Racing Against The Best In The Pool And Open Water

Racing Against The Best In The Pool And Open Water

Courtesy of ABC Sports, Long Beach, California.

The winner of the 32 km Traversée internationale du lac St-Jean in 1984 was Doug Northway who swam In what has been called one of the greatest competitive swimming races in American history, competing in outside lane 8.

Northway had a propensity to be among the best swimmers in the world during his career, both in the pool and open water.

In the open water in races from the Pacific Ocean in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to the cold lakes of Quebec, Canada, he raced against International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmers including Philip Rush of New Zealand, Claudio Plit of Argentina, 7-time World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation champion Paul Asmuth of the USA, and 6-time World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation champion Monique Wildschut of the Netherlands among others.

Just as he competed against the Who’s Who in open water swimming of his era, Northway, he also competed against the best in the world in the pool. As a 17-year-old high student at the 1972 Munich Olympics, he won a bronze medal in the 1500m freestyle (16:09.25). He later entered the University of Arizona and won the 400m freestyle at the 1975 Pan American Games, competed in the 1976 Montréal Olympics where he was on the world record setting 800m freestyle relay. In 1980, he made the USA Olympic Swim Team that never participated in the Moscow Olympics.

His most competitive race was arguably at the 1976 USA Olympic Swimming Trials held in Long Beach, California. The race – shown above – is acknowledged as one of the greatest races in American swimming history.

Brian Goodell, Tim Shaw, Mike Bruner, John Naber, and Bruce Furniss. Also in that same heat was Olympian Casey Converse and 1976 Olympic silver medalist Bobby Hackett who was the first known competitive swimmer who regularly did 100×100 freestyle sets.

Great Races: 1976 US Olympic Trials Men’s 400 Meter Freestyle

Brenda Borgh Bartlett and David Bartlett wrote the following analysis of the race above. The article is dedicated to George Breen, an International Hall of Fame swimmer, a dedicated coach, an ardent friend and a swimming fanatic.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water,” Loren Eiseley.

Great races are made of great racers. Great racers start out with a dream. That dream becomes the crushing reality of limitless training, never-ending miles, demanding coaches, and bone-aching fatigue. For most, the dream dies there. Not for great racers. Great racers get short glimpses of the dream with a swim at nationals or a trip on an international team. The dream stays alive.

Swimming is a sport in which racers excel – those athletes that love to compete and do not back down. The men’s 400-meter freestyle at the 1976 Olympic Trials in Long Beach, California had a field of great racers. It had the current world record holder, the current and a future Sullivan Award winner for the nation’s top Amateur Athlete and 4 had already qualified for the Olympic team. By the end of the Olympic Trials, all eight racers had made the 1976 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team; one month later at the Montreal Olympics, the individuals in this race would go on to win a total of 13 Olympic medals. Collectively, they set 34 world records. Five of the eight would be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The end of this race would see seven of the eight racers break 3:56, a feat previously accomplished by only two individuals before. The last lap of this race would send the Belmont Plaza pool audience from a hushed state of near silence to an uproarious standing ovation. There was a great deal of anticipation before the race and it lived up to all of it and more.

A Brief History of Men’s 400 Meter Freestyle

The 400-meter swim has always been considered the swimming equivalent of “The Mile” in track. The world records today are similar: 3:40 in swimming and 3:43 in running. Breaking the four-minute “barrier” was considered a historic achievement in both sports. But until the 1970, the records in the track “Mile” were much faster than the swimming 400.* In the late 1800’s there were mile times on the track as fast as 4:12. In swimming, the 5-minute mark for the 400m freestyle wasn’t broken until Johnny Weissmuller did it in 1923. That same year, Paavo Nurmi set the mile record by running 4:10.4. So while the earth’s surface maybe 71% water, humans historically preferred their athletics on dry land. Rick DeMont finally broke the 4-minute mark in 1973 with a time of 3:58.18 in the 400 freestyle.

In 1974 and 1975, Tim Shaw broke the 400-meter world record four times. In 1974 he set the record twice – 3:56.96 and 3:54.69. In 1975 he did it twice again – 3:53.95 and 3:53.31. Shaw had lowered the world record in the 400-meter freestyle by nearly five seconds in two years. To put this in perspective, another amazing swimmer has lowered the 400-meter freestyle world record almost 3 seconds in seven years – Katie Ledecky. Shaw was the dominating male freestyler of the middle 1970s, having set 9 world records over distances from 200 to 1500 meters.

Shaw set his 3:53.31 world record in August of 1975 in Kansas City at the outdoor national championships. He had a great combination of speed and endurance, but it was his late race kick that was notable. Shaw as a back-half swimmer. His world record splits:

100m: 57.43
200m: 1:57.46 (1:00.03)
300m 2:56.07 (58.61)
400m: 3:53.31 (57.24)

The Racers

Lane 1: John Naber – Ladera Oaks Swim Club
Lane 2: Casey Converse – Mission Viejo Nadadores
Lane 3: Bruce Furniss – Long Beach Swim Club
Lane 4: Tim Shaw – Long Beach Swim Club
Lane 5: Brian Goodell – Mission Viejo Nadadores
Lane 6: Mike Bruner – De Anza Swim Club
Lane 7: Bobby Hackett – Bernal’s Gators Swim Club
Lane 8: Doug Northway – Oasis Swim Club

Swimming at this level is an exclusive club. There is a respect for those who bring out the absolute best in you. These eight finalists knew each other; some were close friends, others only acquaintances. Six of the eight had already competed against each other in the 200m freestyle two evenings earlier. You can see that Shaw and Furniss were teammates at Long Beach and Goodell and Converse were teammates at Mission Viejo. What is not obvious is that Furniss and Naber were teammates at the University of Southern California, and that many of the swimmers had been teammates on excursions to World Championships in 1973 or 1975, Pan American Games in 1975; and other international competitions. There were many common denominators between these finalists. The winner would need to beat the best the sport had to offer.

The Preliminaries and Prelims to the Preliminaries

The finals of the 400m freestyle were Sunday evening June 18th, 1976. As usual, the prelims were that morning. Doug Northway was the last qualifier with a 3:57.76 and a total of 12 swimmers broke four minutes. In the U.S. Olympic Trials four years early, not one swimmer broke the four-minute mark. Another measure of how fast the field was to see the level of talent that did not make the finals. Rick Demont and Kurt Krumpholz, former world record holders in this event, failed to make the finals. Three other Olympians in other events also failed to make the finals. Simply to make the finals required an unmatched level of talent and effort.

Of course, the preliminaries are important, but in 1976 the most important race before the 400-meter freestyle was the 200 freestyle two nights earlier on June 16th 1976. Because there was an 800m freestyle relay in the 1976 Olympic Games, but no 400 Freestyle relay – the 200m freestyle had exceptional importance – allotting six slots to the Olympic Team – more than any other event. The 200m freestyle had four automatic spots on the 1976 Olympic team and two contingent spots. The automatic spots were earned by the winner and world record holder Bruce Furniss, then John Naber, Jim Montgomery and Mike Bruner. Shaw earned the first contingent spot by placing 5th. Northway and Goodell tied for 6th at 1:52.76 so the last contingent spot was dependent on a swim off unless one or the other conceded. In those years, there was no medal if you swam in the prelims of the Olympics, but not the finals, Goodell and Northway decided to delay the swim off to see how the rest of the meet unfolded.

Therefore, the setup for 400m freestyle – these racers knew each other – their strengths – their strategies – their weaknesses. Nothing was hidden under the surface of the water.

Race Strategy?

At a high level, there are basically three race strategies, none is better than the others. First, to go out fast. Second, to come back fast. Third, to even split a race. The race strategy should reflect the racer’s strengths and training background. In all three strategies there is a mix of speed, strength, endurance and will.

In fact, race strategies are like planning. “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” said General Eisenhower.

In swimming, most race strategies melt when water is added. This usually happens because the athlete with a strategy hasn’t trained properly to implement that strategy. Often another racer just had a strategy that fit their training and taper timing better. There are as many reasons for a strategy failure as there are drops in the pool. A strategy succeeds because it has the right racer, at the right time, with the right training and with the zeal to execute. One thing is certain, at the end of a 400m freestyle all strategies come down to who can summon the will to win from deep down – down where the spirit meets the bone.

One clear disadvantage in race strategies is that if you go out fast everyone knows it. If you wait – no one knows what you will have left at the end, including yourself. In the end, it is a poker game of who wants the win and the Olympic Team dream the most.

The Race, By Length and Racers

First Length – John Naber Imposes His Will

20-year-old Naber was one of the most decorated swimmers of the 1970’s. He would go on to win four gold medals and one silver in Montreal; he won ten NCAA championships in backstroke and freestyle; and he won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s best amateur athlete in 1977. If he made the team in the 400m free, he would have a chance for six medals in Montreal. Naber had already made the 1976 Olympic team by finishing first in 100m backstroke on June 17th and second in the 200m freestyle on June 16th. If he made the team in the 400m freestyle, he would have a chance at six medals in Montreal. Right from the start, it was obvious that Naber was going to force the field to prove he was NOT the best swimmer in the world. He attacked the 400m freestyle with no mercy on the field or himself. Out in lane one, he was invisible to all but Converse in lane two and Furniss in lane 3.

Second Length – Doug Northway Inverts the Seeding

On the other side of the pool in lane 8 was Northway who also was going out fast. Northway was the only racer who had been a member of the 1972 Olympic Team that competed in Munich, Germany. He won the bronze medal in the 1500m freestyle. At the 1975 Pan American Games Northway won the 400m freestyle. Northway was the oldest racer at the age of 21.

With lane one and lane eight leading the way the pool was in an inverted “V” – a complete reverse to what the lane seeding from preliminaries should predict with the center lanes out front and the outer lanes a bit behind. At the 100, Naber turned at 55.59, nearly two seconds below Shaw’s 1975 world record pace with Northway in lane 8 completing the first 100 in 56.68 followed closely by the rest of the field. All but Casey Converse were under the world record 100 split 57.43.

Lane 1) John Naber 55.59
Lane 2) Casey Converse 57.64
Lane 3) Bruce Furniss 56.68
Lane 4) Tim Shaw 56.90
Lane 5) Brian Goodell 57.33
Lane 6) Mike Bruner 57.36
Lane 7) Bobby Hackett 56.90
Lane 8) Doug Northway 56.68

Third Length – All Eyes on Bruce Furniss

19-year-old Furniss had won the 200m freestyle just a couple nights earlier. He was the world record holder in the 200m meter IM and the 200m freestyle. The 200m IM was not a part of the 1976 Olympic program. Furniss did compete in the 400m IM at the Olympic Trials and finished a close 4th behind his older brother Steve. An excellent case could be made for Furniss being the best male swimmer in the world.

Furniss was swimming well with a great combination of speed and endurance. As Furniss approached the second turn, he took a quick breath to his left and saw Naber well ahead. Great racers don’t back down. He ups the pace and the pace cascades across the lanes. As Furniss moves out, the whole field must up its game.

Flipping last at the 150m mark are the two teammates and friends from Mission Viejo Nadadores – Converse and Goodell. Neither had made the Olympic team at this point in the meet. Both are strong back-half swimmers.

Fourth Length – Bobby Hackett Will Not Be Left Behind

In lane seven was Hackett, the youngest of the racers at age 16 and the only racer from east of the Mississippi. Despite his youth, Hackett already had a national title and a Pan American gold medal under his belt. He would go on to win a silver medal in Montreal. Hackett was known for going out fast, but it is doubtful that he had ever been in a 400m freestyle where someone went out two seconds under the world record. Three days later on June 21st, he would break the world record in the 800m freestyle while going out in his 1500. He had plenty of endurance.

Between the 150m mark and halfway point, Hackett decides he is not going to wait around. His strong, smooth stroke takes him to the 200m where he turns with Furniss. Naber is still in the lead and remarkably nearly three seconds below the world record pace set by Shaw. But more amazingly at the halfway point, the entire field was under the world record pace of 1:57.46.

Lane 1) John Naber 1:54.88 (59.29)
Lane 2) Casey Converse 1:57.05 (59.41)
Lane 3) Bruce Furniss 1:55.72 (59.04)
Lane 4) Tim Shaw 1:56.44 (59.41)
Lane 5) Brian Goodell 1:56.65 (59.32)
Lane 6) Mike Bruner 1:57.18 (59.82)
Lane 7) Bobby Hackett 1:56.32 (59.42)
Lane 8) Doug Northway 1:57.02 (1:00.34)

Fifth Length – Mike Bruner Keeps It Even and Hangs Tough

Bruner was a great distance freestyler and butterflyer who won two Olympic gold medals, set two world records, and was the high-point winner at the 1980 Olympic Trials. On page 12 of the June 1976 issue of Swimming World Magazine was a write-up of Bruner’s 100×100 yards in under 100 minutes (completed in 1 hour, 39 minutes, 18.59 seconds).

It was good enough to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Every racer in this race knew what Bruner was capable of and his personal toughness. He had qualified for the Olympic team by finishing 4th in the 200m freestyle. He had been on several international teams and was a fixture in the finals of various events at Nationals and NCAA Championships.

True to his Guinness World Record, Bruner was evenly splitting his race. The 19-year-old was in lane 6. On one side, he had Goodell – a fast finisher; on the other side he had Hackett – quick in the front half. Wedged between these two, Bruner keeps it fairly even.

Sixth Length – Tim Shaw Makes His Move

The reigning World and Pan American champion for the 400m freestyle, the event world record holder and no less than most recent recipient of the prestigious Sullivan Award for the USA’s best Amateur Athlete was this final’s top qualifier from the morning swims in lane 4. Everybody in this field knew what 19-year-old Shaw was capable of. Shaw had at one time or another held the world records in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles – an unprecedented feat. With 100 meters left in the race, Naber was still in the lead and 1.5 seconds below world record pace. Shaw punched the accelerator and the field instantly reacted. The world record pace at the 300 mark had been 2:56.07 – six of the eight were still under the world record pace.

Lane 1) John Naber 2:54.59 (59.71)
Lane 2) Casey Converse 2:55.99 (58.94)
Lane 3) Bruce Furniss 2:55.25 (59.53)
Lane 4) Tim Shaw 2:55.57 (59.13)
Lane 5) Brian Goodell 2:55.39 (58.74)
Lane 6) Mike Bruner 2:56.80 (59.62)
Lane 7) Bobby Hackett 2:55.82 (59.50)
Lane 8) Doug Northway 2:58.53 (1:01.51)

Seventh Length – Casey Converse Throwing It Down

Bringing up the rear for the first 200m meters was Converse, age 18. He was relatively unknown at this time, but he went on to be an Olympian, NCAA champion, and a coach at the Air Force Academy for many years. In 1976, crazy stories had been coming out of the Mission Viejo Nadadores about an “Animal Lane”. The Animal Lane did brutal workouts of 12,000 meters, twice a day. It was a lane of tough, determined competitors. Shirley Babashoff was in the “Animal Lane”. Goodell came from the Animal Lane and so did Converse.

The race had Naber in lane 1 turning at the 200m in 1:54.88 and Converse in lane 2 turning at 1:57.05 – more than two seconds behind. That is a great deal of distance and time to make up, but when the racers hit the 300m turn, Converse had clawed back more than half a second and momentum was shifting quickly.

It is important to remember who in this race had not yet made the Olympic team. Naber, Furniss, Shaw and Bruner had all made the Olympic team in the 200m freestyle event or as part of the 800m freestyle relay. Naber had made the team in the backstroke. The four who had not made the team included Goodell, Hackett, Northway and Converse. All those meters in the “Animal Lane” will give you endurance, but also determination. In the last 100m, Converse’s grit and resolve pushed out the pain.

The Turn

Swimming may be the only sport where the athlete comes to an immovable object (the wall); then must go in the opposite direction as quickly and powerfully as possible. Since 1976, changes to rules and turn technique have been one of the most significant factors for times getting faster. It isn’t a statistic that is meticulously tracked – time entering the flag zone and time exiting the flags – but it could be viewed as the most important part of a race. Coaches often say to “carry your momentum out of the turn”. It’s not easy to do.

This turn had more than momentum – it had drama. With three Olympic team berths on the line, five swimmers flipped at the 7th turn simultaneously and Hackett was right there half a second behind and Bruner right on Hackett’s shoulder. As the New York Times reporter wrote the next day:

The race began to enter the realm of the unbelievable at the 350m wall when four swimmers – Converse, Furniss, Shaw and Goodell – all caught Naber at the same time and the five of them flipped in unison, like porpoises in a Sea World act, to begin the sprint home. All of them were dead even; all had a chance to win; and all had a chance for the world record.

The most astonishing characteristic of this turn was the sudden stillness. At the sight of the synchronized flip-turn any spectator who wasn’t standing stood. Simultaneous with the turn nearly every single person in the Belmont Plaza Pool filled their lungs at the same time to cheer the racers in the final 50 meters. Thousands of people inhaling at the same moment creates a fleeting hush then a roar as that air comes screaming out. Everyone in the building knew a world record would win this race.

Last Length – Brian Goodell Heading Home

That turn was 17-year-old Goodell’s last moment as second fiddle. Against all the laws of physics, he carried momentum off that wall and into the final lap. Goodell had the fastest final 100m at 57.69 and his last 50 was 28.6. That finishing kick would become the trademark of his racing; providing dismay to his competitors for many years to come. Goodell won the race, setting a new world record. He would lower the record two more times and win the Olympic gold medal in this event, and in the 1500m freestyle. Goodell became a legend in the sport; the 400m in the 1976 Trials was his breakout swim.

It is the racer’s determination that is the characteristic that rises at the finish of this race. Goodell made the 1976 Olympic team with this swim and so did Converse. Shaw made the Olympic team in an individual event with a ferocious finishing kick. Naber nearly held on to make the team in yet another event.

At the end of this 400m freestyle at the 1976 US Olympic Trials, 7 racers held the top 7 times in the world. Any of those 7 times would have won an Olympic medal in Montreal. It was a great race.

Lane 1) John Naber (4th) 55.59 + 1:54.88 (59.29) + 2:54.59 (59.71) + 3:53.91 (59.32)
Lane 2) Casey Converse (3rd) 57.64 + 1:57.05 (59.41) + 2:55.99 (58.94) + 3:53.70 (57.71)
Lane 3) Bruce Furniss (5th) 56.68 + 1:55.72 (59.04) + 2:55.25 (59.53) + 3:54.33 (59.08)
Lane 4) Tim Shaw (2nd) 56.90 + 1:56.44 (59.54) + 2:55.57 (59.13) + 3:53.52 (57.95)
Lane 5) Brian Goodell (1st) 57.33 + 1:56.65 (59.32) + 2:55.39 (58.74) + 3:53.08 (57.69)
Lane 6) Mike Bruner (6th) 57.36 + 1:57.18 (59.82) + 2:56.80 (59.62) + 3:55.62 (58.82)
Lane 7) Bobby Hackett (7th) 56.90 + 1:56.32 (59.42) + 2:55.82 (59.50) + 3:55.65 (59.83)
Lane 8) Doug Northway (8th) 56.68 + 1:57.02 (1:00.34) + 2:58.53 (1:01.51) + 3:59.18 (1:00.65)

* On this date in 1954, Great Britain’s Roger Bannister and Australia’s John Landy both broke the 4-minute barrier in the mile in another seminal event in sport. As Bannister later said about his last lap, “…I felt as if my moment had come.” For the three men who qualified in that epic 400m Olympic Trials race, their moments had also come.

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Steven Munatones