With Davis' retirement, history will have to wait Just short of Olympics, he's ready to move on

March 12, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- History didn't happen here, at least not for Byron Davis. He made a strong bid to become the first black swimmer to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team, but that milestone will have to wait at least another four years.

Davis will carry the disappointment for a lifetime, because -- at 26 -- it was '96 or never. He set a world-record pace for much of Sunday night's men's 100-meter butterfly but faded in the final 10 meters to finish fourth. He had one more chance yesterday morning in the 50-meter freestyle, but it wasn't much of a chance, and he didn't get out of the preliminary heats.

While you might think that this would be a trying time for the would-be Jackie Robinson of swimming, think again. Davis mourned his shattered dream for a few hours Sunday night, then walked into the media room at the Indiana University Natatorium yesterday afternoon and basically told everybody to lighten up.

"It's bittersweet," Davis said. "The last three months I have been focused on making the Olympic team. That's a lot of pressure. So it's kind of a relief. That feels good, but I wish I had made it."

He wasn't alone. The sellout crowd was cheering him wildly, even though there was an Indiana swimmer (Jason Lancaster) in the race. Davis also was a favorite in the press box, where sentiment and news value merged to make him a very attractive story. (Prospective headline: "Former UCLA star breaks color barrier." Sound familiar?) It seemed as if everyone wanted him to make it.

"I felt that energy," Davis said. "That says a lot about the power of visualization. The last three months, I've been visualizing that. The crowd getting behind me. It felt good."

If only he had been able to hang on for those last few meters, but he was overtaken by Auburn University's John Hargis, Mark Henderson of Fort Washington and Lancaster. He had set a tremendous pace and had every reason to think that the other swimmers also would feel the burn at the end, but they glided past him and touched the wall before he could climb over it.

Three-tenths of a second. That's all that separated the first four places in one of the best races in the history of the 100-meter butterfly.

So close that Davis could be forgiven for wallowing in the disappointment for more than one disenchanted evening, but he was amazingly upbeat as he announced his retirement from the sport. Quite a contrast to the way he felt after failing to make a ripple at the trials four years ago.

"In 1992, I left the trials very angry," he said. "I was confused and dissatisfied because I felt that I had not lived up to my potential. This time around I think I've quieted the voices in my heart. I've won that internal battle with the fears and anxieties that we all face. I've answered that within myself and I feel I can take that and be successful in anything I do." Davis seems determined to turn this small failure into a bigger success story. He has a good job waiting for him with a Los Angeles financial firm, and there is every reason to believe that he'll get off to his usual fast start. He understands that even a frustrating near-miss in the Olympic trials is a lot closer to success than most people ever get.

"It does hurt to know you've come this close to realizing your dream," he said, holding his thumb and index finger about a half-inch apart. "At the same time, you realize that if I just do that well in any other endeavor, where success is not defined by two-tenths of a second, I think I'll be doing very well.

"I don't know if this is a good analogy, but if a Fortune 500 company can control 35-40 percent of the market for its product, that's doing pretty good. It doesn't have to control 95 percent of the market to be successful."

Davis did not become U.S. Swimming's first black Olympian, but it won't be long now.

Eight black swimmers competed in this year's trials, and four have swum in international competition representing the United States.

Promising 19-year-old Sabir Muhammad also failed to qualify this year but is considered a solid bet to be on the U.S. team that will compete in Sydney, Australia, in the 2000 Games.

Muhammad will have one former Olympic hopeful rooting hard for him. Davis was scheduled to meet with him last night to talk about the pressures the young Stanford swimmer may encounter over the next four years.

The most important thing, Davis said, may be whether Muhammad will be able to keep his focus on the pool while everyone else is waiting on history.

"Of course it will be big news, but that's beyond your circle of influence," Davis said. "What you should focus on is what you have influence over.

"If I had anything to share with him, it would be to focus only on what he can contribute."

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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