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The Amazing Race

Jeff Float, who had overcome an illness that claimed his hearing, joined with anchor Bruce Hayes as their relay team defeated a powerhouse

August 08, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Even now, the race footage, showing four guys in old-school swimming gear, can make Bruce Hayes' heart beat a little faster, play games with his nerves and raise at least three questions.

"I think, 'How did I do that? If I had it to do over again, would I be able to do it? How did I keep my cool in that situation?' " Hayes said.

Natural questions when you consider what Hayes did 20 years ago, anchoring one of the most famous relay victories in U.S. Olympic swimming history: the upset of Michael Gross and his West German teammates in the 800-meter freestyle relay.

It seemed like four vs. one on July 30, 1984. And that's the way the coaches approached the relay, devising race strategy to combat the finishing power of Gross.

Gross already had two individual gold medals and two world records in the Games, enhancing his formidable reputation and outsized nickname, "The Albatross." He stood about 6 feet 8 and had a massive wingspan.

Hayes had been notified weeks earlier by the coaching staff that he would be swimming the anchor leg against Gross.

"I think all of the other swimmers on the relay breathed a sigh of relief," Hayes said. "I don't think any of us wanted to go last."

The team's coach, Don Gambril, decided to lead off the relay with the fastest American in the 200 freestyle, Mike Heath, who had won a silver medal behind Gross in the 200. Following Heath would be Dave Larson and then Jeff Float, who had just missed a medal with a fourth-place finish in the 200, with Hayes as the closer.

Mark Schubert, the coach of the 2004 women's team, was one of Gambril's assistants, and said the goal was to get as big a lead as possible by the time Gross hit the water. Float gave Hayes a 1.56-second cushion.

"The whole strategy centered around Bruce Hayes, who was one of the best negative-split, back-half swimmers at that time," Schubert said. "He just pulled it off incredibly. One of the harder things in swimming is a guy with the status of Michael Gross goes by you and then you come back and go by him."

Said Float: "Bruce had a history and an ability to change gears, particularly in the finish of his races. He had the ability to put on the kick at the end. The rest of us were get-out-in-front, get-out-fast type swimmers who liked to get out and lead from the get-go, rather than come from behind."

Gross, whose relay leg was 1 minute 46.89 seconds, the fastest in history, erased the deficit and led with 50 meters to go. But Hayes didn't panic, and he said that Gross made the mistake of swimming near his lane line, enabling him to draft off Gross.

"Bruce swam a hell of a leg the last 40 meters, and nosed Michael out by a fingernail -- literally," Larson said.

Schubert and the rest of the American team had a terrible view of the finish, sitting at the other end, and searched the scoreboard for the answer. The race was decided by .04 of a second. Heath, Larson, Float and Hayes had broken the world record by nearly five seconds, going 7:15.69. The West Germans went 7:15.73, and Great Britain won the bronze in 7:24.78.

"It is chilling, especially after the realization," Float said. "At the finish there was a collective gasp, not knowing who won. For one second it was really quiet and then it went from quiet to a huge eruption. I think every athlete dreams of living that moment and when it hits you, it hits you like a ton of bricks. I still get goose bumps."

There was another layer of realization for Float that day at USC. As a toddler he had contracted meningitis, and lost most of his hearing. The noise of the vocal crowd created another first for him.

"I'd say 15,000 people screaming -- honestly it was the first time I could sense the crowd -- whether you could call it hearing it, it was more feeling it," Float said. "I don't want to say I heard the crowd. I did hear it, but it was more in a feeling sense and awareness."

Gross and his teammates were classy in defeat, and the swimmers from the relay teams exchanged congratulations afterward. Float had to laugh when one line hit him during his reminiscing. He recalled that Gross, through the press, had called him "an old man" in 1984 because he was 24, having stayed around because of the 1980 U.S. boycott.

The four captured the imagination of the country, and they were flown to New York for a photo shoot with Vanity Fair magazine, leading to a memorable meeting with actress Raquel Welch.

"We did this layout with Raquel," Larson said. "And we learned what the modeling industry was about. It was this quasi-nude shoot -- the theme is she walks into our shower in our locker room and we've got our gold medals on and nothing else.

"And she comes in with this fur. It was really quite a spoof."

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