In the country club world of amateur swimming John Naber is often referred to as a “hotdog.” He has been known to grin at TV cameras from the starting block, take pictures of photographers from the victory stand and turn frantic somersaults in the water when he wins. Last summer at the Olympics, where he won four gold medals, he bearhugged female officials at pool-side. This week in Cleveland Naber is making no promises about staying calm if his University of Southern California swim team wins a fourth consecutive NCAA championship. “When the spotlight is on me,” he says, “I get a tremendous urge to dance. I am a little bit of a thespian.”
Some would say the looniest thing he ever did was remain an amateur after his stunning Olympic performance. If he had cashed in on endorsements—following in the rapidly drying footprints of Mark Spitz—or challenge matches, he could have earned perhaps $100,000 this year. “I know it will sound sanctimonious,” John says, “but racing for money would have taken the fun out of the sport.”
So last fall he returned to the cramped two-bedroom apartment near the USC campus he shares with three roommates. John is titular head of household and resident efficiency expert. “He tells us which way to stack the silverware so it will drain properly,” says roomie George Luthringer.
A devout born-again Christian—though not a noisy one since he ended a 1975 TV interview with “Praise Jesus”—Naber counsels nearly everyone he meets. Despite a grueling academic and practice schedule, last year he volunteered to be a resident adviser in a freshman dormitory. “He’d sit up until 3 a.m. listening to other guys’ problems,” marvels his 19-year-old sister Nance, who is a sophomore at USC. “I’m glad he’s my brother so I can give him a hug once in a while.”
The attention paid Naber since the Olympics hasn’t gone to his close-cropped blond head. The medals are in his parents’ home in Menlo Park, Calif. On campus he still attends Bible classes and quietly dates Anita Lehmann, as he has for 18 months.
“His biggest problem,” says Anita, “is convincing everyone else he’s still the same person he was eight months ago. A lot of people believe he must have turned into a snob.”
The temptation is surely there. In a sport where training often begins in the bassinet, Naber was a late bloomer, swimming competitively for the first time at 13. But soon he was named a high school All-America (as well as student body president his senior year).
In college Naber has swum nearly every event, but he excels at the backstroke and long-distance freestyle—including the exhausting 1,650-yard race. “What John does in the pool is remarkable,” says USC coach Peter Daland. “It would be like a dash man entering the two-mile run.”
If Naber stays healthy and an amateur, he is a favorite to swim away with everything but the lane markers at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. He hints instead that the NCAA could be his last big meet. “I’m still waiting for the storm from Montreal to blow over so I can start leading a normal life,” he says. “My only goal is to graduate in June and get a job. Swimming can be a pretty boring sport—the bottoms of pools don’t seem to change very much.”