Not So Great Swimmer Better Than Most

Staff Writer

The rap against UCLA's Craig Oppel is that he is good. Very good.

But not great.

Sure, he won a gold medal in swimming at the Seoul Olympics. But he won it as an alternate on the U.S. 800-meter freestyle relay team and did not swim in the finals.

And at last year's National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship meet, he scored 27 points, yet failed to win an individual event for the third consecutive year.

That may be so, but Oppel, a psychology major, rationalizes that not many people have been where he's been. The NCAA championship next month figures to be his last competitive meet and then he plans to attend law school in the fall. Swimming has been good to him, he says, but it's time to move on.

"Few people have finished second, and even fewer have won. I wanted to win, but it just didn't happen," said Oppel, donned in an Olympic jacket and gold ring. "Right now it (not winning an NCAA title) bothers me, but hopefully I can rectify that this year.

"I'll look back on swimming very favorably. I have a lot of fond memories. I've traveled all around the world free. As far as swimming goes, getting to be part of the U.S. team and the UCLA team. Getting to meet great people. The list goes on and on."

When Oppel arrived at UCLA he emphasized four goals:

* To win an individual and a team NCAA title.

* To win a title at a U.S. national meet.

* To win a world title.

* To win an Olympic gold medal.

Now into his senior season, Oppel has accomplished three of those goals. In 1986 he swam the butterfly leg of the winning 400-meter medley relay at the World Championships in Madrid. In 1987 he won a national title at the Long Course Nationals in the 200-meter freestyle, and then came the gold medal in Seoul this summer.

"Coming out of high school (Valley High in Des Moines, Iowa) I had seen numerous people with 'potential,' the kiss of death," Oppel said. "I didn't want to be one of those people who had potential and didn't foster it."

But the one goal eluding him would appear to be easiest: the NCAA title. Last year he swam a season-best 1:35.08 in the 200-yard freestyle final but placed second to Doug Gjertsen of the University of Texas.

At practice, Oppel does not need to convey his desire to win an NCAA title this season.

"Everyone understands that I want it this time," he said.

Said UCLA Coach Ron Ballatore: "He was a quiet leader the first three years, but this year you hear more than ever before. He feels like he's more part of the team than he's been before."

Oppel's return to the UCLA team this season resembles the experience of another former Bruin swimmer, Brian Goodell, Ballatore said. Goodell won two gold medals at the 1976 Montreal Games in world record times while still in high school. When Goodell came to UCLA, people wondered what he would do for an encore.

"I was concerned about Craig in the fall," Ballatore said. "But he's very loyal to the program. He felt that he really wanted to finish this season. He has things left that he hasn't accomplished."

Even though he finished fifth at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, Oppel felt that he had a chance to swim in the finals in Seoul. It looked as if he would after he swam on the team that finished first in its qualifying heat.

Relay teams, however, are not set until the day of the final, and that morning he swam what he calls one of his two bad meets in the last four years.

"I felt that he had a good chance to swim in the finals. He swam the fastest 200 meters in the world the year before," said Ballatore, who was Oppel's guest coach in Seoul. "He just didn't swim a good leg. That's about all I can say."

Said Oppel: "In this sport, you have your ups and downs and that was one of my downs. . . . You're dealing with a sport measured in hundredths of seconds. Medals are decided in less time than it takes to blink an eye."

The perception that the Olympics serve as a gathering place to interact with athletes from around the world did not hold true for Oppel. The majority of Oppel's spare time in Seoul was spent with the 10 past or present Bruins swimmers there.

One thing Oppel did want to do was exchange uniforms with athletes from Iceland, where he was born, but they left before closing ceremonies before Oppel could negotiate the trade.

"The only experience you have with foreigners are people you know through swimming in international meets," Oppel said. "As far as athletes from other nations and other sports, each had their own niche. You might play Ping-Pong against a German weight lifter or snooker against a Russian gymnast."

Nearing the end of his swimming career does not seem to bother Oppel. When he is recognized on campus as the Olympic swimmer, he squirms.

His gold medal from Seoul lies on his desk at home--under a pile of books.

"When I'm at the pool I'm an intense competitor," he said, "but I really just want to be another person when I'm away from the pool."

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