By Charlie Snyder, Communications Director
In 1996, the year of the Centennial Olympic Games, four men — four older men — took on the top four American women sprinters in the nation in a relay cleverly dubbed, “The Battle of the Sexes.” And, as Bobby Riggs had gone on before them, the men lost.
Licking their wounds, the older men regrouped, added a couple ringers, and waged “The Battle of the Sexes II” at the 1998 U.S. West/Nortel Swimfest, May 15-17, in Phoenix, Ariz. This time around the event would be the 200m medley relay.
John Naber, 43, heard the call. Since winning four gold medals with four world records at the 1976 Olympic Games, the good Naber remained on the pooldeck and various other venues as a successful sportscaster; his storied career apparently over. Until Sexes II.
Lea Maurer, 27, a good foot shorter than the mighty Naber, had been crowned the 1998 World Champion in the 100m backstroke and had led off the 1998 400m medley relay to gold in Perth. She aimed re-retire Naber and this time, for good.
Don McKenzie, 51, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist in the 100m breaststroke, was ready for the medley-relay rumble. He had tasted the sweet nectar of medley relay victory at the 1968 Games. He would turn out to be the key player in this Olympic encounter.
Penny Heyns, 24, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in both breaststrokes, trains in Calgary, Canada, but represents South Africa. Heyns, by all accounts, is one heckuva a nice lady, but is, in fact, not an American. Could she have been involved in an elaborate scheme hatched by the aging former superheroes? We will never know. She high-tailed it back to Calgary. Conveniently incommunicado.
Gary Hall, 47, winner of Olympic hardware in three different Games, but has been tormented daily by the “Never won a Battle of the Sexes relay” monkey on his back. Hall knew the pool well. You could say this was “The Pool That Hall Built.”
Misty Hyman, 19, giving way to nearly 30 years of swimming experience, was clearly at a disadvantage. Hyman, just two months earlier, had been named the NCAA Swimmer of the Year, breaking the NCAA record for the fastest 100y butterfly in history.
James Montgomery, only 43, was a triple gold medalist at the 1976 Olympic Games and was the first person to break 50 seconds in the 100m freestyle. But he was going to have to swim a lot faster than 49.9 to hold off the women’s anchor.
Jenny Thompson, 25, lives to anchor the Sexes relays. Beating up on Australians, Chinese, and Germans feels good, but not like the feeling of taking out some trash-talking male Master’s swimmers. Thompson had ran over Montgomery for the win in 1996.
Maurer split 29.64 to Naber’s 30.86 to capture the early lead, but McKenzie closed the gap with a 31.30 breaststroke leg, compared to Heyns’ 32.20. The hometown didn’t know who to cheer for as Hall and Hyman, both Phoenix locals, dove in. Hall went 26.96 to Hyman’s 27.33 to provide Montgomery with a lead of just .05 seconds. Montgomery outraced Thompson 25.16 to 25.26 giving the men the victory 1:54.28 to 1:54.43.
The celebration ensued lasting the better part of 16 minutes. The older gentlemen had to sit down and rest a bit. But for a brief, shining moment the names of Naber, McKensie, Hall and Montgomery were exulted once again. They had shared 16 Minutes of Glory.