Hall leaves popping off to Popov

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Gary Hall's swimming philosophy, as expressed to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, is as follows: ''Think like a fish. Drink like a fish.''

While this is not the recommended training regimen for an Olympic athlete, it at least imparts one useful life lesson. The man who thinks like a fish is not easily baited.

Lord knows, Hall has had plenty of provocation. Russian sprint star Alexander Popov has been trying to lure him into a pre-Olympic tiff worthy of the World Wrestling Federation, but Hall hasn't been biting.

Popov predicts Hall will collapse under the weight of Olympic pressure. He says Hall talks too much and trains too little. Swimming is generally a non-contact sport, so Alexander Popov sets out to crush the spirit.

Popov goads. Hall giggles.

''He's been saying things, trying to get me to fold, but it doesn't faze me a bit,'' Hall said Wednesday. ''I get a kick out of it. He calls himself the master of head games. (But) I don't know why he's so concerned about the guy who doesn't train.''

Popov the favorite

That Alexander Popov has concerns of any kind is curious. He is the defending Olympic and world champion at both 50 and 100 meters and remains an overwhelming favorite in Atlanta.

''The media says everyone but Popov is racing for silver,'' U.S. swimmer Jon Olson said. ''It seems the gold has been hung around his neck even before we started racing.''

Still, Popov is soaked through with insecurity.

''I am always looking for potential challengers,'' he told the New York Times in a recent interview. ''If I see any, I have to swim faster and make them feel sick. If they have a little potential, you must get on top of them and kill that enthusiasm right away so they will lose their interest in swimming.''

Hall, 21, poses the most obvious threat to Popov's preeminence in the pool. He finished second to him in both the 50 and the 100 at the 1994 World Championships, and subsequently said his goal had been to let Popov know he was coming up. Before one of their races, the Russian star stood on his starting block and stared at Hall.

''The world championships were the first time I met him,'' Hall said. ''He came across as arrogant, which is his reputation. The second time I met him he was nice, very easy-going. I don't dislike the guy at all. (But) Once I step up on the blocks, it's a different story.''

Hall has had more difficulty between races than in them. He has the size, the stroke and the bloodlines to be a champion, but somewhat less self-discipline. His father, Gary Hall Sr., was a three-time Olympian. His grandfather, Charles Keating, was himself a standout swimmer before he became an infamous financier. Gary Hall Jr. is an aspiring rock musician who instinctively recoils at structure. Eddie Reese, who coached Hall at the University of Texas, calls him, ''the best sprinter I've ever seen. He's going to be the best ever.''

Potential vs. results

What the swimming world wonders is when. Gary Hall is clearly a terrific talent. Alexander Popov, however, is an accomplished champion.

''When I'm on my game, no one can beat me,'' Popov says. ''When I'm not on my game, no one can beat me.''

If Popov successfully defends his 100-meter Olympic title, he will be the first male swimmer to do so since Johnny Weissmuller repeated in 1928. Hall figures to be Popov's most formidable challenger, though his recent times would not inspire much confidence.

''I like to keep people guessing,'' he said. ''By swimming slow and fast, there are no surprises. But I predict I'm going to swim fast . . . I might not be the quickest off the blocks, but I'll be reeling everybody in.''

Presumably, everybody would include Alexander Popov.

''He's the guy to beat,'' Gary Hall said. ''And I've prepared myself if he does something (psychological warfare). I think if he comes up and approaches me, it shows a lot of fear on his part.''

Swimmers prefer Popov's disdain to his disinterest. It means they matter.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 18, 1996.