Making a Big Splash

updated 03/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1992 01:00AM

There are medals to be passed out in Barcelona, but for world-class drama the Summer Olympics will have to go far to top the races at the Indiana University Natatorium three weeks ago. As swimmers vied to make the U.S. Olympic team, world records fell; past champions lost in early events only to come roaring back to win later. What emerged is arguably the strongest American swimming team ever—marked, as the following stories illustrate, by extraordinary youth and experience.

HOW POPULAR IS PABLO MORALES? Put it this way: "I was rooting for the guy," says Melvin Stewart, Morales's arch-rival in the 100-meter butterfly, "and I had to race him."

Ironically, as the swimmers stepped onto the blocks, the sweatiest palms in the house may have belonged to Pedro Pablo Morales Sr., 57, of Santa Clara, Calif., who sat high up in the stands murmuring prayers for his son. A 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Pablo had been the overwhelming favorite at the '88 trials in three events. Incredibly, he failed to qualify in any of them. Then he retired to go to law school. Now here he was again, four years later, hoping to become one of two to go to Barcelona in the 100-meter 'fly.

"Through my heart I was talking to him," says Pedro of the trials. "The emotion was so big, I was afraid. I say, 'Pablo, slow down. I don't want to have a heart attack.' "

The news from Indianapolis is that Pablo sped to victory and Pedro's heart held up just fine. With the crowd of 4,000 chanting his name, Morales surged ahead in the last 15 meters to overtake Stewart and to give himself a chance in Barcelona to rewrite his own Olympic history. "I couldn't even see the scoreboard when Pablo won, I was crying so hard," says his coach, Skip Kenney of the Stanford University swimming team. "It was the most emotional thing I'd ever seen."

There seem to be a lot of reasons why people get emotional about Pablo Morales. First of all, everybody has a kind word for this guy. Second, Pablo is an old man by swimming standards: At 27, most great swimmers seldom go near water without soap. What's more, he gave himself just seven months to get into shape—after three years' absence from competition. And he took the plunge just weeks after his mother, Blanca, died of cancer.

Blanca was the reason Pablo became a swimmer. She and Pedro left Cuba in 1956 and settled in Chicago, where Pablo and his sister, Helena, 30, were born. When the kids were still young, Blanca started them out with swimming lessons at the community pool. Vivid in her memory was a day she herself almost drowned off a Havana beach. "She just wanted us to learn how to swim," says Pablo.

It was 1981—15 years after the family moved to Santa Clara, where Pedro found work as an auto transmission repairman and Blanca as a keypunch operator—that Pablo really got his feet wet, winning the Junior Nationals in the 100-and 200-meter butterfly. In 1983 he entered Stanford, where he won an unprecedented 11 NCAA championship events over four years. In 1986 he set a record in the 100-meter butterfly. It still stands.

Then came 1988. A year earlier Blanca had been told she had cancer, and Pablo trained harder than ever. When he washed out in the trials, he was devastated. He climbed into his car and drove 15 hours up the coast to stay with Helena in Seattle and sort through the wreckage. "I finally developed a fatalistic approach, that this was just one of life's lessons," he says.

Pablo moved on to Cornell University Law School, where he has one more year until graduation. But he had not completely given up on swimming. "Finally, in August, after my mom died, I made up my mind to try again," he says, and he took a leave from school. "I felt I was older and more mature and could handle failure. I also wanted to go back and live with Dad."

As Pablo plowed through the water in Indianapolis, he found himself thinking for a split second about his mother. "Her image came to mind during the race," he says. Then, as the winner was announced, Pedro rushed from the stands with Blanca's picture in his hand.

"I don't think words were spoken," says Pablo. "We just cried."

HEY, BARCELONA, MEET THE KID FROM BALTIMORE

On July 21, 1976, Marilyn Nall was in a labor room at Harrisburg (Pa.) Polyclinic Hospital. At her side John Nall and Marilyn's obstetrician were glued to a TV set.

"Excuse me..." Marilyn said, attempting to get the men's attention.

"Don't bother us, we're watching Comaneci!" John blurted out, only half jokingly.

"But, John! I'm having the baby!" cried Marilyn. Indeed, the Nalls' fourth and last child, a daughter, entered the world as Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci's nearly flawless performance flickered across the screen. In honor of the moment—and as an augury of a moment still to come—the baby was baptized Nadia Anita Louise Nall.

OK, so Anita Nall was destined to become an Olympian. But at age 15 and with a world-record flourish? During a qualifying heat at the trials, Nall shaved more than a half second off the women's record in the 200-meter breaststroke. Then, in the finals that evening she broke the record again—by another half second. Her stunning speed seems not to faze Anita at all. "I just have self-motivation," she explains. "I love to swim."

So much so that when the 6-year-old began, her parents had trouble keeping her out of the water. "I used to go for two hours in the morning, come home and eat lunch, then go back to the pool for five hours," she says.

Within one year, Nall was leaving her age-group competitors in her wake. In 1989 her father, a Social Security supervisor, was transferred to Baltimore, which enabled Anita to sign on with coaching legend Murray Stephens at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "When I first saw her swim, I knew she had it," says Stephens. "Besides the best stroke in the world, she's got the best attitude. I've coached more than a thousand swimmers, and I've never seen anyone as tough-minded as Anita. When the big meet rolls around, she does it."

Or maybe Anita is just a born winner. Despite three-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week practices, she is an honor student at Towson Catholic High School. And for those of her schoolmates who "look at me like I'm this big superstar," Anita is quick to demystify her sport. "Swimming is really simple," she says with a laugh. "All you try to do is get to the wall first."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
SUSAN REED
BILL SHAW in Indianapolis and TOM NUGENT in Baltimore

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