Before the Heroics of Jason Lezak, American Bruce Hayes Delivered Gross-Busting Anchor for 1984 Relay Gold (Video)


Before the Heroics of Jason Lezak, American Bruce Hayes Delivered Gross-Busting Anchor for 1984 Relay Gold

At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Bruce Hayes stood on the blocks awaiting the biggest moment of his swimming career with the hopes of an entire U.S. team riding on his swimming over the next four lengths. Hayes was diving in to anchor the American men’s 800 freestyle relay, and teammates Mike Heath, David Larson and Jeff Float handed him a lead of 1.56 seconds over West Germany. A second-and-a-half advantage entering the anchor leg of a relay in an Olympic final? Sounds perfect — but not here. Not with the world’s best swimmer anchoring for West Germany.

One day earlier, Michael Gross had won gold in the 200 free in 1:47.44, a new world record. Now, he would anchor West Germany’s relay, but earlier that night Gross had touched out American favorite Pablo Morales for gold in the 100 butterfly. For the Americans, Heath and Float had finished second and fourth, respectively, in the 200 free, but they were finished with their legs, and now it was all on Hayes, whose lifetime best in the 200 free was more than two seconds behind the new world record Gross had established.

“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,” Hayes told Swimming World in 2014. “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.”

The Americans had established a tradition of victory in the 800 free relay, with only one loss at the Olympics since World War II. But Gross, known as “The Albatross,” seemingly extinguished the hopes of another trip to the top of the podium as he caught up to Hayes in the first 100 meters and then pulled ahead on the third lap. The crowd of more than 10,000, mostly supporting the United States, had gone quiet. It looked like Gross was about to pull away for his third Olympic gold medal of the meet.

But Hayes saw a glimmer of hope. He had prided himself on having great finishing speed, so even if his lead was gone and he was racing the world-record holder, Hayes thought that maybe he had that last little bit left to give. And he did.

Hayes increased his tempo and increased his kick. Everything was on the line, and Hayes was desperately thrashing to try to get back ahead of the steadfast Gross. Hayes pulled alongside Gross with 10 meters to go, and with five meters to go, Hayes stopped breathing and lunged for the wall.

“I was always confident in my ability to close out a race on the final 50,” Hayes said in 2014. “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.”

Hayes hit the wall first in 7:15.69, just four hundredths ahead of Gross and West Germany (7:15.73). Both teams were more than three seconds under the existing world record of 7:18.87, established by the United States earlier that day in qualifying.

Gross had split 1:46.81, the fastest split in history to that point and more than a half-second quicker than his flat-start world record from the day before, but the out-of-body swim that Hayes found in this moment produced a split of 1:48.41, 1.41 seconds quicker than his lifetime-best time in the individual race.

Looking back on that accomplishment decades later, Hayes most remembers “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.”

This race was the highlight of the swimming portion of the 1984 Games, an event boycotted by the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries as retribution for the U.S. and its allies skipping the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The Americans were utterly dominant in LA, winning gold medals in 20 out of 29 events and capturing more than a third of the total medals awarded (34 out of 87), but the drama of this race earned the quartet of Leak, Larson, Float and Hayes a front-page spread in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner with the caption “Gross Busters.”

In swimming lore, this race stands the test of time as one of the all-time great swimming relays, and really the only comparison is the 400 free relay at the 2008 Olympics, a race strikingly similar in nature to this one in 1984: a veteran anchor with the best swim of his life to pull off a stunner for gold after coming from behind to touch out an individual world-record holder. In both races, the top two teams crushed the world record by a huge margin.

So long before Jason Lezak became famous for his heroics against France’s Alain Bernard in 2008, there was Bruce Hayes. Maybe this race never reached the same level of fame as it would have in the age of YouTube, but a mere four hundredths of a second, half the margin of victory in the 2008 relay between Lezak and Bernard, enshrined Hayes as an American sports legend.

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1 year ago

I met Bruce Hayes several times, at an event in Chicago, and when I swam practices with the New York Team Aquatics. He is an athlete, an out and proud gay man, and a role model for all to admire.

1 year ago

1984 relay was amazing! So was 2008 Lezak. Two others, for USA, equally as exciting. Klete Keller holding off Thorpe in 2004 and Shirley Babashoff and the women beating the East Germans in 1976. Great stuff.

1 year ago
Reply to  Gaby

WC 2019, Duncan Scott in the 4×100 Medley! Beating the US with a 46,14, the most underrated anchor-leg!