Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.
Although it was an Olympic Games marked with an asterisk because of a world divided, with the Soviet Union and countries under its influence boycotting – similar to how the West had crossed their arms and said “no thanks” for the Moscow Games in 1980, the Los Angeles Olympics were a bubbling cauldron of inspiring and moving moments of athletic achievement.
The pool in particular.
There was the first tie in Olympic swimming history, when Nancy Hogshead and Carie Steinseifer touched at the same time for gold in the 100m freestyle. Rowdy Gaines, who at the age of 25 was not expected to contend, winning 3 golds. And Alex Baumann of Canada, swimming on the heels of losing two members of his immediate family, winning both individual medley events in world record fashion.
Perhaps the most dramatic, the most breathtaking moment in the pool that week, came in the form of the men’s 4 x 200 freestyle relay. It had all the dramatics. A last moment, come-from-behind win. The David and Goliath battle between the most talented swimmer in the world and a middle distance swimmer 7 inches shorter. The too-close-to-call finish.
It had the perfect antagonist in Michael Gross, the Albatross, a blond, stern faced and steely eyed West German who up until that point in Los Angeles had been imposing his will, piling up world records and gold medals, running roughshod over the competition.
The current generation will never forget Jason Lezak and his Beijing heroics as one of the seminal moments of American swimming. That come from behind win, when the odds and predictions were completely stacked against him – even the indomitable Rowdy Gaines didn’t think it would happen, could happen, is something that will last in the collective swimming consciousness for a very long time.
24 years before Lezak dove into Chinese waters to win gold for the US – and preserve Michael Phelps attempt at 8 golds – it was Bruce Hayes, a 6’0” senior at UCLA, who would go head-to-head with the most dominant swimmer at the Los Angeles Games and somehow, some way, emerge victorious.
THE ALBATROSS TAKES FLIGHT
At 6’7”, with a freakish wingspan of well over 7 feet, Michael Gross had the swimming world on a string in the years leading up to the Los Angeles Olympics. With the name “Gross”, which in German translates to “large,” he was the first swimmer since Mark Spitz to hold world records in 4 different individual events.
His reserved nature, and general disdain of publicity, only lent themselves to the aura of invincibility and otherworldly speed and talent that Gross materialized so easily, so effortlessly.
His swimming in the year prior to the Olympics had been stunning. Dominating. At the European Championships in 1983 he’d shown what we’d now consider a Phelpsonian array of versatility, winning the 200 freestyle, 100-200 fly, and swimming the fastest relay leg ever in the 4×200 free relay, clocking a 1:47.21.
Over the first few days in Los Angeles his swimming had met and exceeded the expectations that come with being the most feared swimmer on the planet. He’d dominated the 200 freestyle. World record? Check. Snatched the 100m butterfly. World record? Check.
The 4×200 free relay was next.
THE GROSS BUSTERS
The game plan for the Americans going into finals the night of July 30 was overwhelmingly simple.
For Mike Heath, David Larson, Jeff Float and Hayes the strategy was to get out in front and never look back. To get off lightning-quick and build a lead so insurmountable that not even The Albatross, who would be swimming the anchor leg for the West Germans, would be able to overcome it.
With just under 11,000 in attendance, Mike Heath stood up on the blocks under a cloudless sky in Southern California. Heath was the fastest American at the distance, having placed second in the individual event swimming a time that was almost two seconds slower than Gross’ gold medal winning 1:47.44.
Heath swam as advertised, blasting the Americans out to a healthy body-length lead, clocking a 1:48.67, improving on the time he swam in his individual race.
So far so good.
Next would be David Larson, who had at the age of 25 had waited an extra 4 years for his Olympic moment after the Moscow boycott. He picked up right where Heath left off, jumping out to an even bigger lead over the first 100m of his leg.
Over the second hundred Dirk Korthals would close the gap, narrowing the American lead to a single body length as Jeff Float and Alexander Schowtka took to the water.
The lead at half point was a body length. It was good, but not good enough. Everyone knew that to put down the Albatross would require a lead of at least a second and a half.
The third leg would play out identically to the second, with Float roaring on the front hundred, desperately trying to extend the lead, to give Hayes the cushion. A one body length lead became two.
Schowtka would real in Float a little bit, just the tiniest bit, approaching the wall.
On the blocks stood Hayes. And beside him, Michael Gross. All 6’7” of him.
Float crashed into the wall with a body and a half length lead. They’d planned on being ahead by more than a second and a half. Hayes would have to make do with even less than that.
Hayes takeover was cautious and safe, and as a result off the dive Gross had made up nearly a body length just on the take over. The long, relaxed Gross reeled in Hayes with ease over the first 50 metres.
Into the halfway mark Gross and Hayes were swimming nearly on the lane line, going head to head, looking at each other right into the turn. Off the wall the Albatross pulled out to a half body length lead. Looking effortless, relaxed and smooth. That loose, six-beat kick motoring him towards another gold medal. Another world record.
Into the 150m mark Gross pulled ahead. Swimming into the lead, taking control.
With 25 metres remaining, Hayes began to inch back. Stroke by stroke, inch by inch, Hayes improbably crawled back, until they were again neck and neck, face to face, stroke to stroke, barreling into the finish.
They hit the wall at the same time.
Hayes turned immediately to check the scoreboard. Gross already knew.
Hayes exploded into jubilant eruption, fists splashing in the water while Gross could only hang on the lane line.
Hayes had done the unthinkable and slayed the Albatross, who had swum the fastest 200m of freestyle in history at 1:46.89. The world record was left in tatters. The time of 7:15.69 was a full five seconds faster than the previous mark, and overnight the American men were celebrities.
The Los Angeles Herald Examiner’s front page the next morning had an image of the celebrating foursome, with a picture of a dejected Gross with the red circle and slash. Above, in all caps, read—“GROSS BUSTERS.”
For Gross, the aura of invincibility had been shattered. He would be upset by Jon Sieben of Australia in the 200 meter butterfly later that week, an event that he otherwise dominated from 1981-1988. Despite this, he would leave Los Angeles with a pair of golds, and a pair of silvers.
For the American men, for those precious few moments under the warm sun in Los Angeles, they were kings.
Race Video – the 1984 Olympic 4×200 Relay Final
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