Whose Start Drew Controversy And Eventual Gold At the 1984 Olympics?

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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 31. WHICH of the medalists in the men’s 100 freestyle married fellow Olympic medalist Tracy Caulkins?

– Rowdy Gaines
– Mark Stockwell
– Per Johansson

Continue reading for the answer…

Every 100 freestyler knows that a fast start is necessary for the chance to beat your opponents, and Rowdy Gaines knew that well before he stepped on the blocks thirty years ago today for the 100 freestyle final at the 1984 Olympics.

Blasting off the blocks and leaving his rivals behind, Gaines led from the start to take the first of his three gold medals at the meet with a 49.80. Though the time was half a second slower than his world record, the win symbolized redemption for Gaines, who had been tapped for multiple gold at the boycotted 1980 Games.

What turned out to be Gaines’ launchpad to current stardom as NBC’s color commentator for the network’s top swimming events briefly was enveloped in controversy, as several swimmers in the heat believed Gaines’ start was so fast that it should have been called a false start. Mark Stockwell, the Australian many believed had a chance at gold, was one of the people publicly calling out the officials for their failure to judge the race accurately.

But no disqualification was called, and Gaines became the ninth American to win the event since the debut in 1896. It was part of a perfect day for Team USA as they won all five swimming events that day. Stockwell can take some happier memories from the meet, as he married fellow Olympic medalist Tracy Caulkins in 1991 after the two first met in the warm-down pool at the 1984 Games.

Here’s how Swimming World Magazine reported on the 100 free final and its aftermath in the September 1984 issue:

What looked like the end of a great American comeback story was tarnished, however, by a controversial start that left a bad taste in the mouths of many of the other competitors, particularly Australian Mark Stockwell, who won the silver, and American Mike Heath, who finished fourth.

After congratulating Gaines on his win, Heath, who was caught off balance on the start and was the last swimmer off the blocks, struck at the water with his fist and angrily left the pool. He reportedly said he could have gotten a better start at a novice meet.

The Australians filed a formal protest. … The complaint was that the start was too quick. The Australians said official Francisco Silvestri of Panama fired the starting gun before all the swimmers were set. Similar complaints had been made about Silverstri at both the 1982 World Championships and the 1983 Pan American Games. FINA officials dismissed the protest.

U.S. coach Don Gambril was also upset, filing a protest against Silvestri, but not the race itself. But no one was willing to question Gaines’ victory, even indirectly.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Rowdy,” said Stockwell in an interview for the medal winners. “I mean, he’s great. He’s been around for a long time and he knows what to look out for. It just wasn’t a fair start.”

Gaines was first off the blocks. He used that lead to his advantage, holding it through the entire race to beat Stockwell, 49.80 to 50.24, and set an Olympic record. Gaines swam a 50.41 during prelims to qualify for the finals.

It was the case of four years of work coming down to less than a minute’s worth of swimming. The 100 freestyle gold Gaines felt was a sure thing in 1980, before the U.S. boycott, was a struggle and a frightening uncertainty this time. “I was scared,” he said. “I was just like this (showing a trembling hand) on the blocks.”

That emotional intensity unleashed itself with the final touch and a look at the scoreboard. Gaines exploded out of the water, his fist raised to the crowd sharing his victory. He cried. He pranced from one person to another in the post-event area, jumping in the air in excitement, hugging and kissing everyone in sight. “I’m 25 years old,” he said, through sobs that left him practically voiceless, “and I’m acting like a 10-year-old.”

100 free race footage, courtesy westnyacktwins:

The name Rowdy Gaines is still synonymous with that Olympic race, even today as his voice is heard commentating on some of the most historic swimming races of the 20th – and 21st – century. Gaines took time out of his busy schedule to walk down memory lane and relive his momentous swim.

Swimming World: As one of many who stuck around after the 1980 Olympic boycott, how much did the desire to win Olympic gold guide your life between 1980 and 1984?

Rowdy Gaines: The gold medal was not on my mind as much as having the experience of being an Olympian, a true Olympian, to march in an Opening Ceremonies, to stay in an Olympic village, to swim in front of the world and compete against the best. I definitely wanted to win, but there was a lot more to it than just a medal … of any color.

SW: You qualified individually in the 100 free after placing seventh in the 200 free at the Olympic Trials. Was it a relief to know that all of your races at the Olympics would only be 100 meters?

Gaines: Not at first. It was heartbreaking because I had the world record in the 200 for four years and loved that event, but in hindsight it was huge blessing because I think if I would have swum both I might not have won the 100 and with Michael Gross (setting a world record) I know I wouldn’t have won the 200. Concentrating on just the 100 was a huge plus.

SW: Why was there so much controversy surrounding your start in the 100 free final at the Olympics?

Gaines: Do you have about an hour? It was very complicated. Basically, the starter was notorious for sending the swimmers off quickly and my coach Richard Quick saw this happening the first two days of the competition and changed the way I came down on the command … the day before my event! I was ready and the others simply weren’t. The video proves I did not false start but a lot of swimmers got left on the block because they didn’t know about that specific starter.

SW: What’s your take on that controversy today?

Gaines: What controversy? Seriously, I have the video from 16 Days of Glory, the official film of the 1984 Olympics by Bud Greenspan that shows my start in slow motion and in detail and proves I did not false start. I was the only swimmer in those Games to do a track start and I felt that really helped me come down quickly and be ready.

SW: Did winning three gold medals in 1984 take any of the sting off not being able to compete at the 1980 Olympics?

Gaines: For me 1984 will always be glorious because I had my “day in the sun” but for 363 other athletes that did not make it in 1976 or 1984, and 1980 was their only team, they are the true heroes that I will always look up to and feel for because they were robbed of an incredible experience that I will treasure forever.

SW: You gave your Olympic medals to your coach and your parents. Why did you do that?

Gaines: I simply couldn’t have done it without their love and support. We did it together. My parents gave me that undying support but never interfered with my preparation, and my coach Richard Quick prepared me perfectly for that exact moment. To be honest, I was probably only the fourth- or fifth-best swimmer that day of the 100 free but because of that incredible teamwork that was behind me I came out on top. Heck, if I would have won 40 golds I would have given one to each of my teammates because they were just as instrumental in that victory that specific day.

SW: Of the 27 times the 100 free has been swum at the Olympics, the United States has won 14 of them. How does it feel to be a part of that tradition?

Gaines: Unbelievable. Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with names like Weissmuller, Schollander, Spitz, Biondi and now Nathan Adrian is such an honor and we have this incredible bond knowing it is the best event in swimming! I’m a little biased I guess.

SW: Which memory from the 1984 Olympic Games stands out the most for you today?

Gaines: Making that initial march out into the stadium at the Opening Ceremonies is something that I will never forget. One hundred thousand people stood and cheered as the U.S. team walked in, and singing the National Anthem THREE TIMES was pretty mind blowing as well!

Swimming Olympic medalists, July 31, 1984
Women’s 400 free
Gold:
Tiffany Cohen, USA (4:07.10, Olympic and American record)
Silver: Sarah Hardcastle, Great Britain (4:10.27, British record)
Bronze: June Croft, Great Britain (4:11.49)

Men’s 100 free
Gold: Rowdy Gaines, USA (49.80)
Silver: Mark Stockwell, Australia (50.24)
Bronze: Per Johansson, Sweden (50.31)

Women’s 100 back
Gold: Theresa Andrews, USA (1:02.55)
Silver: Betsy Mitchell, USA (1:02.63)
Bronze: Jolanda de Rover, Holland (1:02.91)

Men’s 200 back
Gold: Rick Carey, USA (2:00.23)
Silver: Frederic Delcourt, France (2:01.75)
Bronze: Cameron Henning, Canada (2:02.37)

Women’s 400 free relay
Gold: USA (Johnson, Steinseifer, Torres, Hogshead) 3:43.43 (tied American record)
Silver: Holland (Verstappen, Voskes, Reijers, Van Bentum) 3:44.40 (Dutch record)
Bronze: West Germany (Zcherpe, Schuster, Pielke, Seick) 3:45.56 (West German record)

All videos courtesy westnyacktwins

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Author: Jeff Commings

Jeff Commings is the host of several shows on SwimmingWorld.TV, including "The Morning Swim Show," which features interviews with people making headlines in aquatic sports. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and was a nine-time NCAA All-American.

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