INDIANAPOLIS -- After it was over, after four years of waiting and two years of law school and one season of uncertainty, Pablo Morales could say finally that the comeback ultimately was worthwhile.
Four years ago, he had come to the U.S. swimming trials with an Olympic gold medal from 1984, one world record and two American records. But when it came time to compete, the records meant nothing, and he was left behind, an unlucky three-time third-place finisher who didn't receive a ticket to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
But last night, Morales earned a place in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. The 27-year-old from Santa Clara, Calif., won the men's 100-meter butterfly in the Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships, which serve as the U.S. trials.
His time of 54.05 seconds may have been slow, nearly three seconds behind his 6-year-old world mark of 52.84. But time did not matter. In a meet where only the top two finishers of each event are assured of Olympic spots, the urge to win is what drove Morales to the wall.
"This comeback is not about 1988," Morales said. "It's about 1992. There was a sense of something being unfinished. I was prepared to go on with my life. I had reconciled myself to 1988 long ago."
Morales' victory was among the dominant stories of Day 2 of the trials.
In other races:
Nicole Haislett of St. Petersburg, Fla., won the women's 200 freestyle in 1:58.65. Jenny Thompson of Dover, N.H., who set the world record in the 100 freestyle Sunday, was second in 1:59.98.
Eric Namenik of Butler, Pa., won the men's 400 individual medley in 4:15.60. David Wharton of Warminster, Pa., the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the event, was second in 4:17.58.
But Morales' triumph at the Indiana University Natatorium was probably the the most popular in the meet. Even before the race, second-place finisher Melvin Stewart said: "Everyone wants Pablo to make this team. Everyone is pulling for him. If you could choose anyone to win, it would be Pablo."
What sets Morales apart is his age, his education and his history. In a sport filled with teen-agers, he is, at 27, an old man.
"I may have thought I was old, too," he said. "But you have seen in the last 10 years plenty of examples of swimmers carrying their careers to the mid and late 20s."
Morales also possesses superb academic credentials, with an undergraduate degree in history from Stanford University. He is two years into law school at Cornell University.
And, of course, there is Morales' hard-luck tale from 1988. After winning three medals, including a gold at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, he was expected to emerge as a U.S. leader in Seoul. Instead, he failed to make the cut at the trials, and retired.
Then, suddenly, he re-emerged last August and announced he had decided to return to swimming.
Last night, he faced a deep, talented field that included Matt Biondi, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, and Stewart, the world-record holder in the 200 butterfly.
Stewart brought a sense of gamesmanship to the race with a deliberate false start.
"I feel like kind of a little weasel, like I shouldn't be here," Stewart said.
Asked to explain the false start, Stewart smiled and said: "If I told you everything, I'd have to kill you. It's top secret."
Whatever the reason, the false start broke the tension. When the race finally took place, Morales and Stewart led the pack to the wall, for a tight, taut finish. Biondi was back in sixth.
"I guess there was a little disbelief there," Morales said. "I was in an extremely tough race. Melvin was charging so well. I felt the whole pack come up on me. That last 20 meters, I don't know how I touched the wall. I was ecstatic to make the Olympic team. Then, I looked at the time, and I thought, that has to come down before Barcelona. I'm extremely happy to talk about a successful swim, rather than a disappointing one."
After the race, he pumped his left fist at his father, Pedro Pablo, who was celebrating his 57th birthday. Morales' mother, Blanca, 57, died of cancer in September.
"I always think of her," Morales said. "This race is something our family has been thinking about for a long time. This was an important moment for us."
(Distances in meters; top two finishers qualify for Olympic team)
100 butterfly--1, Pablo Morales, Santa Clara, Calif., 54.05 seconds. 2, Melvin Stewart, Charlotte, N.C., 54.06. 3, Seth Pepper, Salem, Ore., 54.37. 4, Bart Pippinger, Orofino, Idaho, 54.58. 5, David Cademartori, Walnut Creek, Calif., 54.62. 6, Matt Biondi, Castro Valley, Calif., 54.68. 7, Mark Henderson, Fort Washington, Md., 54.82. 8, Michael Ross, Sommers, Conn., 55.14.