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by Joan Niesen

August 3, 2020

Forty years later, members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic swim team feel heartache from not competing in the Moscow Games

When David Sims held on for second place in the 1500-meter freestyle at the U.S. Outdoor Swimming Nationals and Olympic Trials in 1980, the scoreboard displaying his results flashed with 11 lines of times rather than the usual eight. In the leadup to the Trials, the event’s organizers had rigged the board at Heritage Park Aquatics Complex in Irvine, Calif., to show not only the times of the eight competitors in the pool, but also the times of the three medalists at the Moscow Olympic Games the previous week.

That summer, Sims and 44 other swimmers were named to the U.S. Olympic team, qualifying for an event that had already happened. Results had been tallied, records set. Such was the consequence of President Jimmy Carter’s Olympic boycott; once the U.S. confirmed its athletes wouldn’t make the trip, schedules changed, and a June trials meet was canceled. Instead, the outdoor nationals meet scheduled for late July would double as the Olympic qualifier.

After his 1500, Sims recalls parsing the scoreboard and realizing that with his time, he wouldn’t have medaled in Russia. The same held true for the first-place finisher, Mike Bruner, whose time of 15:19.80 was more than five seconds off the Olympic bronze medalist, Australia’s Max Metzker.

Steve Barnicoat, who won the 200-meter backstroke with a time that would have earned him gold in Moscow, calls the event a “quasi-qualifying” meet and today is struck by how unremarkable it seemed in the moment. Sure, NBC broadcast it, and Ronald Reagan, then a presidential candidate, graced the bleachers. But the results were hollow.

Four years earlier in Montreal, American swimmers won as many gold medals (13) as every other nation combined and came away with 34 of 78 total pieces of swimming hardware. The team looked poised to throttle the rest of the world in ’80, Barnicoat says—and then America’s athletes spent half a year in limbo, wondering if they’d get that chance. The swimmers’ times in Irvine were good enough—had they posted the same marks in Moscow, the Americans would have won 26 medals—but many believed they would have swum faster with the world’s most elite competitors pushing them from across a lane line, rather than across an ocean.

At the end of the event, the newly formed U.S. Olympic swim team received a telegram from Carter, inviting its members to the White House in three days’ time. The rest of America’s Olympians had qualified weeks earlier, and most had visited Washington, D.C, together already. Fresh off being recognized as the fastest in the country, the swimmers felt like an afterthought, the lone group forced to qualify for events that had already concluded, the last to pretend they were competing for anything more than pomp and circumstance.

‘Rug Pulled Out From Under Them’

On Dec. 24, 1979, the Soviet government deployed its army into Afghanistan, staging a coup. To the Western world, the military action constituted an invasion, and the U.N. General Assembly protested the decision and called for the Soviets to leave Afghanistan. When the communist behemoth refused, the U.S. and other allied nations began to impose sanctions, including talk of a boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games in Moscow. What ensued was a months-long standoff: In January, Carter gave the Soviets a deadline to withdraw, which they failed to meet. Two days after that deadline, at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., the U.S. men’s hockey team pulled off the “Miracle on Ice,” denying the Soviets their fifth consecutive gold medal. Sentiment that had swayed pro-boycott suddenly surged against the decision. As late as April 24, 1980, the U.S. Olympic Committee head told the International Olympic Committee that the U.S. was still willing to send a team if the Soviets would take actions to leave Afghanistan. Again, nothing, and the U.S. remained officially withdrawn.

Swimmers lived through that spring in a steady state of uncertainty. Many coaches shielded their best athletes from the roller coaster of it all, which was relatively easy to do without the Internet and with the athletes’ grueling schedules. Still, the stress intruded. “I remember crying in my goggles on days when everybody around me was certain we weren't going to go,” recalls Sims, then 17 and now a member of Illinois Masters. “In hindsight it was like a … train wreck. And it was really slow motion. Because every step of the way, there was always something [that] gave everyone hope that yeah, it would be reversed.”

Of the 45 members of the U.S. Olympic swim team, 22 were in high school the spring leading up to the Trials. As teenagers, they knew little of the political minutiae beyond broad-strokes coverage on the nightly news, but they also felt less cheated than their older teammates. In 1980, there was no such thing as a career in swimming, no chance to pursue the sport as anything but an amateur. “I knew I would have another opportunity,” says Susan von der Lippe, then 14 and now a member of Colorado Masters Swimming. “[But] there were plenty of people who made the team who were at the top of the game at that point. And their times from that summer would have won the Olympics, even with these Germans and Soviets and doping for women.”

John Hencken, a breaststroker who won two gold medals in Montreal, had put his career on hold to train for the 1980 games; he was 26 at trials. Jesse Vassallo, a Puerto Rican who could not compete in 1976 due to a rules technicality, was at the top of his game in ’80. Though he made the Olympics in 1984, he missed medaling by one spot. Freestyler Brian Goodell also appeared poised to peak in ’80 after winning two golds at age 17 in ’76. “Those are the guys that had the rug pulled out from underneath them,” says Barnicoat, a member of Dallas Aquatic Masters. “A lot of [the pain] has to do with [each person]. It has to do with, where were you from an age perspective? Were you an up-and-comer? Were you already there at the top of the mountain, And, you know, basically, four years from now, you wouldn't have made it, or you were already on the decline?”

But for many of the younger swimmers, the same disappointment loomed; despite feeling poised to succeed in ’84, only 13 of the 29 teenage Olympians on the 1980 U.S. swim team qualified four years later. Karin LaBerge, 16 at the time of the trials and now a member of Tri Valley Masters in Northern California, felt she was ahead of schedule when she reported to Irvine; her coach, too, felt like this was a great first step toward LaBerge hitting her prime at the ’84 Games. But at the improvised ’80 event, LaBerge took third place in both the 1500 freestyle and 400 IM, and her prospects seemed even brighter. Four years later, LaBerge had a poor showing and fell short of qualifying for a second Olympic team.

“I think that pretty much all Olympians are optimists, or else we wouldn't do it,” says Glenn Mills, who won the 200-meter breaststroke at the U.S. trials in 1980 and finished 21st in the 100-meter breaststroke at the same meet four years later. “Because the chance of success is so slim. So you're just an optimistic person, if you're going to go after it. And you [have the attitude that if] something negative happens to you, [you don’t] say, oh my gosh, that's the end.”

Earning Medals

When LaBerge finished her final event in Irvine, she had 74 points; only three women tallied more. By virtue of that finish, she’d earned consideration for the team the U.S. planned to take to China for an exhibition meet, but organizers needed to know one thing: Did the teen, who had never left North America, have a passport? With no Olympics on the horizon, it was possible some of the younger swimmers who hadn’t competed internationally might not have gotten the necessary paperwork, and LaBerge had done well enough to be among the select few swimmers invited to fly to China five days after trials for an exhibition meet. She did have a passport, and she did compete in China.

Those who didn’t travel to China—along with several of the swimmers who’d just missed the Olympic team—were booked to Hawaii for a meet against other boycotting nations. But first, the team had a cross-country engagement. After spending a day in Los Angeles, the Olympians flew across the country to Washington, D.C., for their luncheon at the White House, where what appeared to be floral centerpieces were actually dessert, complete with chocolate shavings posing as potting soil. It was a surreal day for many, without other athletes, after the games were long over, meeting the man who’d made the decision to keep them home. Von der Lippe trained for so many hours at what she called “such a disgusting pool” in order to make the team that cracks had formed on her dried-out hands and feet because of the water before she arrived in Washington. When she looks at her picture with the president, she sees the Band-Aids before everything else.

“[Most of] us were just pissed off that we couldn't go, because we all felt like … the Olympics aren't about politics,” Sims recalls feeling that day. “It's just the opposite; it's supposed to be about world peace and participating and competing on an even playing field in and bringing people all over the world together, to understand each other better.”

At the lunch, the 45 swimmers each received what they believed to be a commemorative medal, gold plated with bronze. Few thought much of the gifts, preoccupied with the idea of Hawaii or China. In 2007, Ron Neugent, who qualified in the 1500 freestyle, read an article in The New York Times about the Congressional Gold Medal, which has been awarded to the likes of George Washington, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa. Neugent thought the medals looked suspiciously like the one he’d received with so little fanfare 27 years earlier, and he decided to look into the matter. He went so far as to find the Congressional Record from 1980, tracking the dates when legislators made the decision to honor the Olympians. “It was obvious that this was meant to be a Congressional Gold Medal,” says Sims, who helped his friend with the undertaking. “Well, they didn't have it in their budget to make [461] solid medals. And so what could they do? This is a last-minute decision to make these medals, and they had to do with the only way they could, which is the U.S. Mint made them out of bronze and then gold-plated them.”

Somehow, though, this distinction hadn’t been committed to record, which it was after Neugent’s discovery, and each of the Olympians received a printed certificate in the mail, notifying them of their medal’s upgraded prestige. For some, it was confirmation of 1980’s role in Olympic history, a reminder of that strange spring and summer and the unconventional team they made. But for others, it opened old wounds. Mills remembers hearing chatter among his former teammates that they should ask for new, solid gold medals. He wanted no part of it. “The boycott is one of those things that it will never go away,” Mills says. “And there's no closure to it. There's nothing anybody can do.”


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