Los Angeles — The growing challenge to America's traditional Olympic swimming success was fully apparent during last week's McDonald's International Invitational meet here. Of the 28 individual finals, 22 were won by foreign nations, including nine by the men of the Soviet Union. The Russians also showcased the four-day event's most eye-compelling performer in Vladimir Salnikov, who broke his own world 800-meter record with a clocking of 7:52.33.
That Uncle Sam didn't do better wasn't entirely unexpected, since many top US swimmers stayed home to prepare for next month's National Championships (Aug. 3- 6) at Clovis, Calif. Winners there will qualify for the Pan American Games a week later in Caracas, Venezuela.
Even so, the US performance in the new Olympic pool was not an encouraging one. But while the American swimmers still appear in the process of getting their act together, US Coach Don Gambril said after the meet he was confident the team would make a better showing in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics than some people think.
It was the Soviets, though - and particularly Salnikov - who created the biggest stir last week. The 23-year-old triple gold medal winner from the 1980 Olympics is probably the most formidable distance swimmer in history, and he was in top form here.
But Vladimar, who hardly needed his interpreter to handle questions during a 30-minute press conference, seemed to think that the new pool was not built for anything extraordinary. Basically he seemed to prefer indoor pools, where there are no weather variables and where, in Los Angeles, there would be no smog.
Salnikov is a personable young man who was married last September; who probably knows as much about stereos as any American teen-ager; and who expects to begin a coaching career in approximately two years. ''This competition is not very important to us,'' he said. ''It is important only in the sense of testing the pool and finding out something about the weather.''
One of the things that has set US swimming back, according to Stanford coach Allan (Skip) Kenney, was the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
''Swimming is a very tough sport mentally and physically, one that requires tremendous amounts of discipline and practice time,'' Kenney said. ''To keep a kid's interest, he has to have a dream - something he can look forward to like the Olympics. Getting there makes all those sacrifices worthwhile.
''But when you take away his chance to compete at the Olympic level, like the US did when it didn't choose to go to Russia, you destroy his motivation,'' he added. ''Of course that dream is back now and with it the kind of motivation that can produce champions. Believe me, there is a lot of US talent out there and it is going to surface.''
Asked what it takes to become a great swimmer, Kenney replied: ''Any kid who has talent and is willing to work hard and will follow the advice of a proven coach can become competitive. But the great ones, like Mark Spitz, are all born with a sensitivity to water that can't be taught.
''Spitz not only got a large part of our population interested in swimming by winning seven gold medals, his success also prompted some fine athletes who might have gone into some other sports to try swimming instead. One of our problems here is that we lose too many gifted kids to baseball, football, and basketball. And a big part of that stems from the fact that they know they can probably go on and eventually make a living as professionals.''
As for LA's new Olympic Stadium, located on the campus of the University of Southern California, it is a 50-meter pool that has been engineered to provide optimum conditions for fast race times. The authority for that statement is David J. Flood, Commissioner of Swimming for the Los Angeles Organizing Committee.
''There are a number of features designed to cut down on the wave action caused by swimmers,'' Flood said. ''Generally the smoother the water, the faster the times. And this facility has a set of wave-dampening, movable bulkheads at both ends of the pool.
''These bulkheads are riddled with tiny holes that allow water to pass through the bulkheads, which take away much of the wave action that would ordinarily crash against the ends of the pool,'' David continued. ''Since the bulkheads are movable, the pool lengths can always be adjusted to 50-meters, or the entire facility can be divided into two or three smaller areas.''
Dimensions of the Olympic Stadium pool are 50 meters in length by 22.86 meters (75 ft.) in width. Two large underwater windows, one at each end of the pool, allow coaches a unique opportunity to chart mistakes.