Nall making waves as Girl of Summer OLYMPIC PROFILES ANITA NALL


July 12, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

She is everywhere. On magazine covers. On television. Bobbed brown hair and shimmering eyes. Infectious smile. Irresistible story.

Kid swims fast. Very fast. Gets a world record. Becomes an Olympian before she even has a driver's license.

Reporters crowd her life. They come from Europe and Asia and across the United States. Two hundred of them. NBC-TV personnel camp out in her home in Towson for two days. They film family meals. They follow her to school. They even troop into her basement bedroom, making sure not to puncture the water bed, and watch as she dresses up for a prom date.

Finally, enough. Just swimming. The Meadowbrook pool in Mount Washington becomes a sanctuary. She trains with renewed energy. Fury even. The record is hers. So now is the pressure. She talks vaguely of butterflies.

But in the water, alone, swimming miles of laps, her head bobbing up and down like some sort of waterlogged jack-in-the-box, she is free.

"Some people think this is boring," she said. "But I don't. I love the water. And I love to swim."

Anita Nall is a star in waiting. She turns 16 on July 21, four days before the opening of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. She is a breaststroke swimmer, the best in the world at 200 meters and among the best at 100.

In years past, long before the Olympics became a giant corporate octopus fed by American television money, Nall would have grown and trained in obscurity, finally emerging, with a smile on her face and a gold medal around her neck. But in the 1990s, in an age of satellites and People magazine, Nall has been transformed into "This Year's Girl" of the Summer Games.

Photo shoots for Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine and The Gap. Questions thrown at her like so many split times. The smile never leaves her face. Over and over she repeats her story, a tale of the girl from Harrisburg, Pa., who moved to Towson and trained for Barcelona. She is so smooth and polished now, she could anchor a network newscast. Even questions that try to blend her athletic greatness with her youth never leave her speechless.

"Oh, you mean like the time someone asked, 'What do you want more, a gold medal or a driver's license?' " she said. "I mean, what do you think?"

You see, deep down, the experience hasn't so much changed Nall as made her yearn to remain the same bubbly teen-ager she was before the media storm swept her life. Her room is still a mess. She collects Troll dolls. Watches horror films. Listens to music by Erasure. Enjoys geometry. Hangs around the neighborhood mall with her friends. Wears T-shirts, sweats, hiking boots and wool socks.

In the summer. Turns dinner into a six-course meal, beginning with a platter of chicken and ending with a bowl of cereal, after working her way through fruits, vegetables, pasta and bread.

"I don't like change," she said. "I like old things. Old cars. Old music."

To Nall, the Steve Miller Band qualifies as classic rock.

Still, she is breaking barriers and tradition. The youngest member of the U.S. swim team is a professional. In an Olympics overrun with millionaire basketball and tennis players, there is now swimming for dollars. Even teen-agers can keep the cash, although they give up claims for receiving college athletic scholarships.

For Nall, claiming two world records in one day at the Olympic trials in March was worth $10,000.

She also earned $31,500 in training stipends during the past 17 months from U.S. Swimming, the sport's national governing body. If she strikes it big in Barcelona, becoming not just a star in her sport, but also a personality on a grand stage, she could reap thousands in endorsements. Yes, the agents have followed the news media, beating a path to the Nall town house in Towson.

Don't worry. The kid is still unspoiled, just another junior-to-be at Towson Catholic High School.

The story remains pure.

Olympic name

On the evening of July 21, 1976, in a waiting room in a Harrisburg hospital, John Nall glanced at a television set as Nadia Comaneci of Romania reached perfection at the Montreal Summer Olympics, performing a gymnastics routine that was judged a 10. Hours later, in a delivery room, Marilyn Nall gave birth to her third daughter, the one who would be baptized after an Olympian, Nadia Anita Louise.

Nearly 16 years after that night, telling this story in the living room of their home, the Nalls laugh at the memory of the birth and the significance of the name.

"We didn't know we had an Olympian on our hands," said Marilyn, a secretary at Towson State.

What the Nalls knew was they had this effervescent child. The infant who wore casts on her legs because her feet were turned in so severely. The 5-year-old who was a regular at the family-owned tavern in Big Run, Pa., calling out the names of the steady customers, playing checkers right on the bar. The 6-year-old swimmer who would wait by the door a half-hour before practice, her coat on, her gym bag packed.

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