German women won 12 of the 13 gold medals. Even Richter agreed with that, saying, “It will be much more difficult for one country to dominate. Even the countries that don’t have large, strong teams, have individuals who can win medals.”

When Quick was asked if the success of the team should, necessarily, be measured by the medals count, he said, “I think these guys want to be measured by the number of medals they win versus the rest of the world, by the number of gold medals. We’re going there to do a job. We’re not going to be happy with good team spirit.”

The U.S. team will train at Austin for two weeks and then go to Los Angeles to be fitted for their uniforms. After about two days in L.A. they will go on to Hawaii for about 10 days of training. They are scheduled to arrive in Seoul about 10 days before the Games begin, Sept. 17. One reason for the scheduling is to take the time zone changes in steps, figuring about a day of adjustment time for every hour of time difference.

The U.S. had room on its roster for 26 men and 26 women, but with double qualifiers, the final roster includes 24 men and 19 women, the same as the 1984 roster. Holdovers from the 1984 Olympic team are Biondi, Meagher, Jager, Rich Schroeder, Dara Torres, Mary Wayte, Susan Rapp and Betsy Mitchell.

The swimmers will have about five weeks before the Games to go back to maximum training and then taper down. Most countries put several months between their selection meets and the competition. But Quick said he thought five weeks would be about right.

Quick was even more optimistic about the United States’ chances after he saw what happened at the trials than he was before. “David Berkoff turned one of our supposedly weakest events (the men’s 100-meter backstroke) into one of our strongest with his world-record time,” he said. “We’ve improved into the world level with Richard Schroeder’s 200-meter breaststroke. Tracey McFarlane brings us into the picture in the 100-meter breaststroke, and also in the medley relay.”

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There were only two world records set--Biondi, in the 100-meter freestyle and Berkoff, in the 100-meter backstroke--but the men swam world best times in 7 of 13 events and the women swam world best times in 4 of 13.

U.S. coaches on Quick’s staff will be Randy Reese of the University of Florida; Mitch Ivey of the Concord-Pleasant Hill team; Skip Kenney of Stanford; Mark Schubert of the Mission Bay Makos; Eddie Reese of the University of Texas and Steve Bultman of Greater Pensacola Aquatics. Going to Seoul because their swimmers set world records are Berkoff’s coach, Joe Bernal, and Biondi’s coach, Nort Thornton.

Quick predicted great things for Janet Evans at Seoul. And Meagher said of Evans: “It’s a thrill to watch her. Seeing her attitude reminds me of me when I was first popping onto the scene. No inhibition. People keep asking her about her size. Believe it or not, I used to get that question, too.” As for how Evans will handle the attention of the media at Seoul, Quick said, “She can handle it. I think she’ll bubble and the people will love her.”

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