Pablo Morales and His 8 Year Wait For An Individual Olympic Gold

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.

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and there are fewer more heart warming than the tale of Pablo Morales and his gold medal winning performance at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. We all respond to these stories, that of the underdog, the counted-out, in particular with respect to sports such as swimming where it really is for the love of the sport.

For Pablo Morales and his quest to return to competitive form after three years away from the sport, and with less than one year to the ’92 Games, there were no lucrative sponsorships waiting on the other end. There were no swimwear deals, no fame, no fortune, just a blinding love for the sport and a desire, a nearly unquenchable hunger, to see what he was capable of.

Just a chance to swim.

Morales’ swim career started off modestly as a 7 year old with the Santa Clara Swim Club in Santa Clara, California. His mother Blanca had initially enrolled him not because she had high aspirations to become a world-class athlete – although for him those would grow soon enough – but because she recognized the value in Pablo not drowning, just like she nearly had as a ten year old off the shores of Cuba.

He latched onto butterfly quickly: “The strokes choose you. As a youngster you swim all strokes,” Morales told the Daily Nebraskan back in 2012. “Butterfly, early on, was something that I did better than other strokes.”

Before long, it was something he was doing better than other kids, as well. By the time he was 19 he would become the fastest man ever in his prized event, the 100-metre butterfly.

His ascent to the upper echelons of the sport was quick, but his journey to capture the highest prize in swimming, an individual Olympic gold medal, would take him much longer than he or anyone else imagined.


In 1984, Morales would break the world record in the 100m butterfly at Olympic Trials in a time of 53.38. With the Los Angeles Olympics only a month later he was tabbed as the clear favourite to win.

Michael “the Albatross” Gross of West Germany, world record holder in the 200m butterfly and also the 200m freestyle, would pose the biggest challenge to the upstart Morales. Although they were the same age, Gross, with his mighty wingspan had years of international racing experience over Morales, who would post the fastest time in the preliminaries.

In the final it would be a race between the two from the start, with Morales out like a shot, touching first at the 50, two tenths under his own world record pace. With less then ten metres to go Morales shoulders began to tighten, his stroke shortened, and the Albatross would swoop in and out-touch Morales at the finish.

Both men would swim under the month-old world record, with Gross’ 53.08 the new standard. While the West German contingent in the crowd went wild, Morales was left in stunned silence, hanging on the lane rope, his head sinking into his hands.

SEOUL – 1988

Determined to win that elusive individual gold medal Morales pushed on with training, eyes fixed on the Seoul Olympics. In 1986, in Orlando at World Championships Trials he would take back the world record, becoming the first man to break the 53 second barrier and posting a mark that would not be broken for nearly a decade.

He took the year before the Olympics off of school, leaving Cornell law on the shelf while he dumped every last effort into winning gold.

Nothing would be spared to atone for Los Angeles.

In Austin, Texas, at the Trials for the Seoul Olympics, and with Morales again the favorite and the standing world record holder, he would come up short. Not first, not even second – which would have still placed him on the Olympic team — but third.

The winner?

An upstart named Matt Biondi who was evoking comparisons and expectations of Mark Spitz’s 7 gold medals in a single Olympics. Second place would go to Morales’ teammate Jay Mortensen.

For Morales, two heart-breaking finishes four years apart were enough. He walked away from the sport soon after.


By 1991 Morales had been out of the sport for three years. He’d gone back to school to finish his law degree at Cornell, and figured that he’d left the sport behind. That summer, however, he found the sport beginning to gnaw at him again.

It wasn’t necessarily that he felt there was something specific he wanted to achieve — there wasn’t that void athletes describe when returning to competition, but he was more interested in seeing what he could do. What he was capable of. If he still had it.

During that summer his mother Blanca fell ill. By September she had passed, and with her on his mind he decided that it was time to give swimming and the Olympics one last kick at the can.

With only 7 months to go until the 1992 Olympic Trials Morales set back to training with a newfound appreciation and love for the sport, returning to train with his collegiate coach, Skip Kenney. Having only been in the water once in the previous year – he’d splashed around the Cornell pool on one occasion – Morales would head to Olympic Trials not only as the current world record holder, but also as someone who had been out of the game and considered too old at 27 years of age to compete, much less qualify for the Olympic team.

In Indianapolis the story of a son who had lost his mother, of a talented athlete who had never had a chance to reach the apex of swimming to win individual gold at the Olympics, of the graceful and humble young man swimming again for the love of the sport, played out for the world to watch. With his father sitting in the stands, clutching a picture of Pablo’s mother, Morales would win at Trials, swimming a time that was a second slower than his world record, but fast enough to secure a chance to compete in Barcelona.

Being an elder statesman of the team Morales was voted team captain. Maybe not necessarily because of his age, he was now 27 years of age, aged by swimmer’s standards, and perhaps not because of his ’84 experience and credentials as an Olympic medalist and world record holder, but for his grace and a calm that was a steadying influence on the sometimes reckless and youthful exuberance that filled out the rest of the team.

In the morning of the preliminaries ’84 would repeat itself, Morales posting the fastest heats time, giving him the familiar lane 4 for the final. Rafal Szukala of Poland would swim above him in lane 5, Surinam’s Anthony Nesty – defending Olympic champion – would be below in lane 3, and a certain SwimSwam co-founder was in lane 8.

Although during the final Morales was last to hit the water off the start, his underwater work would propel him to an early lead. With the sharp memory of a fast closing Michael Gross out-touching him in Los Angeles, and Anthony Nesty of Surinam playing a replica of the feat in Seoul over Matt Biondi, there was the acute experience and knowledge that no early lead would be safe.

Morales would touch at the 50m mark with a three tenth lead.

Again, like Los Angeles, Morales would begin to fade in the final metres. His shoulders beginning to tighten and seize on him just like they had eight years ago. Szukala and Nesty were charging into the wall, closing in fast. For a couple moments it looked as though history would be recreated in Barcelona.

All three swimmers hit the wall nearly simultaneously.

A moment of silence engulfed the pool. A moment of reckoning. Morales slowly turned around and saw what he’d dreamed about since watching Mark Spitz swim in 1972.

That elusive number 1 beside his name.

Morales had touched first in 53.32. Szukala in 53.35. Nesty third in 53.41.

This time, the silence was golden.

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Rod Van Dine
2 years ago

I swam with Pablo way back in the early days with Bill Thompson and Bill Hurd (2 brown 280z’s) coaching swimmers at the Santa Clara International Swim Center. We were just kids, but I clearly remember all the days working out in the yard pool. I think we were around 8 years old. In any case, I was a back-stroker and a freestyle sprinter and I will never forget the first time I recognized Pablo as a force to be reckoned with

We were doing a set of fifties, and usually, I would always be first down at the 25, but half way I saw an approaching splash catching up to me while breathing. Yep, it was Pablo and he… Read more »

Debi Bidelman
7 years ago

Oh Pablo how you’ve grown! My name is Debi and my son is Steven. We lived next door to you. I would see you very early in the morning coming home from practice at the swim center. Your hair was always wet I remember, and you always rode your little bike to and from the center. You loved my son Steven, I remember you trying to talk him in to swimming and you’d come over and grab him for a little game of basketball. Thank you for such good memories!!!

7 years ago

I felt so bad for Pablo Morales when he finished 3rd in all his races in the 1988 trials. But also upset – not for the first or last time – at the ridiculous 2-per country limit for the Olympics and Worlds. He might well have won the Olympics had he made the team.

I saw him in late 1991 or early 1992 swimming in Seattle, one of his first comeback races. I assumed he was coming back for another shot at the Olympics, and was really glad when he made the team – and then when he won the Olympics.

Jeff Norseen
7 years ago

I competed against both Matt Biondi and Pablo Morales in college. My favorite was Pablo. Both were very talented swimmers and both worked incredibly hard. I remember seeing Matt’s weekly yardage 7 days at 10,000 yards a day. That was obsurd!

Pau Hana
7 years ago

Wonderful article about my favorite moment in Olympic history. 100 fly was also my best event and I always envisions myself as a much much slower version of Pablo.

I wouldn’t label Matt Biondi an “upstart” in 88 (in 84, yes). By that time Biondi had already passed Gross as the net swimmer in the world after his dominant performance at the 86 Worlds, including silver in the 100 fly. Biondi beating Morales wasn’t the huge upset – Pablo losing to Jay Mortenson as well was much more of a surprise.

7 years ago

I remember that when I met Pablo a few years ago, I had trouble forming words. And I am in my 40’s. After I talked with him for a few minutes, I had to collect myself in a quiet stairwell. I nearly lost it.

I also met Jill Sterkel on a few occasions. The first time I met her, in 1997, I congratulated her on being a part of the greatest swimming race in history, the 1976 women’s 4 x 100 FR-R in Montreal. Everyone knows the story: her relay defeated the doped DDR team. That was 21 years earlier. I also congratulated her on her 1988 medals, two bronzes from the bookend of the DDR doping program.

7 years ago
Lane Four
7 years ago

THIS should become a film.

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 …

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