On Saturday, February 9, 1980, while the Harvard band amused the standing room only crowd at Blodgett Pool and annoyed the vaunted Indiana University swim team, the Harvard squad returned unnoticed in the locker room to prepare its secret weapon.
Following a medley relay win by the Crimson foursome of Geoff Seelen, David Lundberg. Jack Gauthier and Bobby Hackett. Indiana distance specialist James Kegley met the secret weapon--Larry Countryman--face to face on the starting blocks before the 1650-yd. freestyle.
Anticipating the team's need for a psychological boost following the previous week's loss to arch-rival Princeton, Countryman had accepted a challenge to shave his head.
"Only a handful of Harvard guys ever had a teammate who shaved his head. When someone does that you know they intend to do some serious swimming. Although the Indiana swimmers might deny it, we could tell the minute Larry took his cap off before the 1650 that they knew the Harvard team meant business," Hackett recalled recently.
Countryman, with or without his hair, takes his swimming very seriously. On that afternoon over a year ago, the All-American distance freestyler ripped off a 15:35.61 for the 1650, to win both the race and a trip to the NCAAs.
While his sudden lack of hair attracted attention from even the non-swimming world around Harvard, for those following the sport more closely Countryman's performance against the Hoosiers simply secured his role opposite Hackett as the other half of Harvard's dynamic distance duo.
"Larry's presence in the Harvard program these past two years, has made workouts more interesting and profitable for me." Hackett explained. "The constant, head-to-head competition during sets makes me work that much harder. Now while we are both preparing for the NCAAs with pace work, it's adventageous to have someone from your same event pushing you."
Long before his arrival in Cambridge two Septembers ago. Countryman had already established himself as the best long-distance freestyler in Region II of the AAU which included his home pool of Foxcatcher Swim Club then located outside Philadelphia on the DuPont Estate as well as Countryman's home 90-minutes away in Newark Del. Region II has also provided Harvard with two other sophomore swimmers, Maryland's Tom Verdin and Andy Lockman.
In addition to dominating the Mid-Atlantic, Countryman gained a national reputation while attending Newark High School. Less than a year after moving from Wilmington Aquatic Club to join Fox-catcher as a high school junior, Countryman earned himself a trip to Woodlands. Texas in the summer of 1978 for the Long Course Senior Nationals.
With a 12-place finish in the 400-meters and a 14th in the 1500 meters, the Delaware native attracted the attention of college coaches and that fall found himself a prime recruiting target for the major swimming schools.
Early in his senior year. Countryman accepted an invitation to Mission Viejo Calif., for a special training camp designed to expose the top five distance swimmers from the USSR to their opposition here in the USA. Aside from Countryman the top names in that field included Vladimir Salnikov Brian Goodell. Kyle Ditzler and Hackett.
"Yale had been my top choice until I met Bobby. He told me what Harvard had to offer and invited me up for a visit. After I saw the school went to a few classes and met Coach Bernal. I chanced my mind and decided Harvard was the place for me." Countryman said recently.
If the Indiana meet proved that the Harvard program suited Countryman's needs, then last year's NCAAs merely solidified that fact. Seeded third-to-last in the 1650. Countryman won his heat with a 15:24:33 and placed 12th overall. He joined Hackett as Harvard's only All-Americans and point earners.
Avoiding the sophomore jinx with ease, Countryman turned in an impressive performance at this year's Easterns with personal bests in the 200 and 500 freestyle races and another NCAA qualifying time in the 1650.
To cap, off his outstanding year, the Eliot House sophomore will attempt to retain his All-American status at this year's NCAAs, in Austin. Texas March 26-28.