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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / DIANE PUCIN

U.S. Swimmers Encounter Whole World of Expectations

August 13, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

INDIANAPOLIS — Megan Quann, only 16 years old and having just qualified for the Olympics in the 100-meter breaststroke, was asked an impertinent question.

"Are you disappointed that you didn't set a world record?"

Yikes, talk about pressure. It is partly Quann's fault.

Quann is a motor mouth and will say whatever she thinks, whenever she thinks it. Quann has been talking a lot about how, every night, she visualizes a stopwatch with a world-record time on it.

Lenny Krayzelburg, the Studio City swimmer who emigrated from Ukraine to Southern California and who has said he has dreamed of nothing but representing the United States in the Olympics, qualifies for the Sydney Games on Day 3 of the U.S. Olympic trials and he looks disappointed. His father, in the stands, raises his palms upward as if to say, "What happened?"

It was that world record thing again. Krayzelburg wanted one, expected one. Krayzelburg gamely said after he had won the men's 100-meter backstroke final that he was really, truly happy. And Krayzelburg already owns the world record in the event--53.60 seconds. Take that, Australians.

Which is the point.

This eight-day meet filled with all the tension and emotions that come with a true Olympic trials experience--the top two in each race make the team--is also an audition.

The Europeans have had their Olympic trials. So have the Australians. The rest of the world's world-class swimmers are sitting at home waiting to see how many world records the Americans set.

So far, that number is zero.

Hanging over the Indiana University Natatorium, hovering just above the podium where the medal winners go to be congratulated, is the big question.

Is the U.S. swimming team going to get its collective butt kicked by the Aussies?

Aussies set three world records at their Olympic trials. Every event winner here so far has had to answer the question. "What about . . .?" Fill in the blank with the corresponding Australian swimmer.

Tom Malchow, who owns a world record in the men's 200 butterfly and who was hoping to break his record Saturday night, said he knows the world is watching and hoping to see weakness.

"I know they'll be judging us by the number of records we set and I think we'll be setting some in the next eight days," he said.

So far, not so good.

Not as far as records go.

Certainly there have been celebrations.

There are swimmers such as B.J. Bedford, an intense, intriguing and utterly charming 27-year-old who is the proud owner of seven national titles and a world championship gold medal but who, after two previous Olympic trials, had not qualified for the Games.

In 1996, Bedford shaved her head, a cocky statement of confidence that totally backfired and left her disconsolately embarrassed for weeks after the trials when she had to look at the layer of peach fuzz covering her head.

Bedford won the 100-meter backstroke Friday night. She cried and said, for the world to hear, that she had thrown up right before the race. This will not instill fear in the hearts of Australians, but Bedford didn't care. For her this was the moment that mattered most and she needed to send no messages.

Staciana Stitts, an 18-year-old Cal sophomore who trains with the Irvine Novaquatics, who lost all her hair when she was 12 and was diagnosed with a condition called alopecia totalis, could hardly contain herself when she finished second to Quann and realized she was an Olympian.

Winning a medal in Australia was not important. Stitts didn't care about setting records. Her only message was one of triumph in accepting herself, of being the bald girl and being proud of that.

But the U.S. doesn't want a team of people thrilled only to have made the team. Or a team willing to challenge the Aussies and other world-record holders with words only.

The Americans have been quick to explain that because the trials are so late--in 1996, when the Olympics were in July, the trials were in March--many swimmers haven't tapered. That is, they haven't pared their training mileage to swim at top speed.

That sounds a little like excuse-making to the rest of the world. And it will only put more pressure on the Americans in Sydney.

The Australians are expected to pack the swimming events with noisy fans and they expect their swimmers to end American dominance at the Olympics. The stars of these Games are expected to be people such as Australians Ian Thorpe and Michael Klim and Susie O'Neill, all world-record holders.

In Australia the sweet stories of Bedford and Stitts won't mean a thing.

What will matter is results and what will matter most is keeping the Americans from the top of the medal podium.

So maybe Quann should be encouraged to say that Penny Heyns, the South African who holds the world record in the 100 breaststroke, is "going down" in Australia.

Strong words. Now let's see some strong actions.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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