We know Robert Towne as a great screenwriter—Shampoo, Chinatown, The Last Detail, Personal Best, Tequila Sunrise (never mind the script doctor work he's done, most famously on Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather). But here's something for ya, a bonus piece he did for Sports Illustrated back in 1984:
A swimmer can swim by the hour and only grow stronger. In a way, water allows the swimmer to feel he's defying gravity. His body is, in effect, one-third its normal weight. Water supports and surrounds and caresses. It feels good and builds you up while virtually never tearing you down. And evolutionarily, swimming is regressive. Like dolphins and other cetaceans, the athlete who competes in water goes from the land back into the water and, like the dolphin, must think to breathe, and therefore not think about much of anything else. Competing in water is something that is almost calculated to make you kind. And finally, it is clean—pure even. Money isn't made swimming, not as a rule. You swim for the ferocious fun of it, like Wally Wolf.
I remember the story Wally told me on the day of the trial, when the judge finally intervened on our behalf. He and I and Patrice Donnelly, the hurdler-actress in Personal Best, were driving back from downtown L.A., heading west on Wilshire, when he recalled the 1948 Olympic trials at the Rouge Park Pool in Detroit. The competition was held outdoors, it was July, and the air was hot and still. The 200-meter free, which he was swimming to qualify for the relay team, had been delayed, and the air had grown even more still. The backstroke flags over the end of the pool were limp and lifeless. As the starter called everyone to the blocks, the 17-year-old Wally went up to his primary competition, the prohibitive favorite to win, the great George Hoogerhyde. Wally offered to shake his hand. Hoogerhyde refused. "I don't shake anybody's hand before a race," he said quietly.
Wally shrugged and got up on his block. "I remember it was suddenly very quiet," he said. "And I looked down into the pool. The delay had made everything perfectly still—the lane lines, the water—nothing could even be heard spilling into the gutters. And the surface was perfectly clear, like crystal. When they set us and I leaned over, I could see myself like I was looking in a mirror. The gun fired. I got off the blocks and watched myself all the way to the surface of the water until I hit it. I never forgot that moment...." Wally shattered his image and won his race, beating everyone including the great Hoogerhyde. That still surface represents to me the inner tranquillity of the great athlete at the supreme moment when he bows before the starting gun.
In Personal Best there's a moment at the start of the 100-meter hurdles when Patrice Donnelly settles into the blocks and bows her head before the starter. Her hair, in slow motion at 120 frames, falls away from her neck as though she were clearing it for an executioner's ax. It is the moment. You have defied the laws of nature and of God—"I will run faster than anyone, jump higher and leap farther than God or gravity allows." This you say to yourself as you prepare. Training is an act of defiance, of rebellion—"I'll show God and the rest of the world!" At the moment you settle into your man-made blocks and man-made race, however, you accept the height of the hurdles, the length of the race, the allowable tail winds. And you accept, therefore, your own limitations and bow your head dutifully before the starter's gun. Having defied God, you now commend yourself to him. I think of Jesse Owens at Berlin in 1936, taut and beautiful, focused on the finish of the 100 as though the finish line he raced to were the only future he would ever have. It is the supreme moment for the athlete and the perfect balance of humility and arrogance to which the human spirit can aspire.