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Average and Loving It : Tiffany Cohen Glad Life in the Pool Has Come to an End

December 25, 1987|ANN KILLION | Times Staff Writer

Tiffany Cohen is home for the holidays. She is sleeping late, catching up with her friends and hanging around her mother's house in El Toro. Nothing too exciting. Just the routine post-finals behavior of thousands of college seniors home for the holidays.

And Cohen is thrilled.

"I want to just be a normal person," she said. "To have my own, new identity instead of being Tiffany Cohen, the swimmer."

Tiffany Cohen, the swimmer, is now the stuff of newspaper articles, medals in safe deposit boxes and fond memories.

On Tuesday, Dec. 8, Cohen pulled herself out of the swimming pool at the University of Texas, and she has not been in the water since. Three days later, the two-time Olympic gold medalist walked into the office of the University of Texas athletic director and announced her retirement, bringing to an end the career of one of the U.S.'s best swimmers.

"I feel like a 10-pound weight is off my shoulders," Cohen, 21, said. "For months, I've just been going through the motions."

July 31, 1984. Cohen gets into the pool at the Olympic Swim Stadium at the University of Southern California. She swims 400 meters and, three seconds before Sarah Hardcastle of Great Britain, she touches the wall. She has won the gold medal. She raises her arms and waves to the cheering crowd. She pulls herself out of the pool and is given a bouquet of flowers, which she gives to her mother, who is in the crowd.

Cohen can remember all the details of the day when she won her first gold medal (the second would come in the 800-meter freestyle three days later). When she talks about it, her mother, Shirley, has to leave the room. She comes back wiping her eyes and blowing her nose.

"She gets emotional," Cohen said. "But everyone in my family figured it was about time (to retire). I've been so involved for so long."

Last Sunday, as Cohen was driving somewhere between Austin, Tex., and Orange County, 16-year-old Janet Evans of Placentia was breaking Cohen's American record in the 400-meter freestyle at the U.S. Open in Florida and setting a world record in the process.

"I could see it coming," Cohen said with a smile. "It was time."

Like Evans, much of Cohen's youth was spent in a pool stroking through the 12-mile-a-day workouts commonplace for world-class distance swimmers. Her dedication to the sport was rewarded with fame, a college education, international travel and a lot of fun.

But, recently, swimming had stopped being fun.

"For the first time, I just wasn't enjoying it," she said. "The desire just wasn't there."

Motivation had never been a problem. Cohen started swimming when she was 8. When she was 13, she competed in her first national meet and realized her athletic ability could pave the way to a college education. At 14, Cohen moved away from her parents' home in Westchester to join the Mission Viejo Nadadores, then the country's premier swim club. Four months later, her family also moved to Mission Viejo.

Through her four years at Mission Viejo High School, Cohen trained with the Nadadores six hours a day, six days a week, year-round, and by the time she graduated, she was a favorite to win two gold medals in the 1984 Olympics.

Back then, people wondered if Cohen was missing out on normal teen-age pleasures. Reporters seemed thrilled to uncover and report signs of normalcy, such as the fact that Cohen listened to R.E.O. Speedwagon and watched "General Hospital."

"They always wanted to know that stuff," she said. "But in high school, swimming was everything. We were in the best program available, and I was willing to make sacrifices."

At her high school graduation, Cohen wore her swimsuit under her gown and went from the ceremony straight to a workout.

The sacrifices and training paid off. Shortly after her 18th birthday, she made the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and, that summer in Los Angeles, Cohen set an Olympic and American record (4 minutes 7.1 seconds) in the 400-meters and an Olympic record (8:24.95) in the 800-meter freestyle to win her gold medals.

That fall, she started swimming at the University of Texas, under Coach Richard Quick. In her freshman year, Cohen's team won the NCAA title--Texas' second of four straight--and Cohen, after setting two NCAA records, was named the college female swimmer of the year.

"I still had the high from the Olympics," she said. "I was working very hard and very motivated. I wanted to prove to myself that I could swim on my own, away from my family and home."

Cohen held three national records, in the 400-meter and the 1,000- and 1,650-yard freestyles. But, though she didn't realize it then, her career had already peaked.

Suddenly, those activities that hadn't been so important before were now competing with her training. Keeping up with her studies was more difficult than it had been in high school. Getting up every day for 5:30 a.m. workouts was more and more difficult.

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