Olympic Trials Lore Part II

Chuck Warner, the author, is a coach and an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.

Note: This is a continuation of the story of Dave Johnson from Lessons From Legends – Trials Lore I

CHUCK WARNER: Lessons From Legends

In 2012 there are about four weeks between the completion of the Olympic Trials and the first swimming event at the start of the Olympic Games. In 1968 there were six weeks between the two competitions. For a swimmer like Dave Johnson, who had broken his arm in May, the six-week period was quite an opportunity to train and improve.

An obstacle for Dave to make his mark at the Olympics was that there wasn’t any logical chance for him to swim his best races (the 400 IM/200 Fly) at the Games unless someone who finished ahead of him at the Trials became sick or injured.

After the Seoul Olympics in 1988, famed Coach Peter Daland championed the idea of “protecting USA Relay strength” by selecting the six best 100 and 200 freestyle swimmers to the Olympic team to ensure depth on the team and therefore USA relay strength. In 1968 there was no such plan. The freestyle relays were the first four freestylers from the Trials unless the coaches thought someone else could swim faster based upon what they saw in training camp.

The 1968 USA Olympic Swim Team Training Camp was held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The altitude simulated what the team would face at the Games in Mexico. Dave was assigned the training group with George Haines the head coach at the Santa Clara Swim Club, the greatest swimming factory of Olympians in the history of the world. Coach Haines was also Don Schollander’s club coach. Schollander had won four gold medals in the 1964 Games in Tokyo and was called “the golden boy” of those Olympics. Schollander had been captain at Yale the previous year, knew Dave Johnson well and had stature and credibility with Coach Haines. Dave trained faster and faster during the camp.

Schollander kept telling George to try Dave at freestyle.

Time trials were held at the camp in the 100 and 200 freestyle. Dave was the third fastest 100-meter freestyler. The coaching staff told him that if he could finish in one of the top preliminary swims of the relay that he could earn a spot on the finals relay. The world record at the time (Zac Zorn and Ken Walsh) was 52.6. He led off the 4 x 100 free relay in the preliminaries in one of the top American times of 53.1, and one of the top times in the world.

On the way back to the Olympic Village from the pool Dave and a friend (a Russian weight lifter) missed the bus and therefore missed lunch. They were famished and had one apple in their possession. Dave considered the health hazards of eating the apple but it was from the Olympic Village dining hall so he thought it was safe. He and his friend split the apple. They both became horribly sick. So sick that Legend has it over the small span of seven hours Dave Johnson lost 14 pounds.  The coaching staff couldn’t find a doctor to give him an IV. He lost his chance of swimming on the 400 free relay in the finals. The relay team won the gold medal.

George Haines felt so badly for Dave Johnson that he put him on the preliminaries of the 800 free relay and Dave split a 2:02.9. The USA Team won the gold medal again in the finals.

From coin flip, to Mike Cadden’s last quarter in the pay phone Dave Johnson had barely earned a position on the Olympic team. He also barely missed winning two Olympic gold medals. Later the rules were changed so that the preliminary swimmers on relays would receive the same medal that the finalists received – in this case gold medals.

Legendary Mulling’s:

When you watch Trials over the next week you might consider Josh Davis’ conduct during the 1992 Olympic Trials. He was very disappointed to not make the Olympic Team. Following his last event that he had a chance to make it, he experienced a short sulk. Then he began the learning process. He soaked in the atmosphere like a sponge. He watched intently how the successful swimmers handled themselves in warm-up, racing, and the media. He smiled his way around the Indianapolis pool expressing his trademark “attitude of gratitude.”  In 1996 Josh not only made the team, but in a remarkable sequence of events (told in …And Then They Won Gold – fourth chapter) he earned three Olympic gold medals – the most of any male at the Atlanta Olympics

It’s never over till it’s overRebecca Soni was terribly disappointed to not make the Olympic team at the 2008 Trials in the 100- meter breastroke. But she pulled herself together to make the team in the 200 and win the gold medal at the Olympics. When another swimmer was disqualified from the Games, and Tara Kirk missed being named her replacement swimmer in the 100, Rebe moved into the event. She finished second and earned a spot on the silver medal 400-medley relay.

Chuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been runners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is due out now.It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go towww.areteswim.com and access “Books/Media.”

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Jean Michel

Very interesting history stories than changed thr us trials ! thanks guys


I thought they started taking relay alternates as early as ’84. Wasn’t Tom Jager an alternate on the ’84 team for the 4 x 100 freestyle relay? Also, weren’t there alternates on the prelims for the 4 x 200 freestyle relay (Gaberino and Saeger, I think)?

The change in Olympic Team selection could have been written more clearly. Coach Daland moved a vote to prioritize the depth in relays over events in which swimmers would not participate in relays.


by “When another swimmer was disqualified from the Games” do you mean when Jessica Hardy tested positive?

Yes, she tested positive. She could have battled legally to try and keep her spot on the team. Reports are that she withdrew from the team. Jessica Hardy was not the point of the column – it was the fact that even through the Trials seem to have finality to them, things happen and change. Davis Tarwater loves that fact right now.

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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