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Leapin' Lizards, It's Lunk

March 28, 1983
March 28, 1983

Table of Contents
March 28, 1983

Spinks
NCAA Basketball
Gerry Cooney
Steve Lundquist
Pro Football
Pro Basketball
Dick Vermeil
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Leapin' Lizards, It's Lunk

Steve (Lunk) Lundquist, collector of beasts, is a fearsome critter himself when he's doing the breaststroke

The photo ran on page three of the Sept. 4, 1979 National Enquirer, right below a story bearing the headline THE VILLAGE WHERE 38 GIRLS TURNED INTO BOYS. The picture showed Southern Methodist swimmer Steve Lundquist diving off the blocks in the 100-meter breaststroke finals of the Pan Am Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "Everybody was making a stink about his start because no one had ever done it that way before," recalls Bob Lundquist, Steve's father. In the picture, Steve is virtually in the pike position—bent sharply forward at the waist, arms and legs extended—and is much higher and farther out over the water than the seven other finalists, who hover low and flat, DIVER [sic] REALLY GOT HIS BACK UP, the headline next to the photo read. "His rear end was up," corrects Bob Lundquist.

This is an article from the March 28, 1983 issue Original Layout

The pike start, which Lundquist developed during years of age-group swimming in Jonesboro, Ga., takes him much deeper underwater—perhaps as many as four feet in deep-water pools—than the standard start. By the time his head popped to the surface in that Pan Am race, he led by two feet. He won by five. Subsequently, Lundquist won gold medals in the 200 breast and 400 medley relay, using the same start. He has used it to similar effect ever since.

Now, an unconventional start may seem to be tame stuff for a tabloid. Enquiring readers might have preferred Lundquist's bizarre-but-true animal stories—SNAKE-BIT RECORD-SETTER SAYS FANGS A LOT!; I BUILT MY MOUSE A CONDO!; HEY THERE, GEORGI(A) GORILLA!—or gossip about him as swimming's No. 1 sex symbol and hell raiser. But the start is important, because it helps explain why Lunk, as the 6'2", 186-pound Lundquist is known, now an SMU senior, is the world's best breaststroker.

Starts, of course, aren't the only reason for his success. "Steve has great walls," says Don Gambril of the University of Alabama, the 1984 U.S. Olympic swim coach, using swimming jargon to describe a swimmer who's expert at making turns. Lunk's turns are unequaled; he's so muscular that he drives off pool walls much more powerfully than his rivals. "You can go half the length of a pool underwater on a good breaststroke turn," says Lundquist. "That's where you pick up yards." Not surprisingly, Lunk is especially tough in short-course pools, 25 meters or yards rather than 50, in which the turns come twice as often.

Lundquist's totally flat feet probably help, too, in lending thrust to his kicking. "They really do a job on shoes, though," he says, pointing to the tattered Top-Siders that flop like sandals on his feet. "My arches," he says, "arch outward." But that's not Lunk's most exceptional feature.

"He has spizzerinctum," says Tennessee Coach Ray Bussard.

Spitz-who?

"Look it up," says Bussard.

Can do. Spittle...spittoon...Spitz....

"Spitz didn't have it," says Bussard. "He was the most successful swimmer ever, but he didn't have it."

Right. Spitzenburg...spitzflute...spiv.... There's no spizzerinctum in Webster's Collegiate.

"Well, I guess it's kind of hard to define. John Naber had it, and so did John Kinsella and David Edgar and Valeri Brumel, the Soviet high jumper. It's rare. It's a burning desire to excel, an ability to push yourself beyond your limits. An athlete with spizzerinctum—it's like he has fire coming out of his eyes."

Lundquist's baby blues were down-right blazing last year, when he twice broke the world record in the 100-meter breaststroke and won the world championship in the same event. He was named Swimmer of the Year by both Swimming World magazine and U.S. Swimming, the sport's national governing body. All told, in the breaststroke and his other specialty, the 200 individual medley, he has won nine national and five NCAA titles and has broken world or American records on 11 occasions. "He still holds 37 Georgia age-group marks," says his father, beaming.

As befits one with spizzerinctum, Lundquist thrives on the pressure of major meets and loves those in which team scoring is involved, such as the first annual Dallas Morning News Swimming Classic, held Jan. 28-29 in SMU's Perkins Natatorium. Six of the nation's college powers—SMU, Auburn and the four top finishers in last year's NCAA Championships, UCLA, Texas. Stanford and California—brought eight swimmers apiece to Dallas and gave a preview of what figures to be a wide-open men's 1983 NCAA championship meet, which will be held this week in Indianapolis. "We had this place packed," says SMU Coach George McMillion, gesturing to the 2,800 seats in Perkins, a dreary converted gym. For two days Lundquist had old Perkins whipped up into a frenzied sweatbox. He won four individual events (200-yard IM, 100 butterfly and 100 and 200 breasts), swam on SMU's victorious 400 medley relay and led the Mustangs to the team championship. "It was five schools against Lundquist," says Stanford Coach Skip Kenney.

At the Southwest Conference Championships in Austin, Texas three weeks ago, Lunk won the 50, 100 and 200 breaststroke titles, but expended even more energy firing up his teammates. During the 800 free relay, in which Texas led SMU from the start, Lundquist was in constant motion, pacing, jumping madly up and down, screaming, clapping, pounding a fist on a trainer's table. "I can't take this," he shouted at one point. "I'd rather be in the water myself than...." He suddenly saw a Texas swimmer faltering slightly in the water. "Die!" Lundquist shouted, leaping two feet in the air. "Die! Die!" The Longhorns won the relay—and the meet—but Lunk remained his usual positive-thinking self. "This was a big meet," he said. "What we want is the next one. The big meet."

The biggie is, of course, the NCAAs, where Lundquist hopes to lead SMU to its first national swimming title. The Mustangs were 10th at last year's meet, even though Lundquist was the championships' top point-scorer with victories in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes and a second-place finish behind UCLA's Bill Barrett in the 200 IM. This year, with Barrett having completed his eligibility, Lundquist should win all three of his events, and SMU, with the addition of outstanding freshmen Rich Saeger (freestyle), Mark Rhodenbaugh (backstroke) and 400 IM world-record holder Ricardo Prado of Brazil, should finish no lower than third. "Man, do I want one of those [NCAA] rings," says Lundquist.

Four years ago Lundquist himself was what every college coach in the country wanted. "He was the kind of swimmer who comes along maybe once in five years," says McMillion. Lundquist was 17 when he broke his first world record, at the 1978 National AAU Long Course championships at The Woodlands, Texas, where he cut nearly a second off the 200-yard IM mark held by Aleksandr Sidorenko of the Soviet Union. At the '79 Short Course Nationals in Los Angeles he had become the first swimmer to break 2:00 in the 200-yard breaststroke. What college coaches went through in hopes of getting him is now swimming legend. "Quite frankly," says Gambril, one of six finalists in the pursuit of Lunk, "I wouldn't want to be involved in another recruiting episode like that one."

The first obstacle was Lundquist's attitude. "I was a cocky snob," he says with embarrassment. "I was good and I knew it. The worst advice I ever got was from a famous swimmer I admired at the time, who told me, 'These schools are going to be begging for you. Milk it for all it's worth.' Now I regret it so much...more than I can tell you."

How self-assured was Lundquist? His principal goal as a high school senior was seemingly to be elected King of Jonesboro High, which he eventually was. He hardly saw a swimming pool that year, figuring he didn't need to train, and instead tried out for football, the only sport that really matters in Georgia. A defensive end, he practiced with the starting team during the week but rode the bench on Saturdays. No glory there. Before the season ended, Lundquist confronted the football coach and snapped, "I'm quitting. I'm going back to my swimming."

Unfortunately, Lundquist wouldn't tell McMillion, Gambril, Bussard or the coaches at Arizona State, Auburn and Florida which of their schools he would attend. Often he didn't even answer their phone calls. The anxious coaches waited through the spring of his senior year. And through his graduation. Each school had to leave open one of its precious scholarships in case Lundquist deigned to join it. Finally, at the Pan Am Games early in July, Lundquist decided on SMU. "Most of the coaches were true class gentlemen about it," says Bob Lundquist. "Some weren't."

Lunk was somewhat chastened by two incidents that followed his return from San Juan. At the Long Course Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, his lax training finally caught up with him, and he failed to make the finals of the 100-meter breast. Worse, University of Florida swimmers and their parents—all jilted suitors—cheered resoundingly when Lundquist's failure was announced. That hurt. Of course, they were unaware that on the previous day's drive from Jonesboro, Lundquist and his parents had witnessed a horrifying car crash and that Steve had spent an exhausting four hours helping the injured passengers. "One woman was dead, right there," says Steve's mother, Lois. "It was awful." Steve left the scene shaken. "It made me realize how fast it all can end," he says.

What ultimately changed Lundquist, however, was rooming during his sophomore year with J.D. Browder, now a senior at the University of Houston, a dwarf who's 4'7" tall. "That was the awakening part of my life." Lundquist says. "J.D. taught me what lucky was. He has the greatest, most positive outlook on life—and he's handicapped. That guy's my best friend in the world. Man, he opened my eyes."

Browder wasn't afraid to challenge his roomie at anything, be it boxing or tennis. "Whatever I did, J.D. wanted to do—and do even better. He never ever got discouraged," says Lundquist. And Browder's buoyant spirit rubbed off. Lundquist began going out of his way to sign autographs and chat with young fans. He even approached McMillion one day and asked if he could help out the SMU program by writing letters to potential Mustang recruits. When McMillion said yes, Lundquist wrote to about 50 prospects a year, adding the postscript, "If you ever need somebody to talk to, about anything, please call me."

Getting along in the water was never a problem for Lundquist, who grew up less than 100 feet from the shore of Jonesboro's Lake Spivey. His father, now the president of Motion Manufacturing, an Atlanta firm that makes special hospital beds, was a high school freestyler, while his mother, a realtor, formerly worked as a lifeguard and YWCA swim instructor. However, they let Steve and their other son, Brad, now 25 and an Army paratrooper living in West Germany, get into swimming on their own. Brad quit. Steve loved it.

Bob and Lois became Steve's support crew. Even though one of Steve's first coaches, Art Winters, left the Forest Park (Ga.) Swim Club, he volunteered his time and traveled the 12 miles to Lake Spivey each day to train 15-year-old Steve. Winters would ride alongside Steve on the Lundquists' pontoon boat, yelling out instructions and encouragement. And when Winters said he needed a workout pool—neither Jonesboro nor Clayton County had a suitable one—the Lundquists saw to the construction of a six-lane, 25-yard indoor facility 5½ miles from their house. "A man named Al Tall-man provided the land and the building," says Bob. "I bought the pumps, laid the concrete, put in the two bathrooms and lighting and so on. I sank probably $30,000 of my own money in it."

So began the Tallman Swim Team, coached by Winters. "That first summer Steve and three other swimmers went down to a Junior Olympic meet in Memphis," says Bob. "With four swimmers they took home 19 of their region's 24 medals. Wiped 'em out. Broke a lot of meet records."

Strange things came and went in Jonesboro. Like wild animals. When Steve was young, a Lion Country Safari park was in operation next to Lake Spivey, and beasts regularly escaped. Steve and Brad once met a bull moose in the middle of the lake and tried to herd it to shore while riding surfboards. Another time a Barbary ape, variously known as Babbette and Geraldine, found her way into the Lundquists' three-acre backyard and eluded capture there and on a neighbor's three-acre property for 2½ years.

Less entertaining was the snake Steve encountered at The Woodlands in 1978, just days after setting his 200-IM world record there and one day before he was to leave with the U.S. national team for the world championships in Berlin. He saw it on the sidewalk and, having caught snakes all his life, figured he would pick it up and toss it into the grass. "Instead it picked me up," says Lundquist. The snake bit him on the hand and a numbness quickly spread up his arm. The snake was a deadly copperhead. Lundquist spent the night in a Houston hospital, eventually lost 12 pounds and finished a disappointing fourth in the 200 IM at Berlin.

Of course, Lunk would have been safe if he'd only had Mighty Mouse with him that evening. That is, to feed to the snake. Mighty was a white lab mouse Lundquist rescued from an SMU dorm and moved to his room. There the little critter lived in a miniature condominium designed and built by Lundquist, whose career interests lie in real estate and architecture, and his roommate. ("Oh yes, I've got something small you might like....") Mighty, alas, escaped after one year and the condo was razed.

Some suspect that Lundquist's true career calling is the demolition derby. At age 12 he totaled a Go-kart and as a result had to have damaged cartilage removed from his knee. During his recruiting visit to Southern Methodist he wrecked one swimmer's boat trailer and was a passenger in another's Chevy Blazer when it ran into two trees. "Lunk had to come here," says a former teammate. "He owed us too much money." Since then Lundquist has pulled the front end off an Olds Cutlass, dented the rear end of his own Chevette and sent one motorcycle to the grave.

In an effort to save another friend's cycle, which he lost control of while push-starting it one day in November 1980, Lundquist brought it down on top of his right shoulder. "I did $50 worth of damage to the bike and incalculable damage to my shoulder," he says. Lunk was limited to kicking work for three months.

Needless to say, McMillion has occasionally been upset by Lundquist's outside pursuits—among them his passion, water skiing—but McMillion knows that it would be fruitless to try to stop Lunk. As he has said, "You just can't put limits like that on Steve."

Lundquist has tried this year to limit his social life somewhat by staying home more often and changing his phone number—his female admirers are legion—but there's still no doubt around Dallas that he's a night person. "They say there are more bars on Greenville Avenue than in the entire state of Georgia," says Lundquist. He's been known to crawl into bed an hour or two before sunrise and still make it to his 6 a.m. workout. Now that's spizzerinctum.

But Steve has mellowed some. Recently, on the back of a swimming program, he spotted a McDonald's ad that read: "You've trained four hours a day, seven days a week for six months to cut 0.3 off your best time. Was it worth it?"

"It made you think," says Lundquist. "Was it worth it? Then you realize what swimming has done for you—in meeting people and growing up and going to places you otherwise would never see—and you say, hey, I'm lucky to be competing."

"We all feel lucky," says Stanford's Skip Kenney. "Lucky that Steve is finally a senior."

PHOTOPHOTOWith this photo of his pike start at the '79 Pan Am Games, Lundquist made a tabloid.PHOTOAt the Dallas Swimming Classic, Lunk was 5 for 5.PHOTONo wonder Lundquist claims that Browder (left) has a positive influence on his life.