Earlier in the Pan American Games, Cuban President Fidel Castro admitted that he was puzzled by his country's lack of world-class swimmers.
"We are people who live on an island and we can't swim," he said.
Times are changing in Cuban sports and Castro bore witness to it Friday night. Mario Gonzalez won the men's 200-meter breaststroke, setting a Pan Am Games record and becoming the first Cuban to win a Pan Am gold medal in swimming.
Displaying the intuition that has placed him at events when Cubans scored an upset victory, Castro was on hand Friday to watch as Gonzalez broke the Pan Am record of 2 minutes 15.71 seconds, set in the morning's preliminaries by the U.S.'s Nelson Diebel. Gonzalez's record was 2:15.50.
Gonzalez, 16, said he was confident he would do well, but Castro's presence gave him an extra edge.
"When I saw El Commandante, I knew I could not lose it," Gonzalez said.
His surprising victory only added to the U.S. woes in swimming. The U.S. coaching staff had predicted that Americans would win 95% of the remaining events. That average got shot Friday, as Americans won only two of five events and, in the biggest disappointment of all, were disqualified from the men's 400-meter freestyle relay while holding a six-second lead.
The disqualification came in preliminaries, on the relay's final exchange. With John Miranda approaching the wall, it was ruled anchor swimmer Bob Utley jumped into the water before Miranda touched the wall. Officials said that Utley was .03 of a second premature.
With their lead, the U.S. swimmers needed only to dog-paddle the final 100 meters to qualify for the final, which they were heavily favored to win. Brazil won the relay final, ending a 32-year winning streak for the United States. The U.S. men hadn't lost any relay in the Pan Am Games since 1959. (The women have lost only one.)
The dispirited team held a meeting in the afternoon to settle nerves and clear the air.
"We saw a (long) streak fall short," Tyler Mayfield, who was third in the 200 breaststroke. "It was no one's fault. It happens, it was a mistake. No one started pointing fingers or blaming people."
None of the swimmers on the relay wanted to discuss the incident, but did release a statement though a U.S. Olympic Committee press officer. It read: "It was an unfortunate thing. I thought the exchange was timed perfectly. It turns out that it wasn't. I am very disappointed. I would like to have swam tonight for the gold."
The two events the United States did win yielded Pan Am records. Sean Killion won the 400 freestyle in 3:50.38, beating his own record of 3:51.61, which he set in the morning's prelims. And Dorsey Tierney won the women's 100 breaststroke in a record 1:10.30, which is also a personal best.
In the women's 100 butterfly, Canada's Kristen Topham upset Americans Angie Wester-Krieg and Suzy Buckovich. Topham won in 1:01.19.
Killion's victory was viewed as the first in his comeback from a six-month battle with mononucleosis. Killion, 23, attends Cal and is the American record-holder in the 800 free. There was some chance he would try for an American record in Friday's race, but he lost control of the start.
"I think I went out a little too fast," he said. "I had to make it up at the end. I'm pleased with the time, especially since there was no one to push me."
Tierney was likewise pleased with her victory, since her specialty is 200 meters. Tierney, who attends the University of Texas, earlier set a Pan Am record in the 200 breaststroke. "This whole summer has been a breakthrough for me," she said. "I'm approaching my races with more confidence. In the water, I feel my strokes better."
There was little controlling the Cuban crowd during Gonzalez's race. He made a furious finish to win dramatically. He was in third place after 100 meters and in second with 50 meters to go. He passed Mayfield and Diebel and as he touched the wall.
Gonzalez was paraded around the pool deck, draped in the Cuban flag and carried on the shoulders of his teammates.