Swimmer Ends Quest For History Byron Davis Was Again Trying To Become The First Black Swimmer On The U.s. Olympic Team. After A Narrow Loss, He Retired.

Posted: March 12, 1996

INDIANAPOLIS — One day after an eyeblink loss in the 100-meter butterfly final at the Olympic trials, Byron Davis retired from competitive swimming yesterday, leaving the task of becoming the first black on the U.S. team to someone else.

``It does hurt to know you've come this close to realizing that one dream you had,'' said Davis, a 25-year-old former UCLA swimmer. ``But at the same time you realize that if you do this well in any other endeavor, where the stakes aren't defined in tenths of a second, then you'll do pretty well.''

Davis finished fourth in the butterfly final Sunday night, fading in the final five meters after turning the first length of the pool in world-record time. The top two finishers in each individual event at the trials advance to the Olympic Games in Atlanta this summer.

``I answered all the questions within myself and accomplished all the intrinsic, internal goals I had,'' said Davis, who quit swimming after the 1992 trials but came back 18 months ago to join the Resident National Team program in Colorado Springs, Colo. Coached by Jonty Skinner of the RNT, Davis embarked on a comeback that was as improbable as his initial success.

Davis grew up in Cleveland and began swimming at the age of 7 when he arrived too late at the YMCA to sign up for the bowling team. He continued to swim through high school, where he also ran track and played football, before going on to win 16 all-American honors at UCLA.

After bombing in the 1992 trials, he searched for a career. He interned at a Philadelphia law firm for a time, staying in shape by swimming at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation pool.

During that time, he also answered the question of why his father had been missing since early in his life. Davis' mother wouldn't tell him how his father died, so he searched through old newspaper clippings to find that his father, a drug dealer, had been executed in a deal gone bad.

After trying to find a new direction, Davis decided he had unfinished business with the sport of swimming. And it is ironic that Davis' greatest success as a swimmer would come under Skinner, a white South African who wasn't allowed in the 1976 Olympics because of the policy of racial apartheid in his country.

``He gave me an opportunity when other people didn't understand why I was still in the sport,'' Davis said. ``He said, `I'm going to give you a shot.' That established everything. He gave me a chance to see how good I could be.''

The rest of the coaching world questioned why Skinner bothered. Davis, who is compact and muscular, is not the classic lanky, long-limbed butterfly specialist.

``He's a very special person, and I wanted him to make the Olympic team more than anyone else,'' said Skinner, who cried when Davis came up just short.

Davis said he had watched the tape of the event ``about 150 times'' Sunday night, and knows he'll be haunted by the slight technical glitches in his race that kept him out of the Olympics and kept him from breaking one of the final color barriers in sport.

``It's a cultural thing, a train of thought that's passed down,'' said Davis. ``We need to start programs to give kids other options. Right now, they only see basketball, baseball and footall as avenues out of the inner city. They see drug trafficking as an avenue out. That needs to be replaced by something more constructive.''

Davis, who will be married in November to Annett Buckner, a professional beach volleyball player, has accepted a job with a Los Angeles investment banking firm.

``I still wish I had made the team, but as I reflect back on the pressure and anxiety that built up over the last 18 months,'' said Davis, ``it's almost like I'm able to exhale again.''

* Brooke Bennett, the 15-year-old freestyler who ended Janet Evans' streak of distance wins last summer and started a hissing rivalry in the process, took a trials win from Evans last night in the 800-meter event.

Bennett was a distant fourth in the 400-meter freestyle earlier in the trials, with Evans taking first in that event. But last night, Bennett pulled away in the 800. Evans got second place, and also will swim that distance in the Olympics.

``I hope there's not going to be this grudge-match thing any more,'' said Evans, who has won four Olympic gold medals. ``The Chinese, Australians and Germans are all going to be fast in the Olympics, and that's who I'm going to worry about beating.''

``Janet and I aren't enemies any more,'' Bennett said. ``We're going to Atlanta together.''

Jessica Foschi, who tested positive for a banned steroid last summer but competed here after winning an appeal to U.S. Swimming, finished fourth in the 800 meters, ending her third and final bid to make the Olympic team.

In the men's 50-meter freestyle, Gary Hall Jr. and David Fox made the Olympic team. Finishing seventh was Tom Jager, 31, who was bidding to become the first man to make four Olympic swim teams and to become the oldest Olympic swimmer since Duke Kahanamoku in 1924.

Tom Dolan of Michigan won the men's 200-meter individual medley, his third win at the trials, finishing ahead of Greg Burgess of Jacksonville, Fla.

In the women's 200-meter breaststroke, the qualifiers were the same two women - Beth Botsford of Baltimore and Whitney Hedgepeth of Rocky Mount, N.C. - who made the U.S. team in the 100-meter breaststroke event.

Peter Wright of Delran, N.J., and the University of Virginia placed third in the men's 1,500-meter freestyle preliminary. The final is tonight.

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