A three-time medallist at Los Angeles 1984, Pablo Morales was the dominant force in the men’s butterfly before retiring and then making a comeback at Barcelona 1992 to become the oldest ever gold-medal winner in his event.
“I could hear the voices in the media and the swimming world saying ‘He’s too old. The bar will be too high for him’,” said Pablo Morales after winning the 100m butterfly at the Barcelona Games in July 1992. The captain of the US swim team had made his comeback to the sport after a four-year absence and became, at the age of 28, the oldest Olympic champion in the event. “I touched the wall, and then I saw the No1 by my name on the scoreboard. I exploded with joy,” he added. The American came home in a time of 53.32, just ahead of Poland’s Rafal Szukala and Surinam’s Anthony Nesty. Four days later, Morales pocketed his fifth and final Olympic medal, joining Jeff Rouse, Nelson Diebel and Jon Olsen to win gold in the 4x100m medley relay ahead of the Unified Team and Canada in a time of 3:36.93, and write the final chapter in a magnificent career at the highest level.
Born in Chicago to Cuban immigrants, Morales spent his childhood years in Santa Clara, California, where he joined the local swimming club. A natural at the butterfly, he showed what he was capable of at high school when he broke the national record for his age group, set some 16 years earlier by one Mark Spitz. He had yet to turn 20 when he swam 53.38 to set his first world record in the 100m butterfly at the US trials for the Los Angeles Games in Indianapolis in June 1984. One month later, Morales won two Olympic silver medals, pushing the men in front of him to set new world records: Germany’s Michael Gross in the 100m butterfly (53.08) and Canada’s Alex Baumann in the 200m medley (2:01.42). Morales was rewarded with a gold in the 4x100m medley relay, in which he, Rick Carey, Steve Lundqvist and Rowdy Gaines set a new world record of 3:39.30.
In the four years that followed, Morales was utterly dominant in his favourite event. On 23 June 1986 in Orlando he took the world 100m record down to 52.84, a time that would stand for the next nine years. He followed that up by winning gold in the 100m butterfly and 4x100m medley at the 1986 Worlds in Madrid and then won an unprecedented 11th National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title, while also collecting six Pan Pacific titles in the same period. After failing to qualify for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, however, he retired from competition to study law.
Morales was back in the water in 1992 and qualified for the Barcelona Games, where he silenced his doubters in the most emphatic fashion. An exemplary competitor and swimmer, he was voted Sportsman of the Year by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). He then embarked on a career in coaching, taking over as the head coach of the Huskers swim and diving team at the University of Nebraska in the early 2000s.
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