Morales' comeback has a golden finish 27-year-old's return ends in butterfly win BARCELONA '92

July 28, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Pablo Morales kept waiting to hear the cheers.

He simply couldn't look at the scoreboard. Couldn't even turn away from the wall.

"In every race, there is a moment of silence," he said. "And you wait."

There was Los Angeles in 1984, when the swimmer with the helicopter-sized arms named Michael Gross beat him to the wall and all he could hear "was the German contingent screaming." There was Austin, Texas, in 1988, and an American trials that ended in defeat, a crowd gasping at the sight of this world record holder eliminated.

But when the times flashed on the board yesterday, the roar started in one corner of the swimming stadium and began to build, finally circling the place, sending a shout into the night.

Morales had won.

If you want your Olympics laden with drama, want to be kicked in the gut by a story and a moment, then you've come to the right place.

This was the stuff of Olympic legend. A 27-year-old son of Cuban immigrants putting aside law school, coming back after three years of retirement, winning his first individual Olympic gold medal in the men's 100-meter butterfly.

"Winning a gold medal is a dream come true," Morales said. "But in life, we don't always realize our goals. And not all of our dreams do come true. But this one did."

It was a night when Nicole Haislett of St. Petersburg, Fla., won the gold in the women's 200-meter freestyle. Tamas Darnyi of Hungary won the men's 400 individual medley over Erik Namesnik, of Butler, Pa. And the U.S. men's 4 x 200 freestyle relay team failed to get the gold for the first time in a non-boycott Olympics since 1956, settling for the bronze behind the Unified Team and Sweden.

But Morales was the story of the night. Maybe even the story of the Games.

It was beautiful to watch -- Morales pumping his fist after seeing his time of 53.32 seconds, second-place finisher Rafal Szukala of Poland and third-place finisher Anthony Nesty of Suriname, the 1988 Olympic champion, floating over to give him a hug.

And then Morales lifted himself from the water and said all the right things to all the right people.

"When I started this comeback, it wasn't to see how far a 27-year-old could go," he said. "I had specific goals of making the Olympic team. Having gotten that out of the way, the next goal was to challenge for the gold medal. It's in the challenge and the road to that goal that is fulfilling to me. I was going for a gold medal because you have to extend yourself."

In 1984 at the Los Angeles Games, he thought he got that gold but was beaten by Gross. In 1988, he didn't even make the team. So he quit the sport and headed off to Cornell Law School.

"I couldn't watch the 100 'fly when it came on at the Seoul Olympics," he said. "Some things are too difficult in life. I think you understand."

A year ago, his mother, Blanca, grew weak with cancer, and Morales came home to Santa Clara, Calif. Before her death in September, he resumed training and talked of the Olympics.

Morales didn't promise his mother that he would win a gold, only that he would make the attempt. He shed the softness around his gut, swam faster, made the team during the trials in March.

He was prepared for anything in Barcelona -- winning, losing, not even making the final.

As he raced the final meters, his rivals gained steadily, and at the wall, you needed a slow-motion replay and a computerized clock to pick apart first from third.

Up in the stands, Pedro Morales was shaking. Inside a bag, he carried a picture of his wife. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he talked of his son.

"I'm so happy for him," he said. "It took him four years to get that medal. There were times I didn't think he would get there. But he said, 'Dad, I'll try my best,' and I knew that would be enough for him."

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