Rosemarie Kother
Courtesy of: Swimming World
Swimming World's coverage of the FINA world championships is proudly sponsored by Speedo USA

By Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, July 23. BY today's standards, the first FINA aquatics world championship in 1973 was a very small affair, with just 796 competitors from 47 countries participating in the four sport disciplines (no open water swimming). But all great events have humble beginnings -- remember that the Olympic Games in 1896 had just 14 countries participate. As was predicted in the October 1973 issue of Swimming World Magazine, the world championships have become "one of almost equal importance as the Olympics."


FINA's desire to gather the world's best aquatic sport athletes into one place outside of the Olympic year had discussed for many years, but finally came to fruition in 1973, when the world came to Belgrade, which at the time was part of the former Yugoslavia. No reports exist to explain the choice of city, though being in the middle of Europe surely helped the governing body make the choice.

What is interesting to note is that many swimmers remarked to Swimming World at the time that the meet was too long. At six days -- two days shorter than the 1972 Olympic swimming program -- the meet would be expanded to eight days about 20 years later.

The swimming events marked the official start of East Germany's dominance in the women's events, a run that would last through the demise of Communism and the toppling of the Berlin Wall. We now know that a systematic doping regiment was in effect in these years, making pretty much all of the performances that were once head-scratching now a source of shame for the former country. The East German women won 18 medals in swimming, 10 of which were gold, and set seven world records. The American women didn't have a completely disappointing world championships. Melissa Belote was able to back up her 1972 Olympic title in the 200 backstroke with a win in 1973, Keena Rothhammer won the 200 freestyle over teammate Shirley Babashoff and Heather Greenwood collected gold in the 400 freestyle.

In describing the East German women team in Belgrade, the October 1973 report on the competition in Swimming World Magazine praised the women greatly, saying "the United States women must start to work harder for the 1976 Montreal Olympics." Highlighting the remarkable 20-meter victory in the women's 400 medley relay, writer Al Schoenfield called it "the worst defeat ever by an American relay team."

Shane Gould could have easily put a stop to the East German dominance, had she not announced her retirement just months before the competition. Many believed that ending her swimming career at 17 years old was much too early, and a run at more gold medals would have been interesting to see, not just at the 1973 world championships, but at the 1976 Olympics.

Another reason why the East German women had an easy time in Belgrade was the decision by the Americans to split up their national team, with some attending the world championships and others going to the World University Games. Such Olympic champions as Cathy Carr and Steve Furniss elected to skip the world championships for what would turn out to be an easier meet.

Kornelia Ender, just 14 years old, was the darling of the first world championships. She set a world record in the 100 freestyle with a 57.542 (times were recorded to the thousandth of a second) and helped East Germany set world records in the 400 medley and 400 free relays. (No 800 free relay for women was contested at the time.) In a sport where world records are often broken by tenths, Ender had lowered the world record by a full second in a span of two months.

"Ender is a gold medal threat anytime she mounts the blocks," Schoenfield wrote, adding that "she has yet to reach her peak." That moment would come in 1976 when she would win four Olympic gold medals, all in world record time.

A major barrier was broken in the women's 400 individual medley when Gudrun Wegner posted a 4:57.51 to win the event over the former world record holder, Angela Franke. Wegner, who was 18 in Belgrade, was known mostly as a freestyler, taking the bronze in the 400 free at the Munich Olympics. Wegner placed fifth in the 400 free in Belgrade and third in the 800, saving her best swim for the 400 IM. Her key legs were butterfly and freestyle, outsplitting Franke by two seconds on fly and a second on free. What's interesting is that Wegner was nowhere to be found at the 1976 Olympic Games.

In another showcase of East Germany's dominance, Rosemarie Kother (pictured above) won the 200 fly with a world record 2:13.76. She took nearly two seconds off Karen Moe's record that had stood for almost a year, and did it in shocking fashion. She took the race out hard, splitting 1:03.26 at 100 meters. That time would have placed third in the individual 100 fly and was a second slower than what Kother swam to win silver in the 100 fly. Kother held on for a three-second victory, and was surprisingly able to outsplit everyone in the final 100 meters.

On the men's side, distance swimming took the spotlight, as Rick DeMont came to Belgrade looking for revenge. He had his gold medal in the 400 freestyle from 1972 revoked after he tested positive for a banned substance in his asthma medication and was unable to swim the 1500. At the world championships, he became the first man under four minutes with a blistering 3:58.18, taking two seconds off Brad Cooper's world record. Cooper became the second man under the barrier with a runner-up time of 3:58.70. The result and the racing strategies by DeMont and Cooper were close to mirror images from the previous year's Olympic final. The major difference in 1973 was that DeMont's time would remain on the books.

The 1500 freestyle was just as memorable, but probably not for the fact that Australian teen sensation Stephen Holland was on pace to break his world record of 15:37.8. By the 400-meter mark, it was a one-man show that had Holland chasing the clock and DeMont chasing him. When Holland reached 1500 meters, the crowd was ready to receive him with thunderous applause on his world record swim ... but Holland kept swimming, unaware that the official had sounded the horn signaling 100 meters remaining. Holland brought DeMont along with him for that extra 100 meters as well. (Tim Shaw would break Holland's record the following year, and the two would trade off on the world record until the 1976 Olympics, when Brian Goodell would hold on to it for four years.)

"At 15, Holland should have a fantastic future ahead of him," Schoenfield wrote in Swimming World Magazine in October 1973. But Holland ended his swimming career after the 1976 Olympics when he was unable to win a gold medal.

Roland Matthes was a double winner on the men's side, taking both backstroke events and extending a winning streak that went back to 1967. The 200 back was won in world record time (2:01.878) and featured the next backstroke swimming star, John Naber, in the bronze medal position.

David Wilkie would become one of the hottest stories of the 1976 Olympics, being the only non-American male to win a gold medal. While most expressed extreme surprise that the Brit was able to win the 200 breast in Montreal, it was not unexpected if they had paid attention to his dominating win at the 1973 world championships. Beating American John Hencken in a classic battle that featured Wilkie coming from behind to take the win, Wilkie became the first man under 2:20 with a 2:19.28.

This year, many are wondering who will replace Michael Phelps in many of the swimming events in the year after his retirement. The same question plagued many people in 1973, just a year after Mark Spitz retired from the sport to cash in on his newfound fame. (Swimmers could not be paid for endorsements or sponsorships at the time.) While no one was able to break Spitz' records in the 200 free, 100 fly or 200 fly, a new crop of names found themselves at the top of the medal stand. Jim Montgomery finally tasted victory in the 200 freestyle to go along with his current success in the 100, while Robin Backhaus emerged from Spitz's shadow to win the 200 fly. Canadian Bruce Robertson, the silver medalist in 1972 behind Spitz, got his gold medal in Belgrade ahead of Joe Bottom and Backhaus.

We also want to highlight the accomplishment of current Masters swimming sensation Rick Colella, who won a bronze medal in the 400 IM with a 4:34.68. Colella, now 61 years old, is swimming in the 5:11 range in the event, which is not surprisingly a Masters world record.

The men did one better than the women, setting eight world records. One of those records came as a split during Holland's amazing mile. At the 800-meter mark, Holland swam an 8:16.273, and kept going for another 800 meters.

It's not likely that the 2013 world championships will see 15 world records fall. Unlike the 1973 event, the post-Olympic slump is likely to hit many athletes, and the world record tally is going to be quite small. But as it was in Belgrade, the Barcelona world championships will showcase our current swimming stars and give us a glimpse at who we need to watch in the lead-in to the next Olympics.

Total Access subscribers to Swimming World Magazine can download the October 1973 issue of the magazine at no extra cost to read our articles about the 1973 world championships, and can go into our website archives to read our daily recaps of the meet. Not a subscriber? Click here to subscribe. To purchase a hard copy or PDF download of the October 1973 issue, click here.