No-contact rule is out of touch

MIKE LITTWIN

July 30, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BARCELONA, SPAIN — BARCELONA -- Is it me, or is something terribly wrong here?

Anita Nall, only 16, the youngest American swimmer, has come back from a stunning bronze-medal disappointment in the 200-meter breaststroke to win a silver in the 100 by swimming a personal best. She lost by a touch.

The rising junior from Towson Catholic is all smiles as she stands on the platform, receives flowers and a medal, meets the press, and discusses French birthday cakes and the driver's license in her future. Then she makes for the bus back to the Olympic Village.

Gathered behind a gate in the parking lot is her family. They had seen her once -- just once -- in the past three weeks. Six guards and a metal fence stand between Anita and her mother and father and brother and two sisters and others in the extended Nall clan. They see her and begin to shout, "Anita, Anita." Hands are waving. Smiles are measured in kilowatts. You've seen this part of the scene a thousand times.

Here's where it gets weird. Richard Quick, an Olympic coach who is leading her by the arm, sees the commotion and continues to point Nall toward the bus. She takes two more steps and then breaks. Yes, she breaks. She runs to her parents, who shower her with hugs and kisses before Quick can retrieve her and lead her back to the bus. They have about 15 seconds.

As she turns away, her smile disappears and then she disappears into the bus.

No wonder Anita's personal coach, Murray Stephens, said the other day, "It's like she's in prison."

That's it exactly. Something is wrong here. Is this the Olympics or "Papillon"?

Anita didn't celebrate with her family after winning her medal last night. There wasn't time, she said.

"I've got to get back to the village, eat and then go to bed," she said. "I need my rest."

She said it matter-of-factly, as if that's the way it should be. She's 16. She listens to what they tell her. She's a wonderful, bouncy kid with a smile that demands one in return. She loves being here. She's relieved that her two races are over (this morning's 400-meter medley relay remains), but ask her whether she'll be haunted by failing to win in a gold in the 200 and she'll look at you as if you're the reporter from another planet.

And yet, she was one big jitter on Monday. It was the breaststroke she was swimming, but all she had was butterflies. Maybe it would have helped to see her family.

She did see them -- the day after.

"We had a great talk," said her dad, John Nall. "We hadn't seen her for three weeks. Give us a break. She needed a little quality time with her family. She's very close to her family. . . . We've gotten used to her after 15 years. We like Anita. I think she likes us."

She left three weeks ago to go to, as her dad put it, "some damn town in France." It was Narbonne, where the Olympic swimmers made their final preparation. Personal coaches were excluded, but an exception was made for Nall and her coach, perhaps because of her tender years. She turned 16 on July 21.

"It was very difficult for a 15-year-old," said Marilyn Nall, Anita's mom, after the race. "This was her second international meet. Her second international meet was the Olympics."

Some will say that a bronze and silver -- she may yet win the gold in the 400-meter medley relay today -- constitute a disappointment. Are they kidding? Given the conditions, her performance was remarkable.

Nothing much seems to get her down. After her silver, she described her 16th birthday, celebrated in Narbonne. She got up, swam, went to a team meeting, then went to lunch at the hotel, where the manager delivered a birthday cake for her and teammate Janie Wagstaff.

"At night," she said, just the way your normal, gee-whiz, 16-year-old would say it, "we went to this great restaurant and we had a giant, seven-layer cake. I only had a little piece because, you know. I got this mini-pizza for an appetizer, and I thought it was the whole meal. Then they brought spaghetti. I had to share it with somebody else."

It was a great birthday. Being in France on the way to the Olympics is not a bad way to celebrate your 16th.

Then she went off to the most stressful days in her life -- days that would shape her life -- and she went without the people who mean the most to her.

"I got to talk to them on the phone," she said of her family. "It's hard, but I'm dealing with it OK."

Why is it so hard?

The U.S. swimming folks say it doesn't have to be. They insist they aren't trying to limit access. They say that there's time during the day for families. And, in fact, Anita spent one afternoon with her folks here -- one afternoon. Is something wrong here? You bet.

In 1988 at Seoul, the swimmers were surrounded by coaches and family, and the team flopped. Somebody panicked. Somebody circled the wagons, with the swimmers inside and the support groups out. On Monday, after a poor performance in the heats, Anita couldn't see her personal coach. She couldn't see her family. Is this the way to run an Olympics? Is this the way to win a gold medal?

Soon it will be over. She'll go home, back to Towson, back to her friends and family, removed from the network news and Rolling Stone picture shoots.

"She'll be fine," said her dad. "She's looking forward to college. She's looking forward to getting a driver's license. She's a very well-adjusted person."

Then he had to leave. She was on the platform. He had pictures to take, memories to capture.

"I think things will get back to normal real fast when I get home," Anita said.

After a long rest, training resumes. She says she'll probably try for another Olympics. Wish her luck.

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