MINNEAPOLIS, JULY 10 -- Jeff Commings remembers watching former Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis on "Nightline" a few years ago. He listened to Campanis say blacks couldn't swim because they weren't "buoyant." He was devastated.

"I couldn't believe it," Commings said at the U.S. Olympic Festival. "My friends all asked me what I thought. I was so angry and upset. But I told them this guy didn't know what he was talking about. And I told myself not to forget it. It just made me work harder."

On Sunday night, Commings, a 16-year-old high school senior from St. Louis, became the first black swimmer to win a gold medal at the festival when he won the 100-meter breaststroke in 1:04.34. He won another gold medal that night in the 400-meter medley relay for the East team. On Monday night, Commings added a bronze medal in the 200-meter breaststroke in 2:23.88. It was the first time he had won medals in both individual events in a meet, and it was the first time he had won three medals at one competition.

Granted, the festival swimming competition is not a showcase for the nation's best. Those swimmers are getting ready for the Goodwill Games in Seattle later this month. This is more like a national high school meet. Commings's time in the 100 breaststroke, for example, is nearly three seconds slower than the world record of 1:01.49, held by Great Britain's Adrian Moorhouse. Three seconds in a 100-meter event is a lot. And his time in the 200 breaststroke is nearly 11 seconds off the world record of 2:12.89, held by Potomac, Md.'s Mike Barrowman.

Still, there he was, churning towards victory Sunday night, with ESPN's cameras recording his historic effort.

"I was thinking that Al Campanis might be watching me on TV and seeing me touching {the wall} first," Commings said. "That would have been nice. I try not to think about the issue, because I don't think people in swimming think about the issue. But I do hope Al Campanis was watching."

Commings began swimming at age 5 and never thought anything of it.

"It was just something for me to do," he said. "Just to have fun. With football, baseball and basketball, you couldn't start that young."

When it came time for him to move to those sports, he never did. His friends began playing the more traditional team games, but he stuck with swimming.

"I didn't hurt as much as I thought I would in football or basketball," he said. "And I liked swimming so much."

Commings moved from one swim club in St. Louis to another, then jumped to a suburban club when his family moved to Black Jack, Mo., north of the city. He said that although he is in a vast minority as a black swimmer, he never has been taunted or been the subject of racial abuse.

"I've never heard it," he said. "I'm sure there has been some, but I've never heard it."

What he does hear are questions from his black friends. Why, they ask, do you still swim?

"They ask me, 'How do you feel about being one of the best black swimmers?' " Commings said. "I tell them color doesn't matter. I win a lot of events. They wonder why I'm not in basketball with my strength and my speed. I tell them it would be a little late to switch now. I'm too into swimming."

Commings said that he deals with the problems of perception more than with the problems of racism.

"A lot of black people think basketball and football are really good sports," he said. "That's just the way they grew up. Some of them were inner city kids and they just play basketball. If they ever swam, it was at the boys club. But they probably never learned to swim because they didn't have the opportunity. I had that opportunity, so I like the sport.

"Most of my friends have grandparents and parents who grew up with basketball and other sports, but not swimming. . . . But they are still my friends. They don't say that I'm not a part of them because I swim. They accept me."

Commings found inspiration in the 1988 Olympic performance of Surinam's Anthony Nesty, a black man from the University of Florida who upset American Matt Biondi by one-hundredth of a second to win the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly.

"At first, I was really pulling for Biondi all the way," he said. "When I found out Nesty touched him out, I have tried to keep my eye on his career. But Biondi still is great."

One of two black swimmers here, Commings (5 feet 11, 170 pounds) hopes to drop a second off his best 100 breaststroke time (1:03.90) this summer.

"At the age of 16, you haven't peaked yet," he said.

But with college and the hope of a career in journalism awaiting him, Commings has more to do than dwell on what he has accomplished here the last couple of days.

"Okay, I won a gold medal, the first black to do it in swimming," he said. "It goes in the books. Obviously, it's there forever. Now let's go on. There are more statistics to make."