The Greatest Collective Swimming Performance In 50 Years

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.

CHUCK WARNER: Lessons From Legends (first published July 2012)

“Do you believe in miracles?!?!”

That was the emphatic question that Al Michaels bellowed during the broadcast of the last few seconds of the amazing USA hockey upset of the heavily favored Russians at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.

Last week Misty Hyman helped us look inside her seemingly miraculous gold medal swim in Sydney in our Lessons From Legends column.

Understanding the ‘backstory’ to the miracle often helps us learn how to create our own. The books And Then They Won Gold and Four Champions, One Gold Medal were written to help us understand how some of the most amazing swimming performances of all time occurred. Casey Converse (1976 Olympian and Women’s Swim Coach at the US Air Forces Academy) is in the process of researching and writing a book about our choice as the greatest collective swimming performance of the last 50 years.

The 1948 Olympic team was the only USA team that ever won every men’s Olympic swimming gold medal. It was led by the greatest coach of the era, Robert John Herman Kiphuth. World War II had recently ended however, and the Japanese were not in attendance. The event program also was limited to the standard Olympic men’s format of five individual events and the 4 x 200 free relay.

At the Munich Olympics in 1972, Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals/seven world records performance lit a fire through the sport. In last week’s Swim Swam interview with Jim Montrella he tells us another fire was ready to combust in 1972 as well: The East German women’s swimming team had been improving dramatically but Coach Montrella tells us that it performed below expectations in the ’72 Games.

Meanwhile the American men were surging in their world dominance. By 1975, every one of the top ten ranked men in the world in the 400 freestyle were Americans. Eight of the top ten in the world in the 1500 were Americans. California was the swimming mecca of the world and it was California trained swimmers that were seven of those top ten ranked in the 400 and five from the state were ranked in the top ten in the 1500.

The 1976 US Men’s Olympic team was fast, deep and had great leadership…an unbeatable combination. There were two core groups of swimmers on that team that brought the ability to develop great team chemistry from their college programs at USC and Indiana. Switching their leadership to the Red, White and Blue from the Trojans were John Naber, Bruce Furniss, Steve Furniss, Joe Bottom and Rod Strachan. On the team from the Hoosiers were Jim Montgomery, Charles Keating Jr and Gary Hall Sr.

1976 Head Men’s Olympic Coach Doc Counsilman told the team at it’s first team meeting that winning every gold medal was their goal. It melded the team together and broke down old rivalries as a band of competitors became a marching band of brothers in arms.

Mike Bruner, Steve Gregg and Billy Forrester began the swimming competition in the 200-meter butterfly. When Forrester trailed close behind his two teammates and edged (by 6-hundredths of a second) one of the greatest swimmers in the world, Germany’s Roger Pyttel, the USA finished 1-2-3. The sweep sent the American snow ball descending down a mountain. It picked up more speed on the third day when Brian Goodell and Bobby Hackett’s upset Australian’s Stephen Holland in one of the greatest races in history and kept alive the dream of sweeping the gold medals. There were two more 1-2-3 USA sweeps each by narrow margins. In the 200 freestyle Bruce Furniss, John Naber and Jim Montgomery seemed to show a USA mental edge by eking by the competition in times of 1:50.29, 1:50.50, 1:50.58. In fourth was the Soviet Union’s Andre Kreylov in the time of 1:50.73.

The same ability to get to the wall first happened in the men’s 100 butterfly when Matt Vogel, Joe Bottom and Gary Hall Sr narrowly swept the world when the top five times were 54.35, 54.50, 54.65, 55.09 and 55.11. Fourth again? Roger Pyttel.

The amazing run ended on the next to last day when USA trained, but Britain born, David Wilkie broke the world record in the 200 breastroke (2:15.11) and beat the USA’s John Hencken, despite “The Rocket Man’s” American record of 2:17.26.

The American men seemed to mesmerize their competition but the GDR ladies did the same thing in the women’s events. On the first night they pummeled the American women in the 400 medley relay by 6.5 seconds. The GDR won every individual event except for when the Soviet Union swept (1-2-3) the 200-meter breastroke. The Germans finished first and second in the 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle, 100 back, 200 back and 1-2-3 in the 200 butterfly.

With the exception of the sensational Shirley Babashoff who finished second in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles the USA could win only two other individual medals, both bronze. They came from Wendy Weinberg in the 800 freestyle and Wendy Boglioli in the 100 fly.

The USA women were getting pounded.

Emotionally and physically the Americans couldn’t match what was later revealed as a GDR steroid machine of systematic doping. Never since 1952 had the USA women left an Olympics without a gold medal. On the last night Shirley Babashoff’s world record swim in the 800 freestyle was still not enough for a gold for the USA when she was beaten by 4-tenths of a second by the GDR’s Petra Thurmer. The last event on the last day of the swimming competition was the women’s 400 free relay. And there was no way the Americans could win.


The GDR had finished 1-2 in the 100-meter freestyle with Kornelia Ender far outdistancing the field (55.65) and Petra Priemer (56.45) nearly a half second ahead of the fastest American Kim Peyton (56.8). The Germans had several other great swimmers to choose from to complete the relay including Claudia Hempel who had swum a 56.99 in Montreal, Andrea Pollack who had finished second in the 100 fly and was a good freestyler, and Petra Thurmer who had set world records in the 400 and 800 freestyles.

Most of the American girls were swimming well, just not well enough to win medals. They each improved their times from the Trials in the 100 freestyle. They were Shirley Babashoff (56.96-56.95), Jill Sterkel (57.25-57.06) and Kim Peyton (57.75-56.81). The fourth relay member for the US would be Wendy Boglioli who had swum a 57.8 at the Trials.  However you put the times together and it was clear that the GDR was at least two seconds faster the than the USA.

While the USA men rode their external results to increase their internal resolve, the women’s external results had to dismantle their internal strength…one would think…

The American head coach was Jack Nelson who has been well recognized for his optimism and belief in the power of the mind. Jack and his staff of Frank Elm and Jim Montrella had received criticism for the seemingly poor American results, but approached the relay with optimism non-the-less. They had worked on precise relay starts and strategized that the GDR would swim their regular order with Ender in the leadoff position. If they could stay close on the opening leg they thought they could compete.

The USA matched the GDR by putting their fastest swimmer first and Kim Peyton (56.95) and Kornelia Ender (55.79) swam as expected. Petyon’s scrambling, tenacious style was common to the day with high mileage programs often producing high turnover swimmers. Peyton attacked her turn and hugged the lane line next to Ender on the second 50, dragging as close behind the world’s best as she could. Wendy Boglioli swam second against Priemer and was simply amazing. Her style resembles the more current freestyle with stroke length. She not only held her own, but with the benefit of a relay start, she improved two seconds from her Trials time and out split Priemer 55.81 to 56. 16. One half way through the race the chance of a miracle was born!

Jill Sterkel entered the water and incredibly swam by Andrea’s Pollack’s 56.99 by splitting a stunning 55.78 on the third leg. Shirley Babashoff anchored for the United States and simply refused to lose. Her strokes became so short in the last 25 meters that some might question if they qualified as ‘strokes.’ Shirley came back from her 800 defeat earlier in the night to split 56.28 compared to Claudia Hempel’s 56.99. The girl that deserved to be a four time Olympic Champion, became one – the hardest way possible… and an outbreak of pride and emotion overcame the American women.

This is not the thrill of Jason Lezak keeping Michael Phelp’s eighth gold medal run alive. This is crawling out of an emotional and athletic beating like few teams with such grand expectations have ever experienced. These women and their team overcame all the negative expectations that rationalized why competing with the GDR was impossible.

The Americans broke the world record by 4 seconds and improved their aggregate flat start time by about 4.7 seconds.

The 1976 USA Women’s 400 free relay is Lessons From Legends choice as the greatest collective swimming performance at the Olympics in the last 50 years.

Legendary Mullings:

…can’t wait to read Casey Converse’s book and learn the whole story.

…1976 Olympic Coach Jim Montrella is one of the reasons many people are proud to be a swimming coach in the United States. He bears a fountain of youth, a sparkle of delight around the sport and pride in American success.

…Find your own National Treasure: 1976 Olympic Men’s Coaches George Haines and Don Gambril submitted their hand written daily training logs for the 1976 men’s Olympic training camp for the work done to create Four Champions, One Gold Medal. The complete daily logs are in the appendix of the book.

…Is there a miracle coming in London? (Cullen Jones are you paying attention?)

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 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 and access “Books/Media.”

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6 years ago

I guess ‘roids don’t give you any advantage when it comes to relay exchanges- the 1st and 3rd swimmers had their heads out of the water looking around by the time the next swimmer was leaving the blocks.

cynthia curran
11 years ago

Housing makes it cheaper now to rise a family in a suburb in Houston than La these days. Also, demographics have changed alot California was only 6 percent foreign born in 1970 and now is about 27 percent. You get the M Cavic because of immigration but also a lot of kids whose parents immigrated from Mexico, Central America and start swimming or playing water polo not until high school. In the 1960’s and 1970’s California was cheaper to buy housing so millions moved from the midwest or East that explains the swimming in the 1960’s and 1970’s, now more Californians moved out of state to places like Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Oregon and Washington to rise families where its cheaper.… Read more »

Katrina Radke
11 years ago

Chuck, great article describing the 1976 4 x100 women’s free relay, and the resolve required by all of the women to make this happen. I imagine you will like Jill Sterkel’s account of this relay that will be up in a few days!
Also, I love your description of the men earning so many medals and how they did it – YES!!! Mike Bruner’s version of this story will be up tomorrow evening.

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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