HAVANA -- Indianapolis in 1987 belonged to Sylvia Poll. She was this 17-year-old who came from nowhere and everywhere to win eight swimming medals at the Pan American Games.
She looked like a basketball player and swam like a submarine out on maneuvers. And she had this exotic life story to tell, of bumping around Latin American with her German-born parents.
The story and the swimmer are a little older, yet no less enchanting. Poll is now 21 and even more self-assured. But to be honest, these Pan Am Games are merely a training exercise for her.
Last night, she appeared in her first and only race at the sweltering pool complex, taking the women's 100-meter backstroke gold medal in 1 minute, 3.15 seconds. Winning eight medals in 1987 was easy. Winning once in 1991 was hard.
"I don't like to compare 1987 with 1991," she said. "It's a totally different race."
On a night when Americans counted medals and came up with two golds -- Jane Skillman in the 400 freestyle and the women's 400 relay, when Brazilians Gustavo Borges (100 freestyle) and Rogerio Romero (200 backstroke) staged surprising victories, the story was Poll and this one race. She wanted to win, and she did, and that's all that mattered.
"The second time around, I'm not the same swimmer," she said. "It's tough to stay on top. In Indianapolis, everything was new. No one even knew who I was. No one expected me to win or said, 'You had to win all the time.' "
Four years ago, Poll was on the hot streak of a career. She won Pan Am golds in the 100 freestyle, 200 free and 100 backstroke, silvers in the 50 free and 200 backstroke, and a silver and two bronzes on relays. She returned to her home in San Jose, Costa Rica as a national heroine.
"It was crazy," she said. "I couldn't even be alone."
But Poll learned to embrace fame. Born in Nicaragua but raised in Costa Rica, she wanted to stay in her new home. American universities began dangling offers of college scholarships. Texas wanted her. So did Stanford and Florida. She decided to attend the University of Costa Rica.
Now, no misunderstanding. Poll says she loves America. "The swimming, the competition, the shopping." But she prefers to remain with the only coach she has ever known, Francisco Rivas.
"He got me started in the sport when I was 11," she said. "I was irresponsible sometimes. I did a lot of things wrong in the pool. Little pranks. But he stuck with me."
Rivas was able to refine Poll's stroke. In a sport of average heights and slender builds, Poll stands out. She is 6 feet 2, all arms, legs and long blond hair.
"I know I'm the tallest girl out there," she said. "I'm maybe the tallest, even among the boys. In swimming, there is no advantage or disadvantage with height. Look at Janet Evans in 1988, she won all those Olympic medals against those huge Germans. Me, I'm terrible in basketball and volleyball. I can't jump at all. Gosh, I'd love to touch the rim. Everyone says it's impossible, you must touch the rim, you're so tall. I wish I could play like the Brazilian or the American basketball players. Now, -- that's incredible."
Poll won a silver medal in the 200 freestyle at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. She never even considered retirement, pressing ahead to the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Cuba was just a pit stop. She has been here twice before, and even met President Fidel Castro.
"He likes to swim," she said. "He asked me to show him how to do the proper stroke. So I showed him."
Last night, she showed the crowd how to win. With a strong rush in the final 50, she held off silver medalist Nicole Dryden of Canada and bronze medalist Jodi Wilson of the United States. When the placings were lit on the scoreboard, Poll clapped her hands and floated toward the middle of the pool.
"I knew the event would be hard," she said. "I knew I would have to finish very fast. I finally arrived and I was happy that I saw I had won. I felt really satisfied. The last few months, not many people believed in my work. I wasn't getting the results. But I was training, training very hard."
An hour later, she was talking of a victory celebration and of taking a flight to Edmonton, Alberta to compete in the Pan Pacific championships. There is so much to do and so little time.
"My major goal is Barcelona in 1992," she said. "If that wasn't my goal, I would burn out."