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, July 30. WHICH swimming event at the 1984 Olympic Games featured the “Grossbusters?”
— 100 butterfly
— 800 free relay
— 400 free relay
Read on for the answer.
The second day of swimming competition at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles was not a banner day for the American men. In the two individual events swum at the McDonald’s Swim Stadium, the Americans won only one medal: silver by Pablo Morales in the 100 fly.
Morales went into the 100 fly final as the world record holder and the favorite to win gold on his home turf. But the day after setting a world record in the 200 freestyle, West Germany’s Michael Gross was on a mission. The Albatross, as Gross was known, knocked Morales off the top of the podium with a win in the 100 fly to start the day’s finals. Gross’ 53.08 beat Morales’ world record of 53.38. Morales also dipped under his former record, but had to settle for silver.
Add to that zero medals for Team USA in the men’s 400 IM, and the United States was hungry for revenge. It came in the 800 free relay, though not easily. Here’s how Swimming World Magazine detailed the race in the September 1984 issue:
The last time the United States lost an Olympic 800 free relay was 1956, when Australia clobbered the Americans 8:23.6-8:31.5. And it wasn’t just the relay the Americans felt proprietary about: until Gross edged Pablo Morales earlier in the afternoon for the world record and gold medal, the United States had never lost an Olympic 100 fly final, either.
So the relay meant a lot … At the start, (Mike) heath wasted no time getting down to business. He led at the 100 and didn’t look back. … Heath touched in 1:48.67 to (Thomas) Fahrner’s 1:49.83, and (David) Larson jumped in to do his job. Perhaps a little too excited, Larson split 51.29 for his first 100, extending the USA’s lead over the Germans to 2.87 seconds at 300 meters.
As (Jeff) Float drove down the final lap of his leg, the crowd was in a frenzy. No one had to be reminded who was on the block next to (Bruce) Hayes – least of all Hayes himself. A huge roar went up from perhaps some 10,000 voices as Hayes took off a second-and-a-half in front of Gross.
The anchor leg between Gross and Hayes is destined to go down in swimming lore as one of the greatest battles of all time. Merely by diving in, Gross narrowed the gap by half. By the end of the first lap, he was even with Hayes.
“Gross paid too much to catch Bruce that early,” (head coach Don) Gambril would say later of Gross’ sizzling first 50. “That’s exactly what we wanted him to do.”
With one lap to go, Gross had finally passed Hayes. The entire crowd was on its feet. … In the middle of the last lap, Hayes’ head pulled even with Gross’ – but Hayes’ arms were considerably shorter. The last 10 meters were a tossup. The two reached for the wall. Hayes stretched underwater. The American team, seated 35 meters away across the diving well, couldn’t see the finish at all. It didn’t matter; only the touchpad could tell the difference. The crowd exploded, tentatively, when Hayes touched, then roared when the scoreboard lit up with a “1” next to the USA’s world record time of 7:15.69.
Hayes split 1:48.41, compared to his fastest individual time ever of 1:49.82. The Germans were an eyelash back at 7:15.73. Gross had turned in an incredible 1:46.89 split, the fastest ever.
With the very popular film “Ghostbusters” released almost two months earlier, it didn’t take long for a nickname to be born. The American foursome were dubbed “Grossbusters” for their heroic efforts.
Watch footage of the race:
Bruce Hayes continued to swim briefly after the 1984 Olympics, but this swim against Gross still ranks as his crowning achievement. Now working in public relations at Edelman, he took the time to relive his history-making swim with Swimming World.
Swimming World: What was the mood among the four relay swimmers in the moments before parading out to swim the relay?
Hayes: We were nervous, of course, and trying to stay relaxed. As we were waiting in the ready tent, I remember hearing over the loud speaker that Michael Gross had touched out Pablo Morales in the 100 fly, which was an upset. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it would boost his confidence heading into the relay. On the other hand, maybe he would be tired from putting out so much effort. It was hard to know. I tried to put it out of my mind and stay focused on my race.
SW: From your viewpoint as the anchor leg, how was the race with West Germany playing out in terms of expectations?
Hayes: Not as expected at all! Our plan, which we had talked about at length, was to have an insurmountable lead of about four seconds by the time I went in the water. But the race didn’t play out that way and I only had a lead of about a second-and-a-half. I could tell that the lead wasn’t as large as we had hoped it would be, so I just tried not to panic.
SW: The noise from the very partisan crowd must have been deafening when you stepped onto the blocks to swim. How were you able to stay focused on the task at hand?
Hayes: I don’t remember hearing the noise when I was standing on the blocks. I think I was so deep in concentration that I blocked it out. But, I definitely heard the roar of the crowd on the final 50 – and I know it helped me get my hand on the wall first.
SW: Michael Gross caught you after the first 50. Head coach Don Gambril had said that was what he hoped would happen. You were half a body length behind going into the final 50. How were you able to catch the 200 freestyle world record holder and win the gold medal for the USA?
Hayes: I was always confident in my ability to close out a race on the final 50. In fact, that was what I was known for and the strategy I used to win many races. So, in a weird way, maybe it helped for me to be a little behind heading into the final lap. When Gross didn’t pull away from me on the third 50, I knew I had a chance to run him down. As I started to catch him, I could hear the crowd going wild and I just put my head down and focused on having a good touch. The final 10 meters was really a blur!
SW: Twenty years later at the 2004 Olympics, the United States won gold in the 800 free relay in the same fashion over Australia. How did it feel watching that race?
Hayes: It was inspiring and took me back to 1984. Klete Keller swam an amazing final leg. I was honored when people would tell me that the 2004 race reminded them of the 1984 team.
SW: Where do you keep your gold medal?
Hayes: In my sock drawer in my apartment. I take it out every now and then.
SW: In the 30 years since the relay, what moment from that day stands out the most to you?
Hayes: The moment after I touched when I turned around to look at the scoreboard and saw the 1 next to our lane. I didn’t even notice the time at first, or how close the race was. I just knew that we had won and started jumping up and down in the water. Of course, I also remember standing on the podium with my teammates – Mike Heath (who I went to high school with), Jeff Float and David Larson – and how amazing it felt to share that moment with them.
Swimming Olympic medalists, July 30, 1984
Men’s 100 butterfly
Gold: Michael Gross, West Germany (53.08, world record)
Silver: Pablo Morales, USA (53.23, American record)
Bronze: Glenn Buchanan, Australia (53.85, Australian record)
100 fly race video:
Women’s 200 freestyle
Gold: Mary Wayte, USA (1:59.23)
Silver: Cynthia Woodhead, USA (1:59.50)
Bronze: Annemarie Verstappen, Netherlands (1:59.69)
200 free race video:
Men’s 400 individual medley
Gold: Alex Baumann, Canada (4:17.41, world record)
Silver: Ricardo Prado, Brazil (4:18.45, South American record)
Bronze: Robert Woodhouse, Australia (4:20.50, Australian record)
400 IM race video (courtesy westnyacktwins):
Women’s 200 breaststroke
Gold: Anne Ottenbrite, Canada (2:30.38, Canadian record)
Silver: Susan Rapp, USA (2:31.15, American record)
Bronze: Ingrid Lempereur, Belgium (2:31.40, Belgian record)
200 breast race video:
Men’s 800 freestyle relay
Gold: United States (Heath, Larson, Float, Hayes) 7:15.69, world record
Silver: West Germany (Fahrner, Korthals, Schowtka, Gross) 7:15.73, European record
Bronze: Great Britain (Cochran, Easter, Howe, Astbury) 7:24.78, British record
Race videos provided by Gary Kilbride, except where noted.