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Commotion At Poolside: Must Be An Olympic Year

March 7, 1996

Everybody’s nervous.

One swimmer’s disqualification prompted howling. Another’s eligibility prompted hissing. A former champion didn’t show up until the last minute to avoid the ``negative energy.″

There hasn’t been this much commotion around a pool since the infamous candy bar scene from ``Caddyshack.″

And it can mean only one thing: We’re having an Olympic year.

Ask Kristine Quance about it. She was disqualified at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis earlier this week.

Before she and coach Mark Schubert got the news, the 20-year-old junior from Southern Cal was a prohibitive favorite to win not only the 400-meter individual medley at the trials, but a medal at the Atlanta Games later this summer

``That guy,″ said Schubert, referring to the U.S. swimming official who disqualified Quance, ``will have to live with that when he watches the 400 IM in Atlanta and think about what he prevented.″

And her sin?

Quance didn’t flip over fast enough making a turn at the wall. It seems her shoulders were not at, or past, vertical when she shifted from backstroke to breaststroke. Incredible that somebody noticed it. Incredible that same somebody called it. Even more incredible, Quance was leading the qualifying heat by a few seconds at the time, which is the swimming equivalent of spotting Michael Jordan the ``P″ and the ``I″ in a game of PIG.

``That call would not have been made at the world championships or the Olympic Games,″ Schubert fumed.

He is almost certainly right. But that’s precisely the point.

Most years, most swim meets hand out ribbons. In Olympic years, the U.S. trials hand out the opportunity to star on a stage before a worldwide audience measured in billions. The hardest part is getting there.

Because at the Olympics, do something unforgettable and some advertiser will jump in the pool to congratulate you faster than some teammates.

Swimmers may not take up the sport with an eye on making a buck. But few would deny a hefty endorsement deal is lot more satisfying to look back on than ribbons or cancelled checks to the local swim club.

And the reason swimmers are in line for endorsement deals now?

We’re having an Olympic year.

Most years, most swim meets don’t draw enough people to fill up the hot tub at a Holiday Inn. Even at top-level competitions, you can usually count the spectators without an abacus: a few parents, some friends, some old coaches, Uncle Harry.

But this year the 4,500-seat Indiana University Natatorium, where the trials run through Tuesday, has been sold out for a month. The media contingent, reporting in depth on everything from chlorine levels to the vibes at poolside, has topped the 100 mark. Even without them, nighttime crowds have been in the 2,500 range.

As a result, the buzz is palpable. The cheers are louder, the competitors more nervous. Adrenalin levels are supposed to be up and tolerance is supposed to be down. Unless, of course, you have a good lawyer and threaten to sue everybody in the federation wearing an embroidered patch and a blazer to pin it on. That helps explain how Jennifer Foschi came to be in Indianapolis this week.

The 15-year-old was cleared to compete after U.S. swimming officials reversed a two-year ban they imposed after she tested positive for a prohibited steroid. Foschi has denied throughout that she took steroids knowingly, and the federation has suggested sabotage may have been involved. A lawsuit brought by her parents no doubt made the federation even more sympathetic, but not Olympic veteran Janet Evans.

``Regardless of her innocence or guilt, which is not really clear now, I’m ashamed and embarrassed to be part of an organization that can’t stand up for what it believes in,″ said Evans, who already has four Olympic gold medals and as many endorsement deals.

Which reminds us why the athletes don’t need unsympathetic judges, nosy reporters or sold-out crowds to remind them this is an Olympic year. They have each other.

``I feel like there’s a lot of negative energy,″ said Mel Stewart, the 1992 gold medalist in the 200-meter butterfly. ``In an environment where only 1 percent make it, 99 percent of the athletes are there in devastation. I don’t want to look into those faces and see people crying. It’s unnerving.″

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