She's only 15, but already Nall has become an overnight splash

March 04, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- The adults talked of steroids and East Germans, of world records and Olympic medals. But the 15-year-old wearing the Birkenstock sandals, wool socks and blue sweat suit just wanted to go back to sleep.

"I know I'm here," Anita Nall said yesterday. "But I feel kind of foggy."

On the day after she twice set world records in the 200-meter breast stroke and qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim team, Nall sat still on a metal folding chair in a room just off the pool deck at the Indiana University Natatorium and answered questions.

Her life story tumbled out in about an hour.

Nall is a bona fide swimming superstar, now, a cereal-box cover waiting to happen. So when she talked, reporters listened, and a yearbook-style profile of a Towson Catholic High School sophomore emerged.

Favorite book: The Catcher in the Rye.

Favorite movie: The Silence of the Lambs (she has seen it only 12 times, but insists the book is better).

Favorite class: Geometry.

Hobbies: None.

Friends: Many.

"The world record is really neat," Nall said. "It's one of the neatest things I have ever had before."

When Nall twice lowered the world record in the 200 breast stroke Monday, finally settling on 2 minutes, 25.35 seconds in the night final of the 1992 Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships, she made more than history. She helped topple a mark created from the laboratories of a now-discredited system. The previous record of 2:26.71 set by East Germany's Silke Hoerner at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, has since been labeled drug-enhanced.

Two months ago, 20 former East German swimming coaches admitted in Der Spiegel magazine that they supplied steroids to their top swimmers, among them Hoerner and Kristin Otto, whose 100-meter freestyle record was broken Sunday by Jenny Thompson, of Dover, N.H.

"I know about the suspicion of steroids," Nall said. "But I didn't think that mattered anymore. I was 11 years old when all that happened. I had no concept of what this steroid stuff was all about. I hadn't heard about it until I heard about the world record. I'm really glad we have these world records, now. I think it shows steroids don't work. You can go farther without drugs."

Jill Johnson, a 1986 Dulaney High School graduate who finished second to Nall and made the Olympic team, agrees.

"This proves to me and a lot of other people that steroids can't beat talent and hard work," she said.

Johnson has been overshadowed by Nall in the past two days. Still, her story is equally compelling. She came out of the same North Baltimore Aquatic Club program that spawned Nall. But instead of finding instant success as a teen-ager, she has taken a long, steady path to the Olympics, attending Stanford University for four years before settling in for a final year of training at Harvard.

"Jill dedicated the last two years of her life to make this Olympic

team," said Johnson's coach, Michael Chasson. "It was a very intense period for her."

But the work yielded results as Johnson shaved four seconds off her personal best time to make the Olympic team. Yet after she earned her Olympic berth, all anyone asked Johnson, 22, was what she thought of sitting next to a 15-year-old world-record holder.

"Anita is very talented," Johnson said. "I can't imagine what it would be like to break a world record at 15."

For Nall, breaking the record was easy. Now, she faces the difficult task of living up to new expectations as the favorite to win the gold medal in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Today, she meets her first challenge, trying to gain another spot in the Olympic 100 breast stroke.

"I don't think this will change me much," she said. "I have a strong family. Friends. A good coach."

Nall's coach, Murray Stephens, said she can only improve in the four months leading to the Olympics.

"I don't think Anita is unaffected by all of this," he said. "She has a real good friendly face. She is excited and more than willing to share that excitement. I'd venture to say she won't have her head turned by what has happened."

But Nall has become the sport's newest overnight sensation. Just ask another teen star from the past, triple Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans.

"I saw Anita signing autographs before her race with a big smile on her face, and I thought, that's what I used to do," Evans said. "I don't want her to get overwhelmed by it."

Nall said she won't let distractions outside the pool affect her swimming. She still has plenty of work to do, though. School work, that is. She hasn't completed any of her homework assignments, but says she'll quickly catch up when she returns to Towson Catholic Monday.

"History is the hardest to make up," she said. "You have to read a lot."

But Nall has written her own history at the trials. She is a world record holder, now. When she races, people watch. When she talks, people listen.

Before falling asleep on a rubdown table yesterday, she told one last story.

"When I was born, Nadia Comaneci was performing at the 1976 Olympics," she said. "My father was walking around the room watching Nadia get a perfect 10, and my mom was in the delivery room. My mom wanted to name me Nadia, and I was baptized Nadia Anita Louise Nall. But only Anita Louise is on the birth certificate. My grandmother didn't like the name Nadia. But now, that's all she calls me."

Swimming's newest, youngest and giddiest world record holder isn't perfect, after all.

She just races. And wins.

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