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The Paper Chase Can Wait : Pablo Morales Puts Off Law School to Devote a Year to the Olympics

August 07, 1988|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

Law school at Cornell was put on hold. Pablo Morales wanted a year, an entire year, unhindered, to prepare for the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul.

He had taken off one semester at Stanford to prepare for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where he won two silver medals in individual swimming events and one gold on a relay team.

Not bad for a first try. But Morales is putting more effort into it this time. That's just the way he is.

No matter what happens, he won't have to wonder if it was for lack of effort. Or sacrifice.

It really was a sacrifice to put school off for a year. Law school at Cornell means a lot to a guy whose parents emigrated from Cuba and made a lot of sacrifices of their own to send him to the best private schools so that he could one day handle Stanford and Cornell.

But the Olympic Games mean a lot to him, too. He has been swimming competitively for more than 16 years. He is driven, perhaps by the example of his parents, although they never preached to him about what they expected him to achieve. They certainly never pressured him about his swimming.

As his mother, Blanca, put it, "I only wanted him to learn to swim so he wouldn't drown."

An admitted perfectionist, Morales kept at it until he was a world record-holder.

Morales holds two world records, in the 100-meter butterfly and in the 400-meter individual medley. But that does not guarantee him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

No one gets a guarantee.

Pablo Morales won't forget watching Bill Barrett slowly swim the width of the pool to congratulate him after the 200-meter individual medley at the 1984 Olympic swimming trials at Indianapolis. Barrett, who had been denied the Olympics by the boycott in 1980, was also the U.S. record-holder in the event. But he was not one of the top two finishers in that race and therefore, did not qualify for the '84 Games.

Morales saw the pain in Barrett's eyes. Morales understood, then, the finality of the numbers on the scoreboard. The rules are clear and not subject to interpretation, sentimentality or even better judgment. Hit the electronic touch pads at the ends of the lanes first or second in the final heat of the Olympic trials, or stay home.

Morales was 19 at the time, and although he had not been expected to earn his way into the 200-meter individual medley competition, he had already made the team twice over by winning both the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly titles.

He wasn't one of the real surprise entries on the roster such as, say, Matt Biondi. But he was young enough to speak for the youngsters who were beating out the likes of Bill Barrett. At those trials four years ago, Morales said:

"There is a whole new wave of swimmers waiting to break through. The worst thing that could happen is for someone to go unchallenged year after year. We need to keep the competition up. Being unchallenged doesn't help the person on top."

So how does he feel about it now that he has Olympic gold to defend? Now that he's a world record-holder?

Exactly the same way.

Morales will compete in the Olympic qualifying meet, the Phillips 66/U.S. Swimming Long Course Nationals, this week at the University of Texas Natatorium at Austin, knowing that the only way he makes the team that goes to Seoul is by finishing first or second.

"There are a lot of people who second-guess our system because it pays no special regard to world record-holders," Morales said. "Other countries assure their stars of a place on the team. But our system gives the late bloomers a chance. It puts you in a similar situation to what you'll face at the Olympic Games. Swimmers must perform under that pressure. It's hit or miss; do or die. But that's the kind of athlete the U.S. wants in the Olympic Games."

Morales also contends that the trials will identify the best swimmers. "It's a very honest sport," he said. "There has not been one performance (in my career) that didn't directly relate to the time I spent or the work I did."

Which tells a lot about how much time and work Morales has devoted to swimming.

He started setting records in his age-group competition. He set the world record in the 100-meter butterfly at 53.38 seconds when he qualified for the '84 Olympics and bettered that time during the Games, swimming a 53.23 only to be beaten out for the gold by West Germany's Michael Gross, who lowered the world record to 53.08. Morales reclaimed the record at the World Championship trials in 1986 with a 52.86.

Morales also won the Olympic silver medal in the 200-meter individual medley in '84 and won a gold medal for swimming the butterfly leg on the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team.

He holds the world record in the 400-meter medley relay, 3:38.28 which he set in the Pan Pacific Games at Tokyo in 1985.

Morales led Stanford University to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title three of his four years there and became the winningest swimmer in NCAA history by winning 11 national titles. (He broke the record of 10 set by John Naber of USC.)

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