Pool of expectations can put even most successful, like Nall, in deep water

Bill Tanton

September 02, 1993|By Bill Tanton

Expectations. In sports, they can be brutal.

Lou Holtz was saying that on Roy Firestone's show on ESPN this week. He said the toughest thing about coaching at Notre Dame are the expectations.

We all know what that means at ND: win 'em all big -- or else!

I thought about expectations yesterday as I watched a teen-aged swimmer hurry into the Meadowbrook pool in Mount Washington, peel down to her tank suit and dunk herself in the deep end to begin a workout.

It was Anita Nall, a year after the Olympics.

Last summer Anita's radiant face was pictured in numerous newspaper and magazine stories and in TV interviews before she went off to Barcelona.

All we asked her to do was bring back three gold medals.

We didn't think we were asking for any miracles, really. Anita's 200-meter world-record breaststroke time -- a record she still holds, by the way -- indicated it could be done.

But victory-hungry Notre Dame fans don't feel they're asking for a miracle either any time a Notre Dame football team takes the field. The Irish are good enough to win any game, any year.

But they don't win every game -- and Anita Nall didn't win the gold in all three of her Olympic events.

What she did win -- a gold medal in the medley relay, a silver in the 100-meter breaststroke and a bronze in the 200 -- was a tremendous accomplishment.

The swimming cognoscenti understand that. They realize that what Nall did in Barcelona establishes her as the greatest swimmer ever to come out of Baltimore.

Only the super demanding, instant gratification, sound bite types expected more.

This year, after being down with mononucleosis from March until June, Nall stepped up her training this summer and swam in the nationals and in the Olympic Sports Festival in Texas.

Two weeks ago, she participated in the Pan-Pacific Games in Kobe, Japan. She won three gold medals there.

"You did great in Japan," I said when Anita emerged from the pool after a workout of nearly two hours.

"I did well in Japan," she said, "not great. My times were not that great."

Expectations work both ways. Athletes have them, too.

Wouldn't you think winning three gold medals in a major $H international meet would satisfy a competitor? I would think so, and maybe you would -- and maybe that's one reason why we don't own any gold medals.

What I liked about Anita yesterday was that she looked and acted like a regular 17-year-old. That's not always easy for a world-class athlete.

She rushed to practice because she had just come from having senior pictures taken at Towson Catholic High School.

She talked about the need to complete her required summer reading. "Jane Eyre" remains unfinished and classes begin next Tuesday.

And last week Nall did something that was most unusual for her, though it is the most normal thing a local teen-ager could do. She went on vacation to Ocean City.

"I was surprised," she said, "when people recognized me down there and asked for my autograph."

Anita is a happy kid, as she should be. Though she has not accomplished everything she wants, she appreciates that already in her young life she has seen Europe, the Orient, much of America.

"I'm very lucky," she said.

What separates Nall from most of her swimming sisters is that she turned professional before the Olympics. She's ineligible to accept a college athletic scholarship.

She's a National Honor Society student, however, and next year she'll go to college somewhere, probably locally. She'll continue to train with her longtime coach, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club's Murray Stephens.

Does she now regret having turned pro? "Not really," she said. "I decided when I was 14 that I'd turn pro. I talked with my parents [John and Marilyn Nall] and with Murray. We decided that was the right thing for me.

"My friends are talking now about going off to college to swim next year, but I'm really comfortable swimming for Murray.

"Endorsements are hard to come by for a swimmer. Still, there are opportunities for me, as a pro, to win money, which would help pay for college."

"Next summer," said Stephens, who also coaches the Loyola High varsity, "Anita hopes to swim in the World Championships in Rome. She could win $30,000 there."

"I can't plan on that," she said. "I have to make the team first."

Stephens, who was with Nall at Barcelona, believes Anita stands a good chance to win more medals in the '96 Olympics, which will be held in Atlanta.

"I'm sure she'd still like to win an individual Olympic gold medal," he said. "I don't see why she couldn't. She'll only be 20 years old then. Several of the women who won gold medals in Barcelona were 20 or 21."

That's the beautiful part of the Anita Nall story. The best may be yet to come. She's only 17 years old. Lou Holtz is 56.

Let's all pull for her to have even greater success in '96. But let's not expect it.

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