Each day through August 4, Jeff Commings will take you back 30 years to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, highlighting one of that day’s swimming events that continues to be a benchmark for the current culture of the sport. A full list of medalists from that day’s competition follows at the end of the article.
Feature by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, August 4. BEFORE the 1984 Olympics, when was the last time a Canadian swimmer won an Olympic gold medal? The answer follows …
IT’S understandable if people forgot the name Alex Baumann as the 1984 Olympic Games progressed. After all, the Canadian hadn’t swum since July 30, when he won the 400 IM in world record fashion.
But no one would forget Baumann after he put on a show in the 200 IM to kick off the last day of finals at the Olympics. He became the third person in more than 20 years to own both world records in the individual medleys, a feat that became more common when Tamas Darnyi and Michael Phelps came into prominence.
Back in 1984, Baumann’s 2:101.42 was an amazing effort. It wouldn’t have qualified for the top 16 at the 2012 Olympics, but at the time had signaled that a new era of individual medley swimming was approaching. People began to wonder how long it would take someone to break two minutes in the 200 IM, and if it was even humanly possible. (Darnyi did it at the 1991 world championships.)
With Baumann’s win in the 400 IM came the inevitable moniker of “best all-around swimmer.” And that was definitely true, given that he won both IMs by a combined margin of 1.64 seconds.
To no one’s surprise, Baumann let former 100 fly world record holder Pablo Morales take out the race hard in butterfly, and settle back in seventh place after the first 50 meters. But then Baumann stepped on the gas. Here’s how the race went down, according to Swimming World Magazine in the September 1984 issue:
(Baumann) split 30.44 for the second 50 and touched second to Morales, 57.35 to 58.25. Alex was still a full second under his world record pace (59.23). Baumann went a bit slower on the breaststroke leg than he did when he set his 1982 world record (35.03 to 34.74), but he still was faster at 150 meters this time around by seven-tenths of a second. He was also in first by now, as Morales had slipped to second. As is his trademark, Baumann churned the last 50 in a blistering 28.14, again faster than his previous world record split (28.28).
“We just decided to go for it,” Baumann said. “It’s like a dream come true. I’m still flying above the clouds a bit.”
As for Morales, he would be back in the pool to help the Americans win the 400 medley relay. Also on the relay swimming breaststroke was Steve Lundquist, who finished fifth in the 200 IM. Baumann became a national hero, winning the first gold medals for Canada in swimming since 1912.
Men’s 200 individual medley medalists:
Gold: Alex Baumann, Canada (2:01.42, world record)
Silver: Pablo Morales, USA (2:03.05)
Bronze: Neil Cochran, Great Britain (2:04.38)
Video of men’s 200 IM:
Baumann now works as the CEO of High Performance Sport New Zealand after helping start a program in Canada called Own the Podium designed to bring more hardware back to Canada from major international competitions. He traveled with the New Zealand team to the recent Commonwealth Games and took time to relive his amazing week in Los Angeles.
Swimming World: In both of the individual medley races at the Olympics, you were not winning after backstroke. Was that expected or did it shake you out of your comfort zone?
Alex Baumann: I had a specific strategy for my events at the Games. It was to be comfortable in the fly and back and then accelerate in the breaststroke and finish strong in the free. I knew that I would be behind Ricardo Prado after the 200 in the 400 IM and well behind Pablo Morales in the first 50 of the 200. The challenge was not to get too excited at the front end. What helped was that I knew exactly how each person in the final paced their races. There were no surprises. The key thing for me was to stick to strategy and do the splits that we put down on paper prior to both races. I had a good internal clock to judge speed – something that was developed over 10 years.
SW: You had held the world records in the 200 IM and 400 IM before the 1984 Olympics. How close to your goals were the actual times of 2:01.42 and 4:17.41?
Baumann: I felt that I could have gone faster in the 400. My first goal was to win, the second goal was to break the world record (as we had an Eastern bloc boycott). In the end, 20 years down the track, no one would remember if you broke a world record. Winning gold was the priority.
Unfortunately, expectations were huge. Everybody expected me to win two gold medals, so I could only equal everybody’s expectations. I also carried the flag at the opening ceremonies, which I believe increased expectations. I felt very tense for the 400 (due to the pressure). This is why I say I could have gone faster. I don’t believe that I could have gone faster in the 200, since I felt more relaxed as the pressure was off.
SW: You didn’t race at the Olympics between the 400 IM on July 30 and the 200 IM on August 4. What was your mental state in the four days between those races?
Baumann: It took me about two-and-a-half days to recover from the 400. By the third day, I started to feel better. My mental state was fine as the pressure was released by winning the gold in the 400. I felt fully prepared for the 200 final.
SW: Where do you keep your gold medals?
Baumann: The medals are displayed at the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in Calgary. I had them in a safe for a long time but felt that they should be displayed for all to see, as I never took them out.
SW: You were 20 years old when you won your Olympic gold medals, which was not too old at the time for swimmers. Why did you retire a year before the 1988 Olympics?
Baumann: I retired in 1987 as I felt that I achieved all that I wanted to. My goals were to compete at Worlds in Spain and Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986. Unfortunately I got sick at worlds but had a good Commonwealth Games. I always intended for 1987 to be a swim down year (with concentration on the 200 rather than the 400). I also wanted to pursue other interests (finish my degree, etc.).
SW: Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have taken individual medley swimming to a new level. What similarities to yourself do you see in these two?
Baumann: A hard question. I think that the key issue for medley swimmers is that they need to have all four strokes firing at the same time. Both Ryan and Michael have this. I also believe that I didn’t have a weakness, even though I often took the first half of the race more relaxed. There are of course other characteristics that make champions – ability to deal with distractions and adversity, consistency, hard work ethic, total focus, etc. These are common for many top athletes however.
1984 Olympic swimming medalists, August 4, 1984
Women’s 200 butterfly
Gold: Mary T. Meagher, USA (2:06.90)
Silver: Karen Phillips, Australia (2:10.56, Australian record)
Bronze: Ina Beyermann, West Germany (2:11.91, West German record)
200 fly race video:
Men’s 1500 freestyle
Gold: Mike O’Brien, USA (15:05.20)
Silver: George DiCarlo, USA (15:10.59)
Bronze: Stefan Pfeiffer, West Germany (15:12.11, West German record)
1500 free race video:
Women’s 200 backstroke
Gold: Jolanda de Rover, Holland (2:12.38, Dutch record)
Silver: Amy White, USA (2:13.04)
Bronze: Aneta Patrascoiu, Romania (2:13.29)
200 back race video:
Men’s 400 medley relay
Gold: USA (Carey, Lundquist, Morales, Gaines) 3:39.30, world record
Silver: Canada (West, Davis, Ponting, Goss), 3:43.23, Canadian record
Bronze: Australia (Kerry, Evans, Buchanan, Stockwell) 3:43.25, Australian record
400 medley relay video:
Race videos courtesy Gary Kilbride and westnyacktwins
Missed any of our previous 1984 Olympic retrospectives? Click the links below!