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Head Games Before the First Splash

posted August 14, 2008 @ 2:25 AM  |  Elite Level Competition category

~By Karen Crouse

Published: August 5, 2008, New York Times

The rectangular space where many swimming medals will be won or lost at the Beijing Olympics has no lane lines or starting blocks. It has no water, unless the competitors bring their own.

Olympics 2008

Immediately before they race in the 50-meter pool at the Olympic aquatics arena, the Water Cube, the swimmers will be required to spend up to 30 minutes at rest in the ready room. It is like a television studio green room, except instead of hospitality, there is usually a strong whiff of hostility.

"It's probably the most stressful moment of the Olympics," said John Naber, a five-time medalist at the 1976 Montreal Games. "There's no place to hide. No place to run."

The proliferation of MP3 players has given athletes some means of escape. Michael Phelps, who will try for eight gold medals in Beijing, said he reports to the ready room with Rick Ross or Jay-Z blaring from his headphones, tuning out everything but the music's beat. Phelps's teammate, the five-time Olympian Dara Torres, said she chatted with the swimmers next to her to fill the silence, talking about things she cannot even recall after the race.

Phelps and Torres paint a benign scene very different from the psychological torture chamber described by more than a dozen Olympians in telephone interviews.

Amy Van Dyken, a two-time United States Olympian, cackled into her cellphone. "You want to talk about the ready room?" she asked gleefully. "You mean the white-padded room?"

She described a place where the swimmers sit on metal folding chairs looking twitchy, ashen, zoned out -- or vaguely threatening, as Van Dyken did before the 50-meter freestyle at the 1996 Atlanta Games. She spun her chair around to face her main rival, Le Jingyi of China, then the world-record holder.

"For the next half-hour," Van Dyken recalled, "I sat there and stared at her like you just took the last Double Stuf Oreo."

Van Dyken won the gold, touching out Le by 0.03 of a second.

The ready room in Beijing may not be much bigger than a walk-in closet. In days gone by, it was not even a room at all, but rather a hallway with benches situated a few steps from the pool deck. It was created to assure meet organizers that swimmers would be on time for their races.

"It is a place that makes the organizers relax and the performers uneasy," Naber said.

It is one of the few ways the biggest swimming competition resembles an age-group meet, where 9- and 10-year-olds are frequently seen walking hand in hand toward the blocks.

At the Olympics, any physical contact between competitors in the room is usually calculated. In a talk that Brian Goodell delivered to the 2008 United States swim team during a training camp at Stanford University, he explained how unnerving the room could be and explained what he did at the 1976 Olympics to gain an advantage before his race, the 1,500-meter freestyle.

Bounding out of his folding chair as if he did not have a care in the world, Goodell, then 17 and a nervous newcomer to the international scene, walked around and shook hands with his startled competitors, wishing each of them good luck. He then went out and won the 30-lap race by 1.51 seconds, breaking his month-old world record in the process.

Sometimes it takes a country to deflate the competition. Before the 200 butterfly final at the 1976 Olympics, the Americans Steve Gregg and Mike Bruner were in the ready room opposite Roger Pyttel of East Germany, who had broken Mark Spitz's four-year-old world record in the event that summer.

"We had a lot of fun with Roger," Bruner said, recalling the act that he and Gregg put on.

Bruner said: "The conversation generally went: 'Do you think he speaks English? Well, maybe not. I didn't see any reaction in his face; maybe he doesn't understand.' There was a pause, and then one of us said, 'So you know, if the Americans go 1-2-3, he's going to be sent back to Siberia.' "

Pyttel's face went ashen, Bruner said. He and Gregg looked at each other, and Bruner remembered one of them saying, "I guess he understands English." As they walked out to the blocks, Bruner said, "It was clear to us, 'We've got him.' "

Bruner won the gold and broke Pyttel's world record. Gregg took the silver, and another American, Billy Forrester, the bronze. Pyttel was fourth.

In 1972, Spitz also had a partner in playing his mind games. He remembered taking his club coach, Sherm Chavoor, with him into the ready area.

"I would tell Sherm: 'I'm so tight. I'm so messed up,' and he would rub my shoulders while my competitors stared at us with their mouths open," Spitz said. "In actuality, there was nothing wrong with me. I just wanted my opponents to think I was hurting."

He won seven gold medals at those Games, all of them with world records attached, to set the bar for immortality that Phelps will try to raise in Beijing.

The psychological warfare includes the occasional friendly fire. In 1972, Tim McKee of the United States walked into the ready area before the 400-meter individual medley, made a beeline for a garbage can and vomited while his opponents, including his teammate Gary Hall Sr., looked on uneasily.

"I was already feeling really nervous, and I hadn't eaten all day," Hall said. "It just kind of made me ill. I had to get up and leave. You're not supposed to, but I did."

Hall, who held the world record in the event at the time, finished fifth. McKee won the silver. Later, Hall asked McKee if he meant to psych him out. Hall recalled that McKee was taken aback by the question. No, he told Hall, he always became sick before races.

Donna de Varona always got in the water and splashed around before she raced. It disrupted her routine to have to spend the 15 minutes beforehand in the ready room instead of in the warm-up pool.

After finishing a disappointing fourth in the 100 butterfly, her first event of the 1964 Tokyo Games, de Varona decided to take matters into her own hands. Her next event was the 400 individual medley, and as the world-record holder, she was the favorite.

"I wasn't going to fool around," she recalled. In the ready room, she looked around and decided it was only fair that she share her strategy with her competitors, two of whom were fellow Americans.

"I announced that I was going to false-start," de Varona said. "The other girls looked at one another. It wasn't until years later that I realized what a psych job it was. I had them wondering, Is she really going to false start or does she just want us to think she is?"

She did false-start, and after acclimating herself to the water, cruised to a five-second victory.

One of the greatest intimidators was de Varona's 1964 teammate Don Schollander. He used to sit in the ready area and tie his suit, then look at his competitors' suits and raise his eyebrows, a simple gesture that caused many a nervous Ned to focus on his drawstrings instead of the coming race.

Before the semifinals of the 100-meter freestyle at the 1964 Games, Schollander was observing the Frenchman Alain Gottvalles, who held the world record. Gottvalles had spent the lead-up to the race bragging about how he could drink a bottle of wine and smoke half a pack of cigarettes every day and still break records.

None of that bravado was evident to Schollander as he studied Gottvalles, who struck him as nervous. Schollander kept inching closer to Gottvalles until he was standing above him.

Gottvalles slid down the bench, and Schollander followed him. He got up and headed to the bathroom, and Schollander followed him to the urinal and stood behind him, like swimming's answer to the Grim Reaper. The next night, Schollander won the gold and Gottvalles was fifth.

"I wouldn't normally have done all that," Schollander said last week, "except the guy was so arrogant, I couldn't help myself."

In his 1971 autobiography, "Deep Water," Schollander wrote: "Psyching out is part of the game. You've got to be able to take it and you've got to be able to do it." He added, "In Olympic competition, a race is won in the mind."

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