Take a big gob of peanut butter, add milk, sprinkle liberally with raw wheat germ and rose-hip powder, throw in several scoops of vanilla ice cream, gelatin and a sliced banana and stir well. What have you got? Glop, but don't knock it. Steven Rerych was brave enough to take the mixture daily as an adolescent. Today he is a 6'7" junior at North Carolina State and one of the fastest sprint swimmers in the world. It is possible, of course, that brimming glasses of orange juice might have produced the same results, but, for lack of volunteers to test the glop theory of natural development, there is no proof that the brew is not worth at least several gold medals in the 1968 Olympics.
Not that Rerych (pronounced Rearrick) has all of these prizes yet. In fact, this weekend at the NCAA indoor finals in East Lansing he will have to face two swimmers (Peter Worthen of North Carolina and Zac Zorn of UCLA) who have produced better times this year in the 50-yard freestyle and three (Ken Walsh of Michigan State, Don Haven of USC and Mike Fitzmaurice of Villanova) who have gone faster in the 100-yard freestyle. This is not to mention Don Schollander, the man who can jingle four gold medals at any presumptuous challenger.
So why all the excitement over Steve Rerych? His size is a starting point. There were those among swimming coaches who could not believe that a boy of his dimensions could get all that length turned around at the end of a lap without the aid of a tugboat. Turning, which entails diving straight down, twisting violently and finally kicking off, would seem to be more easily mastered by shorter men, but Rerych, who has lots of natural coordination, has spent hours upon hours practicing the maneuver. The fact that he has beaten all but one comer this winter indicates he is turning quite well.
And, there are compensations for being 6'7". Once Rerych is headed in the right direction, those long, powerful legs give him a kick that probably moves him through the water faster than any human ever has moved before. Verification of such brute speed comes from Willis Casey, who, as Rerych's coach, might justifiably be accused of partiality. But Casey has also produced 26 All-Americas in 21 years of coaching at N.C. State, and he is not about to end up with egg on his face. "Steve," he says without equivocation, ''will be the best in the world."
March 27, 1967
Great swimmers are not born. They are usually tossed into a body of water at a very tender age by an eager parent. Steve Rerych was different. He started off happily splashing around Pompton Lake, some 25 miles from his home in Paterson, N.J., with a tiny life preserver and the steady hand of his father, Hank, to hold him up. At 4, the preserver was stripped off, and Steve was adjured to sink or swim in Pompton Lake. "I swam,'' said Rerych, pinching himself as if to verify the miracle.
All sports were important to Rerych as a preteen-ager and, because he was a big kid and naturally gentle, he was also fair game for pranksters and older boys. His father taught him boxing and invented the glop to build him up. "I wouldn't have minded the glop so much if we could have thought of another name," says Rerych. "But when we got through putting all that stuff together, what else could we call it?"
It was when Steve was 9 that a gym teacher at the Y asked for volunteers to race 20 yards in the pool. Steve got a first and two seconds, and from then on the idea of outsplashing anyone he could coax into the water was irresistible. Eventually Frank Elm, now the swimming coach at Rutgers, saw that Rerych had real promise and began teaching the boy the formal art of competitive racing. At 15, Rerych entered the AAU Nationals in Los Angeles, and Elm told him: "You're ready, boy. Now it's up to you." Rerych went out and chopped 10 seconds off his best time in the 400-meter freestyle, and that was good for fifth place against the best swimmers in the world. "It took me 15 minutes to get out of the pool," said Steve. "That's how much I ached. Ah, but what a wonderful way to ache."
The national acclaim that followed got Rerych a scholarship to the Peek-skill Military Academy in New York. He arrived with a suitcase full of wheat germ, calcium pills, protein extracts, assorted vitamins, little liver pills and high hopes of becoming one of the best swimmers in the world. But Rerych was growing fast—five inches in the year—and not all the nostrums in a medicine man's kit were going to pep him up. Suddenly he found that even finishing races was an exhausting task.
After his junior year at Peekskill, where he finished fifth in his class, Rerych entered the Eastern Nationals in Philadelphia, only to finish an ignominious last in the 200-meter freestyle. "I was ready to call it a career," said Steve. Then the strangest thing happened. Willis Casey, one of the shrewdest judges of bodies afloat, offered Rerych a full swimming scholarship to N.C. State.
"He looked at me as if I were stark raving mad," Casey recalls, "but I had this hunch that a lot of bad habits and all that sudden growth were the causes of Steve's bad performances. I thought he could still be a winner."
Unconvinced that Casey hadn't mistaken him for someone else, Rerych eventually went to Raleigh. It took exactly one serious turn up the pool for Casey to see that Rerych was getting in lots of revolutions per minute, none of which were very effective.
"Follow through, Steve, follow through," Casey yelled. Steve did, and suddenly the old speed started to come back. Then there were those turns. Rerych was making them sideways. Before long he was making them properly.
Casey's toughest job was building up Rerych's endurance. Steve had become the classic example of a drop-dead swimmer, and Casey attributed this to Rerych's lack of proper distance work. Casey sent him out for long swims, with more oomph in the last leg than the first. The results were telling. Rerych began turning on the old speed where he needed it most—at the end.
Rerych's first big test under Casey came before his freshman year in a meet in South Carolina. Steve came home a solid first in the 110-yard freestyle, and there was Casey at the end of the pool to greet him. "You did 57.2," said Casey.
"Is that all?"
"Make that 56.2," said Casey, correcting the time. But, more important than the time was the way Rerych had burned out the field with a tremendous final kick. Races like that are commonly called breakthroughs.
In the summer of 1964 Rerych entered the Olympic trials in the 100-meter freestyle and missed making the team by two-tenths of a second. Still, he did that 100 meters in 54.5, more than a second under his best time. Then, last summer, Rerych earned a trip to Russia by beating Schollander at 100 yards in the AAU championships. "You think he won't make it to Mexico?" asks Casey. "Well, not only will he make it, he'll break a world's record before he gets there."
This weekend in East Lansing, Rerych will face the strongest field of the indoor season. He knows that he is best when he feels worst, and he has been complaining something awful. "I feel tight," he moaned during a recent workout. "Just can't get loose."
"Come on," said Casey. "Smile."
Rerych did. It is going to be quite a race.