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 3. EVERY Olympic Games has its shocking upsets. In 1984, that happened in the men’s 200 butterfly.
THE Albatross hadn’t flown at the 1984 Olympic Games for two days, and perhaps the lack of action in the pool took West Germany’s Michael Gross off his edge on the second-to-last-day of the meet. If there was anything close to a sure thing in men’s swimming at the 1984 Olympics, it was that Michael Gross was going to win the 200 butterfly. He was the world record holder, the reigning world champion and the winner of the 100 fly. All of this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Cue the playbook for the same event at the 2012 Olympics featuring Michael Phelps.
Like Phelps, Gross likely did not expect a swimmer with nothing to lose who lived in the Southern Hemisphere. Swimming out in lane six, 17-year-old Jon Sieben was about as much of a dark horse as you can get. But in the Olympics, past credentials mean nothing when the starter says “Take your marks.”
The likely challengers for gold were American Pablo Morales, looking for revenge after losing gold and his world record to Gross in the 100 fly; and Rafael Vidal of Venezuela, who had an exceptional prelim swim to place second for finals.
Here’s how Swimming World Magazine’s Chris Georges detailed the race in the September 1984 issue:
Gross took the lead from the gun, as expected, but Vidal hounded him the entire way. The attention of the crowd was focused on the center lanes. Morales appeared to hang back for 100 meters before coming on to make his move.
Swimming virtually unnoticed in lanes six and seven, Sieben and (Canada’s Jon) Ponting were having a go of it themselves. It wasn’t until the final 30 meters, when it became evident that Herr Gross was not going to have things all his way, that the race in lanes six and seven caught the attention of the crowd. Seemingly accelerating as though a fire had been lit under him, Sieben suddenly came into medal contention. “I could see Rafael beside me in lane five,” Sieben said later, “and coming home that last 50, I knew I was a definite medal chance. I didn’t even know where Michael or Pablo were.
“I only knew I’d won when I turned around and saw on the board that I’d won,” he said. So did the Aussies, who were spread out in the stands between the press area and the athletes’ seating at the far end of the diving well. What was immediately apparent was that Sieben had scored the upset of the meet by defeating Gross. What didn’t immediately sink in was that he had gone one-hundredth of a second faster than Gross’ old (world) record, too.
The standing ovation Sieben received was as enduring and enthusiastic as that for almost any American winner at Los Angeles.
And, perhaps, most significantly, this was the only event in the entire aquatics competition at the Games that was completely unaffected by the absence of Soviet and East German swimmers. The boycott became laughable – no Eastern-bloc athlete would have even made the final.
Los Angeles was not Sieben’s only appearance at the Olympics, but by 1988 his star had quickly faded. He didn’t finish high enough at the 1988 Australian trials to qualify for the Olympics in the 200 fly. He did manage to make the 100 fly final in Seoul, missing a bronze by three hundredths of a second. He also competed in the 100 fly at the 1992 Olympics, but did not make the final.
Men’s 200 butterfly medalists:
Gold: Jon Sieben, Australia (1:57.04, world record)
Silver: Michael Gross, West Germany (1:57.40)
Bronze: Rafael Vidal, Venezuela (1:57.51, Venezuelan record)
Video of men’s 200 fly:
August 3, 1984, would be a historic day for Tracy Caulkins. The 21-year-old was ready to end her swimming career with an individual swim and the medley relay, and no one was going to deny her gold in one of her specialties, the 200 IM.
The swim was essentially a chance for Caulkins to do a victory lap. She had wanted to chase Ute Geweniger’s world record of 2:11.73, but that’s hard to do when no one’s within a body length of you to give the extra boost.
From Swimming World Magazine:
“I felt by the way I swam at (Olympic) Trials (a 2:12.78 national record while not fully rested) and the way I swam this morning (2:14.47), I had a chance at it,” Caulkins said about chasing the world record. Had she had more competition – which would have had to come in the form of East Germans – she might have done better, she said. “There’s nothing like head-to-head competition. But Nancy was out there pushing me pretty well, and that felt good. I think I might have tried a little too hard and didn’t relax. I wanted to go fasters, but I have to be satisfied.”
The “Nancy” Caulkins referred to was Nancy Hogshead, earning her third of four medals. Also getting a medal was Australia’s Michele Pearson, who was swimming angry after missing the bronze in her favorite event, the 200 free, by a tenth of a second.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Pearson said, “all that work and missing out in the 200 (free). I had to make up for it. I couldn’t go home empty-handed.”
Women’s 200 individual medley medalists:
Gold: Tracy Caulkins, USA (2:12.64, American record)
Silver: Nancy Hogshead, USA (2:15.17)
Bronze: Michele Pearson, Australia (2:15.92, Commonwealth record)
Women’s 200 IM video:
Sometimes an Olympic gold medal can’t overshadow the fact that the time on the scoreboard doesn’t match up to your goals. Tiffany Cohen chased Tracey Wickham’s revered world record in the 800 freestyle final, and after nearly eight-and-a-half minutes fell 33-hundredths short with an 8:24.95. To add injury to heartbreak, she also missed Kim Linehan’s American record of 8:24.70 from 1979.
One wonders what would have happened if Cohen had come competition. She won gold by almost six seconds over Sarah Hardcastle, one of the biggest margins of victory in the event at the Olympics.
Though just 17 years old, Cohen was wise beyond her years, saying “I thought this would be my last Olympics. I wanted to do something special here. I wanted to set a world record, but I got two gold medals. I’ll always remember that.”
Many would have scoffed at the notion that Cohen would not be able to score a trip to the 1988 Olympics as a 21-year-old, but that is what happened. At the 1987 nationals, Cohen placed second to 15-year-old Janet Evans, and promptly ended her career.
Women’s 800 freestyle medalists:
Gold: Tiffany Cohen, USA (8:24.96)
Silver: Michele Richardson, USA (8:30.73)
Bronze: Sarah Hardcastle, Great Britain (8:32.60, British record)
Video of women’s 800 free
After his display of emotion – or, rather, his lack of it – in the post-race proceedings of the 200 backstroke, Rick Carey had some explaining to do. He issued a public apology to the media and his fans for not recognizing them after a subpar 200 back, then went on to celebrate his win in the 100 back with a constant grin from the moment he touched the wall to the moment he accepted the gold medal.
Part of the celebration was due to Dave Wilson’s silver medal in the event, giving the USA a 1-2 finish for the second time in two days. Carey’s winning time was 55.79, six tenths off his world record. Wilson was a close second with a 56.35.
“I’m happy,” Carey said after the 100 back. “I’m not going to do a backflip, but I’m happy. I’ve been real excited about the possibility of going 1-2 with Dave. We’ve talked about it since we made it together at Trials and I’m glad that came about.”
Like Carey, bronze medalist Mike West of Canada was not happy with his 200 back performance, placing second in the B final with a 2:04.73, three seconds slower than his best. The 100 back was a chance for redemption for West as well.
“I’m so relieved after tonight,” West said. “I shouldn’t be complaining, but the silver was so close. I didn’t realize it was so close. But it’s a great way to top off the meet. … It’s nice that I got third; it’s bronze, but it looks like gold to me.”
Men’s 100 backstroke medalists:
Gold: Rick Carey, USA (55.79)
Silver: Dave Wilson, USA (56.35)
Bronze: Mike West, Canada (56.49)
Video of men’s 100 back:
The four ladies lining for Team USA in the women’s 400 medley relay was a gold medalist. Tracy Caulkins was the only one to not win the stroke she was swimming, taking fourth in the 100 breast. But with Theresa Andrews (backstroke), Mary T. Meagher (butterfly) and Nancy Hogshead (freestyle) backing her up, there was no way the United States could lose.
For the first half of the race, though, the West Germans were attempting to do to the Americans what the men did to West Germany in the 800 free relay. Andrews and Caulkins were outsplit by their rivals, giving West Germany the lead after butterfly.
It was all over once Mary T. Meagher caught West Germany’s Ina Beyermann. Here’s how Swimming World Magazine detailed the race:
Theresa Andrews led off the (race) with a 1:04.00, well off the 1:02.55 which had given her a gold medal for the 100 back individual event. Despite Caulkins’ 1:11.03 breaststroke leg (second-fastest of the event), the 1:11.49 swim of West German Ute Hasse, coupled with Svenja Schlict’s 1:03.20 leadoff leg, left the American team 34-hundreths behind the Germans.
So what was Mary T. Meagher thinking, watching the drama unfold as her role came into focus? “I felt I had a good race in me. I felt that way last night, too (when she won the 100 fly). But today was a little different because I felt so relaxed and I wasn’t nervous or tense at all.”
It would be quite safe to say Meagher swam her leg well, since her 58.04 was the fastest women’s butterfly split ever recorded by more than seven-tenths of a second!
Nancy Hogshead put a solid anchor of 55.27 on the race (second only to her 55.18 400 free relay anchor) for a winning 4:08.34.
This was the final race for Caulkins, who remains one of the most respected names not only in American swimming, but in international waters as well. She was the only woman to hold American records in all four strokes and the IMs, a feat no one has come close to approaching 30 years later.
Women’s 400 medley relay medalists:
Gold: USA (Andrews, Caulkins, Meagher, Hogshead) 4:08.34, American record
Silver: West Germany (Schlicht, Hasse, Beyermann, Seick) 4:11.97, German record
Bronze: Canada (Abdo, Ottenbrite, MacPherson, Rai) 4:12.98, Canadian record
Video of women’s 400 medley relay: