Gold in the Water: The True Story of Ordinary Men and Their Extraordinary Dream of Olympic Gloryby P. H. Mullen
In California, a team of talented young men begin pursuing the most elusive dream in sports, the Olympic Games. The pressure steadily increases as two best friends (a mentor and his protégé) reach the top of the world rankings and unexpectedly find themselves direct competitors. Their teammates include an emerging star methodically plotting to retrace
In California, a team of talented young men begin pursuing the most elusive dream in sports, the Olympic Games. The pressure steadily increases as two best friends (a mentor and his protégé) reach the top of the world rankings and unexpectedly find themselves direct competitors. Their teammates include an emerging star methodically plotting to retrace his father's path to Olympic glory, as well as a super-extraordinary athlete desperate to walk away from it all. Led by one of the most passionate coaches in sports, a brilliant and explosive strategist on a personal quest for redemption, this team of dark horses and Olympic favorites works through escalating rivalries, joyous triumphs, and heartbreaking setbacks.
Author P. H. Mullen chronicles their journey to the 2000 Olympic Games and presents one of the most powerful and moving sports books ever written. Boldly sweeping in literary power and pace, this startling book will permanently change how you view the Olympic athlete.
It is a fascinating world of suspense and emotion where human desire for excellence rules over all, and where there are no second chances for glory. But above all, Gold in the Water is a triumph of the human spirit.
- St. Martin's Press
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- First Edition
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- Product dimensions:
- 6.08(w) x 8.99(h) x 0.83(d)
- Age Range:
- 14 - 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
Gold in the Water
The True Story of Ordinary Men and their Extraordinary Dream of Olympic Glory
By P. H. Mullen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 P. H. Mullen
All rights reserved.
More than a year had passed since those defining moments at the 1998 World Championships. Tom Wilkens swam back and forth in the otherwise empty pool at the Santa Clara Swim Club. It was a gray morning in spring 1999, the kind of listless dawn that dulls enthusiasms. The rain had come earlier and left the deck slick and cold. Somehow, colorless days like this always seem an appropriate backdrop to hard work and the formation of dreams. Each of Wilkens' strokes resounded crisply against the ugly concrete landscape around him. There was an unadorned blandness to the Santa Clara facility, and it created a sense that here only the basics mattered. So, too, was there a seriousness in the air. The entire ethos of sport and the pursuit of excellence seemed to have been distilled down to the image of a single figure beating out laps in a massive pool.
Wilkens had grown in the past year; his muscles were better defined and his armstrokes had more power. But more important, he had gained confidence. Although he was still an underdog, he now knew he could compete on the elite level. That kind of internal awareness reveals itself in the way an athlete moves, talks, and even stands still. As Wilkens stroked slowly and methodically through a 3,600-yard pulling set, his hands rhythmically flashed bright yellow. That was because he wore wide yellow hand paddles. Clasped between his thighs to prevent his legs from kicking was a foam pull buoy. He also wore a thick inner tube around his ankles for resistance. Pulling was a cornerstone of Santa Clara's training and doing 2,000 yards wearing a tube was akin to running several miles with a medicine ball.
"I am so bored doing this," Wilkens said irritably when he stopped briefly at the wall. He pushed off again before the coach, Jochums, could respond.
"Write it on your tombstone, asshole," Jochums said to no one in particular.
Wilkens was physically broken down and frustrated. He was lonely, too. For the previous two months he had been training alone, showing up at 7 A.M. just as the high school swimmers finished their workouts before school. He hated the solitary grind, hated the windswept emptiness of the vacant pool and the unrelenting intensity of the man who was now his full-time coach.
Santa Clara Swim Club (SCSC) had more than one hundred and fifty swimmers between the ages of six and eighteen, but Wilkens wasn't a part of their practices. It wouldn't be until summer that the lanes around him would fill with the annual influx of more than thirty college-aged swimmers. These swimmers came every summer, taking part in the sport's traditional westward migration to the best clubs in California, Arizona, and Texas. That is what Division I college swimmers do if they aren't required to stay on campus to train or take classes. Most can't conceive of working a summer job until after graduation. In Santa Clara's case, many would hail from nearby Stanford University. The majority would leave in September, but several had already committed to staying full-time afterward. Together they were going make a run at the Olympic Games, which were now only eighteen months away.
Included in the group joining Wilkens would be some of the fastest, most dominating swimmers the country had ever produced. Also included would be slower athletes with no realistic hope of making a U.S. Olympic team. The faster ones had NCAA titles, endorsements, supplementary income from swimming's national governing body, and a genuine shot at the Olympics. The slower ones should have been formatting their résumés and preparing for the rest of their lives. But all were gripped by the same Olympic fever and a desperate optimism that their breakthrough swims were only a race away.
As Wilkens awaited his peers on a gray and soulless morning in early 1999, he had good reason to be suffering. Not only was he physically exhausted, but the mental drudgery of Jochums' workouts was taking its toll. Since 1975, the coach had not changed his practices in structure or substance. Not through several cataclysmic training revolutions, not in the face of libraries of scientific research. In the late 1970s, when American swimming believed success was based on mileage and demanded its swimmers churn out as much as 25,000 meters per day (15.6 miles), Jochums had ignored the movement. Ten years later, the pendulum had swung in the other direction and swimmers practiced as little as 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) per day. Jochums had ignored that, too.
Joining his program was like stepping into a time machine and going back three decades, to a time when all swimmers had crew cuts and military push-ups were the primary form of dryland exercise. At Santa Clara, the daily workout was the most basic and simple in all of swimming: First came a ten-minute warmup, followed by a 1,000-meter kicking set done hard to exhaust the legs for the remainder of practice. Then came the main set, usually between 1,800 and 2,400 meters of fast swimming that descended to all-out, race-pace efforts. Immediately following was a 400 -meter "lungbuster" pull, where the swimmer breathed less each lap while simultaneously trying to recover from the previous set. Next was a hard pulling set, followed by a second 400-meter lungbuster. The workout usually ended with an aerobic warmdown and totaled about 7,500 meters (4.7 miles).
It was the unforgiving daily intensity of the main set and the pulling set that made the system different. There are so many myriad combinations of strokes, distances, and intervals in swimming that a coach can easily go an entire season without repeating a main set, and many take pride in doing so. But for twenty-five years, Jochums had employed less than two dozen total. An individual swimmer might be exposed to as few as a half dozen main sets during a year.
Some swim programs engage in as many as forty unique sets during a single workout. Santa Clara repeated its same six-set routine twice a day, five or six days per week, for a weekly total of some forty-five miles. This was not much mileage in comparison to other top programs. But if sport were religion, the coach's training, with its rote, unchanging formula, was a spare Catholic mass, one found in a cloistered, high-walled environment and stubbornly conducted in Latin. And indeed, there was a righteous zeal permeating the Santa Clara clubhouse, a sense that the group existed in an earlier time and was pitted against the modern world beyond its gates.
Something incredible had happened to Tom Wilkens after the 1998 World Championships. Already one of the best swimmers in the United States, he had not lost a 200-meter breaststroke race again. In fact, he had barely lost at all. After returning stateside, he promptly stormed through his senior year undefeated in dual meets. At the NCAA championships, he captained Stanford to its sixth national title and won all three of his individual races, the 200-yard individual medley (usually called I.M., it combines all four strokes: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle), the 400-yard I.M., and the 200-yard breaststroke. He continued winning through the subsequent summer, capturing the high-point award at the 1998 U.S. nationals and qualifying in three events for the upcoming Pan Pacific Championships, the final international tune-up before the Olympics.
Something else had happened during that amazing string of victories. At the 1998 nationals, Wilkens had defeated Grote in the 200-meter breaststroke. Not by much, and at the time it didn't seem like a big deal. Grote had been swamped by medical-school work and was at a low point while Wilkens was on a roll. But still. One day Grote had realized with a mixture of surprise and odd pleasure that his younger friend had become not just another competitor but his primary rival. The two of them had ended the 1998 season with Wilkens ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 -meter breaststroke and Grote No. 2. Grote was also ranked No. 2 in the 100-meter breaststroke, a remarkable achievement considering that he could barely train because of his school work. In fact, the reason Wilkens was training alone was because Grote's current schedule only allowed him time to train on his own during lunch. Meanwhile, Wilkens' world rankings told the tale of his improvement: He had jumped from No. 10 to No. 1 in the 200-meter breaststroke, from No. 33 to No. 7 in the 200-meter I.M., and from No. 10 to No. 6 in the hard-to-crack 400-meter I.M.
Now it was April 1999, and Wilkens, improving on an almost daily basis, was entering realms of training performance that made Jochums shake his head in amazement. The swimmer had Olympic fever; it had pushed into the whorls of his brain until the image of the five interlocking rings and the distinct Olympic anthem had seared his consciousness. Word had been getting around the swimming world that the Stanford graduate could sustain levels of peak training longer than nearly any other elite swimmer. It wasn't just what he did on a particular day; it was what he did on a daily basis. And it wasn't just breaststroke. Jochums was pushing him hard toward the 400-meter I.M., the sport's decathlon, and Wilkens was responding with practice times in all four strokes that would have made him competitive with any swimmer on the planet in any discipline or distance except sprint freestyle.
But the fatigue was setting in. Swim training is oddly cyclical. An athlete will experience multiple weeks of steady improvement and then inexplicably hit a wall that can last for weeks or even months. It is a frustrating and trying sport, and Wilkens was about to enter an unwanted period of slowdown. The previous afternoon, Santa Clara's youth workout had ended and about fifty squealing kids raced across the deck to the locker rooms' warm showers. An astonishing number were Asian, perhaps signaling the future of what has traditionally been an all-white, country-club sport. Among the pack was Wilkens, 21/2 feet taller than everyone else and flushed bright red from a hard final set. He ran like a swimmer, awkward, his chest puffed out and his shoulders thrown too far back. In the shower area, fifteen over-amped ten-year-olds screamed, spit water at each other, and fought for shower space. A white-bearded grandfather, his eyed bugged with impatience, stood in the doorway shouting for his grandson, Steven, to hurry up. In the middle of the chaos but also outside it was Wilkens, hands clasped on top of the showerhead, his head lolling in exhaustion as water streamed over it. He was so tired he could barely stand. A kid whose head was frothy with shampoo lathered his hands and smacked them together. White suds coated Wilkens from head to toe and he didn't notice. Someone else threw an empty bottle of conditioner that bounced off his foot and he didn't move. The cacophony was incredible. The grandfather continued to yell for Steven. Had Wilkens fallen asleep on his feet? His eyes were closed and his slumping body slowly relaxed until he suddenly snapped upright with a start.
That was yesterday. Today, he finished his pulling set and removed his equipment without speaking. He left his goggles on, which Jochums knew was a sign things weren't going well. The coach gave him an "easy" warm-down set, 6 x 100 yards on a rest interval of 1:15. That meant he had one minute and fifteen seconds to swim 100 yards and he would repeat it six times. All of swim training — as well as the training for track and other sports — is based on this type of "interval training." For the set, Jochums wanted him to swim the first twenty-five yards backstroke and the remaining seventy-five yards breaststroke. Wilkens nodded. For the average college swimmer, the set would have been nearly impossible to make.
"You ever have anyone go 3:45?" Wilkens mumbled.
A smile twitched on the coach's lips and quickly disappeared. Wilkens was asking about a time in the 400-yard I.M. that would win NCAA championships, and when converted into Olympic swimming (meters) could come close to winning the Olympics. The question was an indication that Jochums' relentless insistence that the 400-meter I.M. was Wilkens' best race was beginning to pay off. Though Wilkens was a remarkable 400 I.M. swimmer (he twice won NCAAs in the event), his No. 1 ranking in the breaststroke logically suggested he should place all his focus there. That was even truer considering his training environment enabled him to track his primary competitor, Grote, every day.
"I've never had anyone that fast in the 400 I.M., but I will," Jochums now said to Wilkens. "I've never seen breaststroke sets like the ones you're giving me. I've seen freestyle sets like yours only a few times, and they always led to the Olympics. You're the whole package. You're not a breaststroker. You're not a 200 I.M. swimmer or any other bullshit thing. You're a 400 I.M. swimmer and you're going to be the best the world has ever seen. You'll be a lot faster than 3:45."
Wilkens was impossible to read through his smoked goggles as he listened to his coach. He began swimming.
You're a 400 I.M. swimmer. Those are words on which dreams are built. In swimming, the 400-meter I.M. stands alone. It is the aquatic decathlon, a punishing eight-lap medley of all four strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle) that is at once the most difficult event in swimming and the most intellectual. It requires not only phenomenal fitness but cunning, strategy, and execution. Parry and strike, check and checkmate. That is the dance of the 400-meter I.M. Leads may change a half dozen times as swimmers attempt to neutralize their opponents' strengths and exploit their weaknesses. The first two legs, butterfly and backstroke, depend on arm strength and technique. The third stage, the breaststroke, abruptly switches the race's emphasis to the legs. It's a major transition point and a key moment for offensive strikes. The final freestyle segment is an all-out brawl won on guts and training base, not on strength or technique. The 400-meter I.M. is so keenly different from all the other events that even accomplished swimmers avoid racing it out of fear they won't finish. Coaches use it as a form of punishment in practice.
The 400-meter I.M. is the closest thing swimming has to heavyweight boxing, and its champion is the King of Swimming. During much of the 1990s, that title had belonged to the pale and scowling Tom Dolan, the most dominating male swimmer in the United States and the 400-meter I.M.'s world record-holder. At 6'6? and 180 lbs., the two-time American Swimmer of the Year was thin as a reed and as angled as a paper clip. He was unbeatable in the two medley races, virtually unbeatable in any freestyle event over 200 meters, and one of the best backstrokers in American history. He owned most of the Top 10 all-time fastest times in both the 200-meter I.M. and 400-meter I.M. In the five years since setting the world record in the 400-meter I.M., no one had come within two seconds of his time. Dolan knew it, too.
With tattoos showing above his suit line, a glinting earring, and an I-will-destroy-you countenance, the University of Michigan graduate was the bad boy of squeaky-clean American swimming. He had anger juicing through his veins, although it was hard to figure out why. Dolan had grown up comfortable in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., and swam for the renowned Curl-Burke Swim Club. His father was a prominent courtroom lawyer who twice unsuccessfully ran for Attorney General of Virginia, the traditional stepping-stone to the governorship. His mother taught at a local Catholic university. Yet the swimmer acted as if life had done him a grave injustice. Opponents were pursued and cut down as enemies. He refused to make friends with competitors — even those who were teammates. Behind the blocks before races, his eyes turned flat and ruthless. Never a glimpse of mercy, never a flicker of doubt. He was unstoppable, perhaps the greatest competitor in the sport. Athletes racing him seemed braced for punishment. If there was one race in all of swimming to avoid because its top spot was locked up, it was the men's 400-meter I.M.
Yet it was the 400-meter I.M., with its mystical allure and invincible champion, that Wilkens thought about when he closed his eyes. Wilkens had only one dream race, and it was in the 400 -meter I.M. He's racing at some major competition, but not necessarily the Olympics, and is swimming out of his mind. On the butterfly leg, his kick is phenomenal. On backstroke, his weakest link, he stays even with the leaders. They move to breaststroke and for all practical intents the race is over because no I.M. swimmer in the world can stay with him. Wilkens gains a two body-length lead, and coming home doing freestyle, he increases it another several feet. He nearly blasts a hole through the wall when he touches and the crowd roars because he has set a world record. But he doesn't care. He turns to his right. Tom Dolan comes into the wall several seconds later. In this fantasy, the unbeatable King of Swimming turns to Wilkens and gasps, "That was the best race of my life and you killed me."
Excerpted from Gold in the Water by P. H. Mullen. Copyright © 2001 P. H. Mullen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
P.H. Mullen has written for numerous publications, including Sports Illustrated, Travel & Leisure, USA Today, and The Washington Post. He also holds one of history's fastest times for swimming the English Channel. Mr. Mullen graduated from Dartmouth College and lives in northern California with his wife and daughter.
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