De Varona knows what Phelps faces



August 27, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Donna de Varona renewed friendships at the reunion of past Olympians held at the U.S. swim trials in Indianapolis three weeks ago. She did not get a chance to meet Michael Phelps, but figures that their paths will cross in Sydney, Australia, next month.

"I would like to talk to him, share my experiences with him," de Varona said. "With the dynamics in Australia, the importance of the swimming competition, he'll be either inspired or overwhelmed by the Olympics.

"If he wasn't overwhelmed by the trials, I suspect that he won't be by the Olympics. He faced more pressure at the trials than he'll face in Australia."

A 15-year-old from Rodgers Forge by way of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Phelps was second in the 200-meter butterfly at the trials. He is the youngest male on the U.S. Olympic swim team since 1932. De Varona was the youngest American ever to swim in the Olympics. She was 12 when she qualified, 13 when she competed at Rome in 1960.

De Varona, 53 and looking fit enough to race in the Olympics herself, will work as a commentator in Sydney for NBC's cable carriers, CNBC and MSNBC.

De Varona wasn't even in high school when she represented the United States in 1960, no small feat considering there were only seven Olympic events for women. She helped the U.S. through the preliminaries of the 400-meter freestyle relay. Today, preliminary participants receive the same medals as their nation's finalists. That was not the case in 1960.

"Things were so much different then," de Varona said. "When I went into the Olympic Village, it wasn't like I was going in and out of an airport, through metal detectors. There's heightened security and media scrutiny. Still, there was a feeding frenzy around me with the Italian media. My name is de Varona."

She is intrigued by the details of Phelps' development and delighted by the radical changes that occurred in the composition of the U.S. women's team this year.

With 33-year-old Dara Torres skewing the calculations, this is the first time that the average age of the U.S. women's team (21.63 years) will be older than the men's (21.54) at the Olympics. De Varona doesn't ask for credit, but she played a major role in the transformation of swimming specifically, and women's sports in general.

De Varona won the gold medal in the inaugural Olympic 400 individual medley at Tokyo in 1964 and retired at 17 a year later, when the concept of athletic scholarships for women was at an early stage. She was a co-founder of the Women's Sports Foundation and campaigned for the passage of Title IX.

"Women have had to knock down some heavy doors," de Varona said. "This is a welcome change."

Go your own way

U.S. squads take radically different approaches to preparing for the Games.

Phelps, fellow Baltimorean Tommy Hannan and the other 49 men and women on the U.S. swim team are beginning their second week of training at Rose Bowl Aquatics in Pasadena, Calif. A week from today, the U.S. swim team will depart en masse for Australia.

Columbia's Elise Ray and the other members of the women's gymnastics team are being primped and put through their paces at Bela Karolyi's compound outside Houston.

There are too many adults, egos and individual concerns, however, to contain the entire track and field team in one place for more than one week.

Runners began to arrive last week at the U.S. training center in Couran Cove, on Australia's Gold Coast. Well-heeled sprinters like Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson are pulling down big appearance fees in Europe, but some members of the U.S. team choose to maintain a low profile and continue the routines that earned them a ticket to Sydney.

James Carter, the 400-meter intermediate hurdler from Mervo High who will be the first Baltimorean to compete in Olympic track since 1972, is working out in relative seclusion at Hampton (Va.) University. His last race was the trials final July 22, and he might not compete again until Sept. 24, when the first of three rounds in his race will be contested in Sydney.

"I was going to go overseas [Europe], but I'm just doing what I need to do in practice," Carter said. "At least I'm not suffering from jet lag."

On the bubble

Carter could find a familiar face in Australia, as Carver grad Bernard Williams remains in the pool of candidates for the 400 relay. Seventh in the trials 100, Williams could be invited to the feast, but not get to eat, as U.S. coach John Sampson wants to run the same foursome through every round at the Olympics.

The U.S. will conduct a relay camp this week in Berlin, Germany, where Williams can continue to impress the coaching staff. He still isn't formally affiliated with HSI, but he did join the rest of the men from the Los Angeles-based sprint factory two days ago at the Van Damme Memorial meet in Brussels, Belgium.

Greene won the 100 in 9.98, and Williams was second in 10.01, ahead of Jon Drummond and Brian Lewis, who figure to be on the American relay; Trinidad & Tobago's Ato Boldon and reigning Olympic champion Donovan Bailey. Williams was the top American finisher in the 200, which was won by Boldon.

Johnson ruled the 400 in 44.07, as he and Greene showed no ill effects from the Bust in the Dust, the trials 200 in which both pulled up with leg injuries.

Haller to compete

Count canoeist Lecky Haller among the U.S. Olympians with roots in Baltimore.

A 1975 graduate of the Gilman School, Haller will compete in the C-2 class, the double canoe, along with Matt Taylor, in Sydney. A Division III All-American lacrosse defenseman in 1980 for Washington College, Haller makes his home in Bryson City, N.C.

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