Multi-talented Naber finds another pool of excellence as TNT's Olympic host

February 09, 1994|By PHIL JACKMAN

With a degree in psychology and public relations from Southern Cal, a business as a marketing consultant and called upon frequently to render motivational speeches and television commentary, you might say John Naber is a versatile chap.

But what is a guy who made his mark winning five medals in a swimming pool in Montreal some 20 years ago doing as on-site host of TNT's coverage of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway?

Rather than making reference to what happens to water when you drop the temperature to 32 degrees (ice and/or snow), John answers the question by saying, "Catch some of the interviews I'll be doing with the athletes and see."

Most broadcasters, given the assignment of talking to athletes immediately after victory or defeat, would just as soon make a run for coffee and sandwiches.

On the one hand there's the guy or gal so breathless from effort and excitement that nothing is registering cerebrally but joy.

Conversely, there's the runner-up or beaten favorite who has just had his or her world come crashing down moments before and the usual first question is, "How do you feel?"

"Besides hosting, I'll be doing all the interviews from Lillehammer," says John, proudly, "and my approach is going to be that we get something out of these little talks.

"When I came home from Canada [and the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal], it dawned on me after reviewing the videotapes that at least 90 percent of my Olympic experience occurred away from the cameras.

"Everyone will know that Bonnie Blair or Dan Jansen has just medaled in a speed skating race, so what I'll be looking to do is to draw out of the person the things we don't see, the feelings involved. And I'll put the pressure on them to be interesting and provide insight."

As a test, John was asked to provide a free-lance and reasonably concise narrative accompanying his haul of four gold medals and a silver in 1976.

Without pausing for breath, he started, "The first time I was totally convinced I had Olympic potential came in 1972 when I missed making the team by a half-second at the Trials. I hadn't really had a season, owing to the fact I cracked a collarbone and missed eight weeks of training.

"The best backstroker in the world at the time was Roland Mathes of East Germany, who had won the Olympics in 1968 and 1972. I set my goals at 55 seconds for the 100 back and two minutes for the 200, which I hoped could beat him.

"I became convinced this could be done when the U.S. and East Germans met in a dual meet in 1974 in California. I beat Roland in both backstroke events and beat him again on the leadoff leg of a relay."

This explains the success as a backstroker and relay-team member, but where did the silver come from in the 200-meter freestyle?

"Oh," he continued, launching into another perfectly measured sound bite, "for some strange reason I decided I wanted to do more than just backstroke. I had been the NCAA record-holder in the 500 freestyle and knew that the 200-meter free also offered a spot on the relay. So I simply altered my early-season training a little bit."

Just like that.

John ended up carrying the flag at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and admits, "This made up somewhat for the fact I didn't march in 1976 because, traditionally, swimming starts the Games early the next morning.

"I still should have marched; it's the single biggest regret I have about Montreal."

Two days into the competition, Naber had semifinals and finals in backstroke and freestyle events with the latter coming just 45 minutes apart.

"I won the backstroke, beat Mathes and swam the time I wanted, so I achieved those objectives," he said. "I knew doing well in the freestyle was attainable if I could just put what I had done before out of my mind because the body takes only 20 minutes to recover after swimming the shorter distances."

A rubdown, a 10-minute nap and Naber was out on the platform with few in attendance expecting him to even approach a medal. After all, he had qualified eighth and last out of the morning heats.

Turning in what he considers "the best race of my life," John took second place and became the first Olympic swimmer ever to win two medals on the same day. "Kornelia Ender [of East Germany] won two golds the next day, which surpassed me, but I was the first," he recalls.

Naber rattled off several more informational tidbits and anecdotes, both personal and pertaining to sports, seemingly without effort. He figures to be a good man for the task of prodding interesting talk out of athletes, both foreign and domestic.

And as a veteran of public relations and TV work, "I'm aware of the conventional market wisdom: 'I want it fast, I want it brief, I want it good, and I want it now.' "

Don't bet he won't deliver.

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