The Night Duncan Armstrong Became the Dragon Slayer and Laurie Lawrence Embodied a Caged Animal

2-duncan-armstrong (1)

On this date, Sept. 19, 1988…(Duncan Armstrong)

Ranked 46th in the world in the 200 freestyle entering the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Australia’s Duncan Armstrong was an afterthought in medal discussions. When the championship final was over, however, Armstrong was the gold medalist and his stunning triumph set off one of the great coaching celebrations the sport has seen.

Wherever Duncan Armstrong looked, he had reason to be in awe. From what he heard, he had reason to be in awe, too. It was the championship final of the 200 freestyle at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea and Armstrong was supposed to be an also-ran in a clash of titans.

Next to Armstrong was the United States’ Matt Biondi, the world’s most dominant swimmer of the time and – prior to arriving in Seoul – tabbed as a threat to equal the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz at the 1972 Games in Munich. As the meet announcer introduced Biondi, set to compete in Lane Five, it seemed like a dissertation was being read. Accolade followed accolade. If spectators somehow didn’t know Biondi before his introduction, they were well-versed on his accomplishments afterward.

Also behind a starting block was West Germany’s Michael Gross, nicknamed “The Albatross” for his seven-foot wingspan. Like Biondi, Gross was wildly decorated, an Olympic champion from four years earlier and a world titlist on multiple occasions. He headed into the final of the 200 freestyle as the world-record holder, a mark he set en route to the gold medal at the 1984 Games.

In another lane was Poland’s Artur Wojdat. Although not as esteemed as Biondi and Gross, Wojdat was quite accomplished. He was the world-record holder in the 400 freestyle and was viewed as a future star in the sport, a man who was just tapping into his potential.

Then there was Armstrong, a Commonwealth Games champion for Australia two years earlier, but hardly of the same status as his fellow competitors. He ranked just 46th in the world in the 200 freestyle at the time of the Olympic Games and when it was time for Armstrong’s introduction in Seoul, it was basically over as soon as it started. Little was said, prompting Armstrong to think, “Oh, come on!” More, Armstrong didn’t exactly possess an imposing physique. While Gross was a towering 6-foot-7 and armed (literally) with a propeller-like wingspan, Biondi looked like a sculptor’s dream creation, himself 6-foot-7 and rippling with muscles. Armstrong? He was built nothing like an Adonis. Rather, he was an unimposing 6-foot-2 and 160 pounds.

top-9-olympic-upsets-lauries-boys

Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

If Armstrong was not a contender in many minds, Laurie Lawrence was unaware that his student was an underdog. One of the finest coaches in Australian history, Lawrence saw great potential in Armstrong. Physically, he drove Armstrong into the ground in training, providing a new definition of what was painful. Equally important, Lawrence influenced Armstrong on a mental level, convincing his charge that excellence was attainable. It was that mentality which allowed Armstrong to believe – if others did not – that guys like Biondi and Gross were beatable.

“He’s a wonderful and enthusiastic person,” Armstrong said of Lawrence. “He just sells it. He sells passion. He’s a wonderful man. In swimming, where you have to do hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of laps, passion and enthusiasm are very important. He really understood the Olympic equation that you only get one shot. The door of opportunity only opens once every four years. He gave you the tools of the trade to step on deck so the Olympic pressure would not crush you. You look down your lane and know you’ve done everything you possibly can and you’re prepared for this race. Someone has got to win it. Why not me? You go out against great opposition and perform your best and not let the pressure cooker crush you.”

The pressure cooker is what Biondi was under. In the 16 years since Spitz packaged the finest Olympic performance in history – seven gold medals and seven world records – the sport was waiting for someone to challenge that epic run. Biondi was that man. He was slated to race seven events – four individual and three relays – and the potential for a gold medal in each event certainly existed.

Of all the events, however, the 200 freestyle was going to be the toughest for Biondi, who was more of a sprinter extending his talent as far as it would go. In the case of the 200 freestyle, that was four grueling laps against athletes who were primarily middle-distance performers. While Biondi knew the situation and fans in tune with the sport understood the task at hand, the casual follower saw the 200 freestyle as nothing more than a fragment of a seven-piece puzzle.

“I’d like to say something,” Biondi wrote for Sports Illustrated. “I’m doing this diary because I want to voice the other side of the Olympics. Everyone will be counting the medals and the times and the world records, and making this big judgment: Is Matt a success or a failure? It seems there’s so much emphasis put on that stuff and so little on how a person grows as he works his way toward the Olympics. To me, it’s the path getting there that counts, not the cheese at the end of the maze. Having said that, I have to admit that I’ve got a case of prerace jitters right now. I want to win. After all, I’ve trained my whole career for this.”

Armstrong, too, wanted nothing more than to win, and he might have been in a more advantageous position to get the job done. While Biondi and Gross were under enormous pressure, Armstrong was in a nothing-to-lose position. It was a scenario which paid tremendous dividends.

As the 200 freestyle started, Armstrong immediately put himself in contention. While Biondi had the lead at the 50-meter mark and Sweden’s Anders Holmertz was in front at the midway point, Armstrong was lurking – and his coach knew it. A nervous wreck in the stands, Lawrence paced and fidgeted throughout the race. With a rolled-up program in his hands, Lawrence repeatedly pounded his hand with the paperwork, or waved it in the air. Armstrong was where Lawrence wanted him to be.

Matt BiondiDuring the third lap, Armstrong remained near the front of the pack, not losing touch with the leaders. As the athletes hit the 150-meter mark, Biondi had regained the lead and was one lap from collecting what would be the most difficult gold medal. Armstrong, though, produced a sterling final turn, one he called a “cracker,” and he was suddenly even with Biondi. A few strokes later, Armstrong was ahead. As the swimmers charged through the final 15 meters, Armstrong was clearly in front and ended up securing the gold medal with a world record time of 1:47.25. Holmertz managed to clip Biondi for the silver medal, with Biondi fending off Wojdat and Gross for the bronze medal.

“I finished third in a great 200 (freestyle) behind Holmertz and Duncan Armstrong of Australia, who broke Gross’’ world record with a 1:47.25,” Biondi wrote in his Sports Illustrated diary. “I was happy. I swam the way I wanted to and beat the guys I thought I needed to, Gross and Wojdat. Duncan just had a hell of a swim. I had the lead and he stayed right on my shoulder, right by the lane line. I think he should buy me a beer or something because he probably got a pretty good draft from me.

“The press always throws stuff at you. Like tonight I heard Bob Costas say on TV, ‘Matt Biondi isn’t going to win his seven gold medals. Today he had to settle for bronze.’ But I feel good about the bronze. My most difficult event is over, and I still have a chance to walk away with seven medals. I think that would be a hell of a performance.”

A hell of a performance is the only way to describe what Armstrong pulled off. He celebrated the greatest triumph of his career with a few fist pumps and extended his arms over his head. Australian fans in the stands reveled in the moment. They had just witnessed an improbable triumph, a victory which required Armstrong to produce a perfect race – physically and tactically.

As excited as Armstrong was with his career-defining moment, his celebration did not compare to the jubilation expressed by Lawrence. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Lawrence had mentored teenager Jon Sieben to the gold medal in the 200 butterfly, a victory which happened to come at the hands of Gross. Sieben charged down the last lap of that race and set a world record to grab the gold medal. Four years later, it was Armstrong who stormed down the final lap, defeated Gross, among others, and set a world record. Both men raced out of Lane Six in the championship final, a fact not lost on Lawrence, who repeatedly screamed, “Lucky Lane Six!”

The longtime coach acted more like a caged animal than human as he enjoyed Armstrong’s moment briefly with spectators before losing control. He walked up and down the steps of the stands, seemingly unsure what to do. He yelled. He shook a metal barrier along a walkway in the stands, prompting South Korean police to make their way to Lawrence, who assured them he was all right. As Armstrong made his way to the podium for the medals ceremony, Lawrence called down to his pupil a number of times, “Hey, Dunc. I know you.” That repeated calling got the attention of Biondi, who leaned toward Armstrong during the medal ceremony and asked for an explanation. Armstrong wryly informed Biondi, who ultimately totaled five gold medals, a silver and a bronze, that the crazy man was his coach. Simply, Lawrence could not contain his joy.

Still, nothing matched the first interview Lawrence gave immediately after Armstrong’s win. Approached by Australian television journalist Stephen Quartermain, Lawrence was asked one of the most common questions following an historic moment, the old “how do you feel” query.

“Mate, we just beat three world-record holders,” an elated Lawrence yelled at Quartermain. “How do you think I feel? What do you think we come for, mate? Silver? Stuff the silver. We come for the gold.”

During his answer, and without any malicious intent, Lawrence slapped Quartermain on the side of the face a few times. It was supposed to be a love tap, one of those caught-in-the-moment situations. But Lawrence was so excited and on such an adrenaline rush that his slaps were hard enough to break Quartermain’s jaw.

Armstrong’s victory and Lawrence’s celebratory antics are highlighted on Bud Greenspan’s documentary, “Favorite Stories of Olympic Glory.” In the documentary by Greenspan, considered one of the foremost Olympic experts in history, Armstrong and Lawrence both cherish and laugh about their moment of glory. Quartermain, too, recalls the impromptu interview which resulted in his facial trauma. It is a sensational package which sums up the meaning of the Olympic spirit, hard work and the meaningful partnership between athlete and coach.

Later in the week, Armstrong added a silver medal in the 400 freestyle, an achievement which only added to his Olympic legacy. In the years since, he has been a motivational speaker, telling others about the importance of focus, belief and dedication.

“It was (a feeling) of more relief than anything else because we had trained four or five years for that moment and the race takes less than two minutes,” Armstrong said. “You go two minutes on one day every four years. That’s the clock. You do an enormous amount of training and then you get there and we had the perfect race. We had the great strategy and some good competition in the water. We had a world record. All my dreams and hopes in swimming came true in one touch of the wall. It was just wonderful. It was the perfect moment for us. It was the pinnacle of my swimming career.”

2 comments

  1. avatar
    john m razi

    fantastic-stuff !!!! love..the passion, the details !

  2. avatar
    Wlad

    Nice story. Great Talk!!!