ROME — Before the men's 400-meter freestyle relay at the 1992 Summer Olympics, the U.S. team's most experienced swimmer, Tom Jager, gave a speech that the team's least experienced member recalls so vividly that he was able to repeat it almost word for word Friday night.
"He told us that no U.S. team had ever lost that relay in the Summer Olympics, and that he didn't want us to be the first," said Jon Olsen, who swam the anchor leg in that gold-medal effort.
Substitute World Championships for Summer Olympics, and those are the words that Olsen, now a veteran of 25, passed on to his three teammates before the 400 freestyle relay at the Foro Italico pool.
"Obviously, the guys responded very well," said Olsen after the United States had upheld its winning tradition with a meet-record time of 3 minutes 16.90 seconds, the third-fastest of all-time, to upset the Russians, including anchor Alexander Popov, who finished in 3:18.12.
Popov, the world 100 freestyle champion and world-record holder, was so far behind when he dived into the water that all he could do was improve his team's standing from fourth to second. It would have been interesting to see the finish if he had been closer at the start because, although he had the fastest split at 48.22, Gary Hall swam the last 100 for the United States in an excellent 48.48 and might have gone faster if challenged.
So, as the fourth night of the World Championships ended, U.S. swimmers were having a good time to celebrate a good time. Unfortunately for them, there have been too few of either this week for a U.S. team that is likely to be remembered as the least decorated ever.
The relay team's gold medal Friday night was only the Americans' second, and even the optimists among them foresee only three more winners in the final two days: Janet Evans in the 800 freestyle, Jeff Rouse in the 100 backstroke and the men's 400 individual medley relay team.
The United States has never won fewer than its seven golds from the 1986 World Championships in Madrid. But even that team never suffered the indignity that this one did Friday, when no woman finished among the top 16 in the 100 breaststroke preliminaries. It was the first time in the World Championships that an American did not qualify for either the A or the B finals in an event.
The U.S. women were shut out of medals Friday, leaving them with six in 10 events and no golds. Of course, no country's women are winning many medals except for the Chinese. But the U.S. men are faring only slightly better with two golds among their six medals after 10 events.
The U.S. men's coach, Jon Urbanchek of the University of Michigan, said that most of the swimmers were in no condition to peak again only three weeks after competing in the national championships, which served as the trials for this meet.
"Those who did come back strong were those who weren't challenged at the U.S. nationals," he said. "But that meet took a toll on the youngsters who gave everything they had just to get here. It's unfair to ask them to come into this lion's den only 20 days later."
Two U.S. medal probables remained at home, Melvin Stewart because of a tonsillectomy and Jager because of a dispute with national team director Dennis Pursley about the schedule for reporting to a pre-meet training camp.
U.S. breaststroker Seth Van Neerden said that Pursley's inflexibility has caused low morale. Three swimmers were disciplined Friday, two for arriving late for the morning preliminaries, even though they were not competing, and one for missing curfew.
"We do have some 16-year-olds on the team, but not everyone should be treated as if we're that age," said Van Neerden, 26.
But 24-year-old Eric Wunderlich, who finished second in Friday night's 200-meter breaststroke behind Hungary's Norbert Rozsa, said that he had never been with a U.S. team that has gotten along better.
"This is the best group I've been associated with," said Pursley, who has been in his position since 1989. "If anything has dampened their spirits, it's that they haven't swum as fast as we're capable of."