July 20, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -
This is the sixth in a 10-part series highlighting Stanford's achievements in the Olympic Games. This series is limited to gold-medal accomplishments by athletes who were current or former Stanford students at the time of their performances.
Pablo Morales thought he was through with swimming after two huge disappointments. First, despite being regarded as the best butterfly swimmer in the world, he was upset by West Germany's Michael Gross in Los Angeles in 1984. Four years later, Morales failed to qualify for the 1988 Olympic altogether.
Morales was out of swimming for three years, attending law school among other things. But at the age of 27, Morales came out of retirement and became the feel-good story of the 1992 Barcelona Games, winning that elusive 100-meter butterfly title after all, and by the narrowest of margins.
To understand the ups and downs of his career, consider the ups. Morales, who grew up in nearby Santa Clara, Calif., and attended Bellarmine College Prep, broke John Naber's NCAA record for most individual national championships, with 11.
He also led Stanford to three consecutive NCAA team titles, breaking a title drought of 18 years. No wonder many considered him the greatest male swimmer in NCAA championship history.
But the disappointments began with in 1984 when Morales entered the Olympic Games as the world-record holder in the 100 fly, only to be touched out by Gross, nicknamed "The Albatross," for the gold. Both were under Morales' previous world-record time.
By the 1988 Olympic trials in Austin, Texas, Morales had never lost to Matt Biondi, and Jay Mortenson, a Stanford teammate, had beaten Morales only three times over three years. Morales had regained his 100 fly world record, and held the American 200 fly record as well. But in this race, the 100 fly, Morales finishing kick never happened. He lost to both, missing out on an Olympic berth by one spot.
"To watch that race was the toughest thing that I had ever done in my career," longtime Stanford coach Skip Kenney told the San Jose Mercury News.
In the 200 fly, it happened again. Third place. In the 200 individual medley, a silver medal event for Morales in 1984, he failed to even make the final.
In all respects, the meet was a failure for Morales. After the 200 fly, he floated on his back for several minutes, thinking "How could this be happening?" To not even make it to Seoul was simply unthinkable.
Yet, in defeat, Morales' character was even more apparent. He congratulated all who finished ahead of him, and showed up to every press conference.
But lost to the public was the knowledge that his mother, Bianca, had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Her illness weighed on Morales as he spent three years in law libraries at Cornell University. In September of 1991, Bianca died. Her death contributed to some introspection for Morales, who thought long and hard about his future and came up with one conclusion - he wanted to give the Olympics one more try.
Seven months before the Olympic trials, Morales returned to the pool. There wasn't much time. The entire training cycle would be geared toward speed - no time to build an endurance base. And any injury, even a minor one, would be too much to overcome.
"It was not unfinished business, trying to do something I never had done," Morales told Leigh Montville of Sports Illustrated. "I never looked at it like that. I think all parts of your life are experiences. You experience one thing, then move to another. These were separate. I suppose you could say I was going toward the windmill, but I never thought that. I didn't know what to expect. I just wanted to see."
Morales found out. At the Olympic trials, Morales won the 100 fly. He let out a yell underwater. He was back and with a chance to go even faster with additional training heading into Barcelona.
Confidence. Conditioning. It was all there. Only the pressure and expectations were missing.
The top contender was Anthony Nesty of Surinam, the defending Olympic champion. But to Morales, the focus was on himself. Get out fast, and push hard to the finish.
The plan worked perfectly. Morales had won, clocking a 53.32 to edge Poland's Rafal Szukala (53.35) and Nesty (53.41).
"At the finish I looked at the scoreboard, and it had such an unreal quality," Morales said to Sports Illustrated. "Once something like this happens, you wonder if it really happened. You wonder the same way if you win or if you lose. Did it really happen?"
Morales, named captain of the '92 U.S. team, became the oldest Olympic swimming champion in history. Including relays, he captured three gold medals and two silvers in two Olympic Games.
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Morales wasn't the only Stanford swimming legend from the 1992 Games. Summer Sanders was the other.
A 10-time NCAA champion and the NCAA Swimmer of the Year in each of her two collegiate seasons, Sanders came to Barcelona with high expectations. In each Olympiad, a great deal of pressure is placed upon the heads of a few. In U.S. swimming, that pressure was placed on Sanders.
In addition to her collegiate accomplishments, Sanders won three events at the Olympic trials and was second in another. It was first time since 1976 that an American woman had qualified in four individual events.
The 200 butterfly final came down to 0.34. The was the margin between Sanders' winning touch and the second-place finish of China's Wang Xiaohong.
Sanders also earned gold on the 400 medley relay, a silver in the 200 individual medley and bronze in the 400 IM.
The relief was as apparent as the joy. When asked what she planned to do next, Sanders said, "I just want to sit down and relax. I want to enjoy the feeling that nobody expects me to do anything great tomorrow."
After her performance in Barcelona, Sanders left Stanford and swimming to take advantage the commercial endorsement and television opportunities that had presented themselves.
"It was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make," Sanders said.
But just as she did in swimming, Sanders has been successful on-air personality on television -- another in the Stanford swimming success stories of 1992.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics