Fred Bousquet, the Barrier Basher: Can You Say, “D&éj

By Duncan Scott

SwimInfo Newsmaster John Lohn sensed it. The nineteen second barrier had withstood attack on the last 6/100th of a second for at least 15 years since Tom Jager put the mark at :19.05 in 1990. But Lohn sensed something special and called out the nineteen second barrier as one of the points of drama to look for in the 2005 NCAA meet. (See SwimInfo, March 22, “The NCAA Championships: Where Questions Will Be Answered.”)

There were no really new names added to the assault, but there seemed to have been some progress in the event last year. At the 2004 NCAA meet Bousquet himself rose up from an outside lane in the final to both repeat as champion and set a new world short course meters mark of :21.10, a swim equivalent to nineteen seconds, plus or minus a few hundredths. And Duje Draganja was in the field a year ago and had progressed with his Olympic silver behind Gary Hall, Jr.

But Lohn’s call was just the first step in turning on the Twilight Zone music for this thing.

Picture this. An NCAA Championship Swim Meet at a midwestern college with a great swimming facility and a history of hosting the event previously. And on the first day, the two-time defending champion in the premier sprint event, the 50 freestyle, leading the multi-defending champion team, has a mind boggling performance, brutalizing what had been seen as a worthy benchmark. This champion returned to the summit after what had been a disappointing Olympics the previous summer.

After Fred Bousquet lowered the fastest 50 yard freestyle ever from :19.05 to :18.74, his coach had the following to say. “Fred’s swim was not just about being the first man to go under 19 seconds, it is also about it being a quantum leap in the sport,” AU Coach David Marsh said. “It represents human potential at its finest. We have always known that Fred is special. I am very proud of him because what he represents to the world of swimming is all the good stuff. He’s a hard worker and a cares about his team more than his personal credentials and he is someone that just really loves Auburn.”

If you thought my description before coach Marsh’s comment was about Fred Bousquet – here’s where you really crank up the Twilight Zone doo-doo-doo-doo; doo-doo-doo-doo – you would only be wrong by about 28 years. But then again you would be right, too, wouldn’t you?

The NCAA are presently being hosted by the University of Minnesota, where the big meet has been held several times before, and two-time defending champion Fred Bousquet absolutely brutalized a 15 year old record in his efforts to lead his two-time defending champion teammates from Auburn. At the rate these gentlemen move, breaking the 50 record by .31 seconds is absolutely huge, as coach Marsh said, “a quantum leap in the sport.” And he did this returning to the pool to demonstrate his real mettle after an Olympics where he qualified second to eventual gold medalist Hall in the preliminaries of the 50–and then failed to make it through the semi-finals to the final! Without getting a quote from Fred, its seems pretty clear that would qualify as a disappointment.

But try this one on for size. At the 1977 Men’s NCAA being held at Cleveland State University, which also hosted the 1975 meet, two-time defending champion Joe Bottom (older brother of Mike Bottom, arguably the premier sprint coach in the world for the last decade), captain of the three-time defending champion USC Trojans, put the hammer down even further than Bousquet. The record swim had been set at the 1974 NCAA meet by current Tennessee coach John Trembley in the shallow end of Belmont Plaza pool in Long Beach at :20.06. Bottom bashed the twenty second barrier with a :19.70 effort, .36 under Tremblay’s mark.

In Montreal that summer, Bottom had come away with a silver medal in the 100 fly, but he had won the US Trials in the event, and in being beaten out by Matt Vogel at the Games he also lost out on a sure gold on the medley relay. Beyond this he also made the US team in the 100 free and was 6th in the final in Montreal, but it had to hurt that 1976 was part of a two Olympiad hiccup in contesting the 4 x 100 free relay so he was legislated out of gold there. And remember there was no 50 free yet recognized internationally at that time, though Bottom’s name does show up twice on the world-best history for the event from swims on August 15, 1980(:22.83; :22.71). He went on in the summer of 1977 to further assuage his pain from Montreal by breaking Mark Spitz’ 5-year old 100 fly record, :54.27 to :54.18.
Well, you can stop the spooky music now. Lohn had to have heard it coming into the meet. But if you happen to be in Minneapolis tonight just cheer yourself crazy for having been a part of special history. And make enough noise so we can maybe pick up one more similarity to 1977. The second person to ever break twenty seconds finished .24 seconds back of Bottom. It was mighty-mite Gary Schatz swimming for Eddie Reese … at Auburn where current Tiger leader Dave Marsh graduated in 1981!!

Can we get that second person under :19.00 tonight? And who might it be? Draganja? Wildman-Tobriner? Bovell from the consolation heat, a la Simon Burnett’s record breaking 200 in Texas in December? Who?

Start the music again. It’s a catchy tune.