Bruce Hayes vs. The Albatross and the 800 Relay Glory of 1984

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AX2XSPXGKOo

About YourSwimBook

YourSwimBook is a log book and goal setting guide designed specifically for competitive swimmers. It includes a ten month log book, comprehensive goal setting section, monthly evaluations to be filled out with your coach, and more. Learn 8 more reasons why this tool kicks butt.

Join the YourSwimBook weekly newsletter group and get motivational tips and more straight to your inbox. Sign up for free here.

In This Story

47
Leave a Reply

Subscribe
Notify of

47 Comments
newest
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Steve M
6 years ago

This story is fantastic. It almost captures what it was like to watch it live. This race and the US hockey team winning the gold in 1980 are my two favorite Olympic memories. Thank you for helping me remember.

John
Reply to  Steve M
6 years ago

How could the US win the gold in 1980 if they boycotted?

Joe Bagodonuts
Reply to  John
6 years ago

Well, hockey is a winter sport, so . . . . .

bobthebuilderrocks
8 years ago

Mel’s turns were insane!

bobthebuilderrocks
8 years ago

Mel actually swam against the Albatross at Worlds in 1991, in the 200m Butterfly.

ERVINFORTHEWIN
Reply to  bobthebuilderrocks
8 years ago

and if i am not mistaken , Mel beat M Gross in that 200 butterfly final in Barcelona 92 Olympics . I remember that Mel was the first swimmer i noticed taking advantage of butterfly kicks after the turn .

bob the builder
Reply to  ERVINFORTHEWIN
8 years ago

I looked it up online, and I saw that Gross wasn’t even in the event in Barcelona.

aswimfan
Reply to  ERVINFORTHEWIN
8 years ago

Incorrect.

Gross did not even go to 1992 Barcelona. 1991 Worlds was Gross’ last meet, he retired right after that.
Mel beat Gross in 1991 Perth.

KeithM
Reply to  bobthebuilderrocks
8 years ago

Bobthebuilderrocks, here’s a video of that 1991 race.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86xebPASRFA

danjohnrob
Reply to  KeithM
8 years ago

Awesome video! That “colorful character” (per John Nabor) Mel Stewart had superior underwaters after his turns, a more lower body driven stroke (from the hips like Michael Phelps, or should I say Michael does it like Mel?), had less upward and more forward moving upper body technique, and didn’t take as much time to breathe as Gross did. This video really shows a transition from the classic style butterfly seen in the late 60’s to 80’s to the more modern style we shoot for today; but, that side breathing really hurts the neck! LOL!

aswimfan
Reply to  danjohnrob
8 years ago

Yep. Gross was so old school he didn’t even wear cap letting his longish hair flowing out.

SportininDC
Reply to  KeithM
8 years ago

That was awesome.

aswimfan
Reply to  KeithM
8 years ago

It reminds me of when Le Clos beat Phelps in London 2012. In both races, the young pretender prevailed and beat the king who was ruling at the end of his reign.

MarkB
Reply to  aswimfan
6 years ago

Love John Naber’s analysis. Calm but spot on.

Becky D
8 years ago

If I’m not mistaken, 3 of the 6 800 relay members (Heath, Hayes, and Garberino) all trained under Dick Quick at Dallas Swim Club as kids.

SportininDC
8 years ago

Incredible moment. I remember that race well and have competed with Hayes in US Masters swimming. No one mentioned the nude Grossbusters photo shoot with Raquel Welch in Vanity Fair. Can’t seem to paste it here. Search raquel welch olympic swimmers.

8 years ago

I was on the staff of the 1983 World University Games and Bruce anchored our relays in a similar fashion along with Matt Biondi. “Floater” remains one of history’s great USA leaders as well. Great article, rekindling lots of wonderful memories.

mcgillrocks
8 years ago

In my books Gross is 3rd or 4th best all-time among men. WRs in four different events speak for themselves, including both the fastest relay split and 200 free, beating Pablo in the 100, and breaking the 400 record of distance legend Salnikov. In addition he had the first ever WR in the short course 800 free (beating Salnikov’s WBT). I’m at a loss to why Gross never swam the 400 at major international meets.

On another note, it was interesting to read the Sports Illustrated predictions for 1984. Being born a decade after, it’s sometimes easy to look at the Olympic results and not see the competition: it seems as though that has always been, and always was… Read more »

Reply to  mcgillrocks
8 years ago

Moffett suffered an adductor tear (thigh muscle) at the 65 meter mark of his race in the morning prelims of the 100 breast. With a huge amount of guts (and some tape), he came back only a few hours later in the final to finish 5th. Very gritty performance.

Big of Lundquist to set WR in the final.

tall n wet
8 years ago

And 20 years later at Athens we beat the Aussies in the 800 free relay in the same fashion!

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

Read More »