The Albatross, as he's known, is loping through a forest of 110-foot Scotch pines, accompanied by a few teenagers in sweats. Fall, winter and spring he comes here, to these vacant woodlands of central West Germany, to run for as much as an hour. "Normally I run 15 kilometers," he says. "If I am strong, I run 18 kilometers." His pace is that of a 2:20 to 2:40 marathoner, remarkable land speed for a tall and gangly water bird. But this Albatross is Michael Gross, 20 years old and fresh out of a West German secondary school, and he runs ahead of both his rivals and his time. He is the rarest of birds.
On this occasion Gross completes his forest loop after just a few kilometers because it's April, a time of tapered training this year. He emerges at the Tambourbad swim complex, a small compound surrounded by wire fencing on the outskirts of Offenbach. He and his running companions, teammates at the Erster Offenbacher Schwimm-Club—the First Swim Club of Offenbach, or EOSC—head for a gray plastic bubble that encloses a 50-meter pool. Near the entrance is a poster showing four smiling members of a relay team. EOSC-OFFENBACH MIT SUPERSTAR MICHAEL GROSS reads the caption. Every day Gross passes this poster and says nothing. Intelligent and serious-minded, generally disdainful of the press, he has no use for Albatross or Superstar or Schwimmstar or any of the other labels given him by the media. Yet he can't escape them; he's too good, too different, too newsworthy. A double world-record holder and double world champion, Gross is perhaps the most talented male swimmer in the world. Without question, he's the best swimmer West Germany has ever produced. As he goes in to swim on this typical afternoon, a gaggle of Offenbach age-groupers, hair still damp from practice, hang around the pool entrance, excited, chatting up a storm. Their every third utterance seems to be the same proud chirp: "Mee-shah-el Gross!"
He's clearly a national hero, yet beyond his swimming accomplishments Gross is something of a mystery, both at home and abroad. Which is how he prefers it. Gross still lives with his parents, G√ºnter and Ursula, in the old Sachsenhausen section of Frankfurt, and stubbornly guards both his and his parents' privacy. It's a firm rule: He wants to be considered, if at all, only as a swimmer—the rest is his business. As friends and acquaintances admit, Gross's stiff public casing can be hard to break through.
Among U.S. swimmers, Gross used to be known simply as Two Meters Tall. It was a hushed tribute to his size, for this Albatross—like the feathered creature for which he's nicknamed—is quite large. Americans, having heard little else about him, would whisper fearfully, "They say he's two meters tall!" as if that converted to 10 feet. Gross, after all, is the German word for "big." The image his name and nicknames helped reinforce loomed larger than Gross himself at the 1982 world championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he and the best Americans met for the first time at a major competition, and where Gross first showed his extraordinary versatility. In the finals of the 200-meter freestyle and 200 butterfly there, he upset then world-record holders Rowdy Gaines and Craig Beardsley, respectively, to attain his first world swimming titles. Neither Gaines nor Beardsley swam with any confidence, and both seemed tense. Gross, it seemed, was a very tall order for them to handle psychologically.
July 17, 1984
In reality, the 185-pound Gross stretches out to more than two meters—2.02 according to Michael—but that measures up to only 6'7½". He buys his jeans and T shirts off the rack and sees no big deal in being the first extra tall world champion swimmer since 6'6½" backstroker John Naber of the U.S. hung up his suit in 1977. Gross doesn't seem to get worked up over anything he is or does; his personality is as even as the surface of a calm pool. "You really do not have problems with height until you are 2.10 meters [6'10¾"], I think," he says with a shrug.
Gross's opponents have problems whenever he enters the water. He followed up his '82 world championship victories with one of the most memorable performances in swimming history, a total domination of the European championships in Rome last August. There he not only won four gold medals (100 and 200 fly, 200 free and 4 X 200 free relay) and one silver (400 medley relay), but also shattered three world records in a span of five days. Gross took nearly a second off Beards-ley's world mark in the 200 fly with a time of 1:57.05; improved his own mark in the 200 free from 1:48.28 to 1:47.87—he had eclipsed Gaines's world record of 1:48.93 at the West German championships two months earlier—and anchored West Germany's record performance (7:20.40) in the 4 x 200 free relay with the fastest 200 split ever recorded (1:47.21). To place Gross's relay swim in perspective, consider that none of his three teammates went faster than 1:50.78, and that two of them failed to break 1:51.
And to put Gross's freestyle-butterfly double in perspective, consider that not since Mark Spitz simultaneously held a total of four world fly and free marks in the early 1970s had a male swimmer held world records in two different strokes at the same time. But this is the Albatross, and he isn't impressed by his feats. "Swimming is just a hobby for me, really," he says, in English that has been polished smooth by five years of study. "My school is much more important." As usual, Gross isn't kidding.
Certainly, his approach to his sport is unique, if not casual. He rejects much of swimming dogma, including such traditional elements as predawn workouts and megayardage training programs. "The earliest time I ever trained in my life was eight o'clock," he says, "and that was because we were at a championship meet and the schedule of training pools was so bad." Gross also looks at swimming as a team sport; the highlight of his year is the West German club championships each December, an event at which there are no individual titles.
"His whole philosophy of swimming is, I think, very fantastic," says Dr. J√ºrgen Kozel, chairman of the West German swim committee. "He says, 'It is my hobby, it is fun for me. I train so hard because I want to learn something about my body and my constitution. When I believe I have had enough, when it is no more fun, I stop.' "
Except on weekends, when Gross also has a midmorning pool session, he swims only once a day, late in the afternoon. His workouts vary from 6,000 to 9,000 meters, less than half of what many American swimmers log. Says West German national men's coach Manfred Thiesmann, "He doesn't want to say after a training period, 'Now I have swum so many kilometers.' He says, 'I have swum these kilometers in such a quality.' "
To some extent Gross has no choice in the matter: On weekdays between September and May his club is allotted just two to three hours of workout time in the heavily used Tambourbad pool; in summer, weather permitting, the EOSC team trains at the Rosenh√∂he outdoor pool just a few miles away. "The Americans have so much time—ja?—that they sometimes waste it," says Gross. "You can train for four hours a day and do nothing or you can train two hours a day very strong. That is more important, instead of only swimming meters and meters." Gross visited the Mission Viejo (Calif.) swim club last October and was somewhat skeptical of the high-mileage regimen favored by the club's very successful coach, Mark Schubert. But as Schubert noted at the time, "Hell, if everybody here had his kind of talent, maybe we wouldn't have to swim so much."
What Gross insists upon is variety in his workouts. And that's easy to come by: Not only has some of Gross's regimen been devised by him, but his coach, the burly and avuncular Hartmut Oeleker, agrees there's a need to keep Gross mentally fresh as well. "He cares about how you are as a person, why you are not happy," says Gross.
Nearly half the training Gross does is dry-land work—weightlifting, soccer games, basketball, miles and miles of running—but while his hours in the water are relatively few, they're intense. He's at or near full speed much of the time. Hans Von Nolde, the German-born public relations director of the Industry Hills (Calif.) Exhibit-Conference Center, recalls watching Gross work out when the West German national team visited Industry Hills for two weeks last January. "It was almost like a music student talking to his teacher," says Von Nolde. "He would finish a set of swims and then he would say to his coach, 'Bitte, gib mir Variationen' [Please, give me some variations], as if it were Bach or something."
On this April afternoon, Gross is on the Tambourbad pool deck stretching and twisting like a contortionist. He's as lean as a whippet, all arms and legs and protruding ribs. His short-cropped blond hair and hawkish face are stern, almost severe. The Albatross label does seem to fit him, given his attraction to water and his aquiline profile. Of course, the European journalists who dubbed Gross the Albatross also had in mind the creature whose burdensome corpse hung like a 1,000-pound weight from the neck of the Ancient Mariner. But it's worth remembering that in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the poem from which that allusion was taken, the living albatross was a noble and cherished bird, a protector of sailors and a harbinger of good fortune. The Ancient Mariner was punished for killing it. By legend, then, the albatross was a desirable bird to have around.
With his EOSC teammates this afternoon, Gross is mildly animated, laughing, trading quips. Before they swim, he and his teammates take turns exhaling into a hand-held gauge to measure the strength of their lungs. They blow madly, faces crimson with effort, trying to force up the needle. Gross tries. One of his teammates puffs out his cheeks in mime. Gross chokes with laughter and coughs out the mouthpiece. Soon all the swimmers are giggling and puffing their cheeks at each other, and the test becomes impossible.
This is where Gross is most relaxed and happiest. This is where he can lose himself in the team and be, well, just a good bird to have around. Michael has always been introverted, says G√ºnter Gross, the financial director of Delta-Chemie G.m.b.H., a pharmaceutical-chemical company, and to all but teammates, good friends and family Michael remains diffident. "We have a term for him in German," says one club coach. "We say he is a 'closed' person." Gross is especially attached to his mother, who at smaller meets can be seen sitting next to her son on the pool deck. It is not, however, a pressured situation; although G√ºnter and Ursula come to all their son's meets and even handle the business affairs of the EOSC swim team, they're involved only because Michael wants them to be.
"For certain feelings, certain difficulties, a boy needs his parents," says the soft-spoken G√ºnter. "Most of Michael's competitions are exciting, but much more important to us are the times when it is not so exciting, when difficulties start." But haven't things gone very well for Michael in recent years? "It's like a theater," says his father. "Behind the curtains are the problems.
"When Michael has depression, or he has personal problems...they are not direct feelings, they are more under the table, these difficulties. Then we see our function. Then we have to help him. Not when he has many successes. There are people enough to help him then. But when he is down"—G√ºnter casts his arms out suddenly—"all people away. Then he needs us. Then he needs his mother, first of all."
So protective is Michael of his family that he allows only one photographer—Lazi Perenyi, a former EOSC teammate—to shoot pictures inside their home. Gross is pleasant and reasoned about his restrictions on the press, but his spine stiffens if he's pushed too hard. He has been burned by a few reporters and has learned to be wary of them.
"When he was younger, Michael's introversion was like a boundary around him," G√ºnter says. "Now it is an introversion of skepticism. He can sometimes be open, but he is still very critical. Like these interviews with you—it is not normal, such a long interview for him. He is very strong and it is 'No, no, no.' But he needs this contact. It is good for him. But if anything goes wrong, if when later he sees this interview, he says, 'Oh, this I haven't said,' or 'The interpretation is absolutely wrong,' you never have another chance, a second interview. Among the German newspapers, I would say, only a few colleagues of yours have had the chance of another interview."
A headline comes to mind from a cover story on Gross in a February issue of Prisma, the West German television magazine. DER GROSSE BLONDE MIT DEM EISERNEN WILLEN (The Great Blond with the Iron Will). Quite simply, Gross doesn't compromise his values, his goals or his methods, ever. A few cynics have suggested that as the only child of a well-off family—Gross drives a Porsche 911 to his workouts—he's spoiled and arrogant, always demanding to have his own way. But it's more that he has firm goals and is single-minded in his pursuit of them. He won't allow himself to be distracted: The press is upset by my refusal to interview? I'm sorry, but I have to study.
Back at the Tambourbad pool, Gross is now flying through the water, turning lap after lap. His freestyle stroke is smooth and effortless, long arms slipping slowly, quietly into the water. They pull him like soft canoe strokes. But what's this? He's already across the pool and into his flip-turn? Deceiving, the speed of this Albatross. Each of his strokes is an enormous Edwin Moses stride, a feast of yardage. "Watch for his wingspan," someone has advised. "He can reach out and touch both lane lines at the same time." One envisions him as a troubled butterflyer, cursing with each stroke—damn these plastic dividers!—while entangled like a clumsy bird in telephone wires.
"Oh no, people say this, but it's not so," Gross will say later, somewhat amused by the thought. "The lane lines are, I think, 2.50 meters [8'2½"] apart. I can reach only 2.25 [7'4‚Öù"] or so." Still, as Gross bursts into the fly halfway up the pool, his 7'4‚Öù" wing-span is a sight to behold.
Gross typically swims perhaps 10% of his workout in butterfly, a surprisingly small portion. To cite an example at the other extreme, women's world-record holder Mary T. Meagher of the U.S. does at least 60% of her training in the fly, and sometimes swims timed miles in the stroke. Gross says his fly stroke is so "strong" that he can't maintain it for such distances. He does stroke drills to keep his technique sharp and other types of endurance training to carry him through that long, second 100 meters of the 200 fly. According to Schubert, Gross "died a little" in the final meters of his 200 fly world record at Rome. That can only be chilling news to his rivals in the event, who got more bad news in June when Gross broke the Rome 200 fly mark with a 1:47.55 in Munich. Gross has been concentrating on his endurance in preparing for the Olympics. He should be stronger than ever.
Just five years ago, Gross's best event was the 100 fly, and he had to struggle to keep up his stroke beyond that. He was a little-known 15-year-old then, the holder of no age-group records, but he'd been swimming for years. "It was marvelous," recalls G√ºnter. "Even when he was a very little boy, he goes into water everywhere. On the floor, in the gutter, in the fountain. Wherever he sees water, he enters. We went to a public pool and my wife became very anxious because he jumped right away into the deep end. She said, 'He must learn to swim now.' " Ursula got her son lessons, and by four he had learned.
Michael didn't swim regularly until he was 10, however, and he has quit the sport twice—at ages 11 and 13—because it wasn't fun anymore. He went off and played with his friends like any other child, even breaking his left arm in a sandlot soccer game. But at heart he loved swimming best, and so he returned. The 1978 world championships in Berlin inspired him—"especially the performances of [Americans] Jesse Vassallo and Linda Jezek," he says, having asked earlier, with apparent concern, about Vassallo's comeback from knee surgery—and the following year Gross won his first West German junior championship. His hope that year was to win one title at the junior meet; instead he took home four first-place medals, in the 100 and 200 fly and 200 and 400 free. National coaches began to take notice of the young Gross.
His breakthrough on the senior level followed almost immediately. As late as February 1980, Gross felt he had no chance of making the West German Olympic team for that summer's Games in Moscow. But his improvement continued at a startling pace. Had it not been for the Western bloc boycott, which included West Germany, he would have swum at least two individual events in Moscow. And done well. At a dual meet in Etobicoke, Canada in July of that year, Gross did 54.69 in the 100 fly; one day later in Moscow, Sweden's Par Arvidsson, who had earlier set a world record of 54.15, won the Olympic gold medal in the same event in 54.92.
"But if we go to Moscow, so do the Americans, and two of them are even faster," says Gross. Gross studies swimming publications from the two Germanys, France, Hungary and the U.S. to keep track of all his rivals; here he's referring to William Paulus and Matt Gribble of the U.S., who had 100-fly times of 54.34 and 54.51 in the summer of 1980. Gross is always gracious in speaking of such opponents; he seems to look upon them more as comrades than as rivals. "I'm never very nervous, especially before a big competition, because I tell myself that I have nothing to lose," Gross says. "I do my best, and if someone is better than me in the race, I still do not worry about him because I have done my best. If you know this, you will be always happy. It's not important to win only."
Gross continued his success, winning the 200 fly at the 1981 European championships in Split, Yugoslavia, where he set a new European record with a time of 1:59.19, and getting his two titles at Guayaquil. Winning may not be everything to Gross, but it's still better than losing.
At both Split and Guayaquil, G√ºnter sat in the stands with a home-videotape camera and recorded all the morning preliminary heats in Michael's events. G√ºnter would then bring the tapes back to a hotel room, and at midday Michael would study them there. "I look to see what kind of fitness Rowdy is in," Michael says, "and other things like that. I want to see the strategies of the others." For future reference, the tapes were brought home to Frankfurt and stored in G√ºnter's library.
G√ºnter was filming again in Rome last August. "I have no time to look at competitions," he says wistfully. "Always I have the camera. I see Michael winning only through the camera, with his joy, and the public reactions, and all these things." What he saw Michael do in Rome was phenomenal: He set his three world records and won his four gold medals despite what he called a "choppy" pool and despite a bout with the flu that had kept him in bed until just a week before the competition began.
Some European reporters can't decide whether Gross is a boy, a machine or a monster. The difficulties between Gross and the press have festered for several years, and neither side is blameless. In Rome, for example, photographers were clamoring for a picture of Gross wearing the four gold medals he'd won. But Gross decided that Perenyi, and no one else, would get the shot. Perenyi, after all, is perhaps his closest friend, and friendship to Gross is a high priority. Other photographers were fuming. "It was typical for Michael, really typical," says Kozel. "He says, 'No, why must all the photographers make pictures of me? Why? I don't understand this, and I don't want it.' " When Gross and Perenyi tried to sneak away from the other photographers, there ensued a wild car chase through the streets of Rome. Finally Perenyi and Gross got free, and two months later Perenyi's picture—taken in some ruins—made the cover of Swimming World. A companion shot taken the same day appears on page 90 of this magazine.
That incident followed a never-forgotten episode with the West German media in December 1982. Gross had been voted the nation's male Sportsman of the Year by journalists and was to be feted at a banquet in Berlin. But the dinner was scheduled for the night before the start of the national club championships some 300 miles away in Aachen. To Gross, loyalty to the team is paramount; he decided to skip the awards banquet.
"O.K., it's an honor, yes," he says now. "But you can forget this honor after a couple of days, ja? It's not important. You can still pay for something if you are the top athlete of Germany. Do you know what I mean? In Germany we say that even if you are a member of parliament, you still have to pay for your goods at the store just like any other citizen of the country. You are no better."
But there was an uproar. Imagine the Heisman Trophy winner forsaking the Downtown Athletic Club to play for his fraternity in a big intramural basketball game. "A lot of people rang Michael up and came to our home to make long talks and pressure," says G√ºnter. "Michael started to say, I am only 17 or 18, and now my mind is absolutely troubling me.' " In the end, however, Michael stood firm. He passed up the dinner, went to Aachen and led EOSC to a second-place finish. He regrets some of the rancor that developed, but not his decision.
"Some people said, 'What a bad guy he is,' " says Gross. "But if I'd gone to Berlin and then had some bad performances on the weekend, on Monday the newspapers would have said, 'Gross is going to banquets instead of doing his work.' You can do what you want in this case—every time it is wrong." Last year, when Gross was again named West Germany's top male athlete, the banquet was scheduled so as not to conflict with the club championships.
Though Gross usually does get his way, things don't always break his way. All his life he had dreamed of being a pilot for Lufthansa, the West German airline. There are even pictures of him, taken by Perenyi, sitting at the controls of a Lufthansa DC-10. But this spring came the bad news. Gross learned that Lufthansa is switching from three-man to two-man cockpits, and therefore has a surfeit of trained pilots on hand; the airline won't be hiring any new ones for at least several years. And in any case, Gross is probably too tall to qualify as a pilot. "It is a disappointment, yes," he says softly.
But if the Albatross can't fly, at least he can ride the airwaves as a TV news reporter. Given his interest in national and world affairs—he and his friends frequently sit outside Sachsenhausen's old cafés talking politics and sipping apple wine—Gross decided that television news might be an appealing backup choice as a career. He prefers news to sports for its greater challenge, and because he's more intrigued by Green Party initiatives than by rugby scores. "It hasn't all been approved yet, but there are some private networks that may be starting up soon," he says, suddenly sounding just a bit like a Frankfurt financier. "I would like to help one of them succeed."
Gross is broadly educated, with a liking not only for politics and airplanes but also the poetry of Heine and the writings of another Frankfurter, Goethe. Although many see him as aloof, rigid and, to quote one journalist, "ultra-German efficient," Gross is really more the humanist than the Prussian officer. However, it takes a little time to discover that. And the effort made is yours, not his.
Until his graduation in June, Gross attended the Freiherr vom Stein Gymnasium in Frankfurt. A Gymnasium is the most intellectually rigorous of the three types of German high schools, and Gross ranked somewhere in the middle of his class. His priorities were made clear by the cover of that March issue of Prisma, which pictured him beneath the quote "ERST ABITUR, DANN OLYMPIA,, ("First the abitur, then the Olympics"). The Abitur is a complex series of examinations taken during a student's final months in the Gymnasium; it determines how good a university the student can attend after graduating and serving his mandatory 15 months in the army. College sports scholarships or athletic programs don't exist in West Germany, even for a Michael Gross.
Gross thinks that he may have scored well enough on his Abitur to have his pick of schools, but he'll likely stay close to home and attend either the University of Frankfurt or the University of Mainz. Several U.S. colleges, including Cal, were interested in recruiting him as a swimmer, but Gross doesn't want to lose touch with West German news and politics; staying at home, he feels, will better prepare him for his career. As for his army service, Gross will be spending two weeks of it at the Games and the rest training at a military sports camp in Warendorf—unless, as he hopes, he's able to work a deal allowing him to train near home. That would also allow him to begin college sooner. "It would probably be a waste of my time," he says bluntly of the army. "I see no point in it."
Gross probably isn't cut out for a life of regimentation and unquestioning obedience. That shows in his treatment of Hein-rich III—not the highhanded 11th century German king, but Gross's two-year-old, nonspeaking cockatiel. "I don't like the normal names for birds," says Gross, whose pet imitates its owner's independent ways. "Heinrich can do what he wants to do. He mustn't stay in the cage. Night and day he's free, flying through the rooms."
Needless to say, more than a few of Gross's countrymen are expecting him to soar in the L.A. Games. They're hoping he'll become the first West German to get an Olympic gold medal in swimming since Ursula Happe won the women's 200 breast-stroke in 1956. Gross will be the favorite in two individual events, the 200 fly and free, and is a sure medalist in another, the 100 fly.
"I have nothing to lose in L.A.," he says. "I have no gold medals. If I don't get one, it won't be that bad. It's not my goal, yes? I have a big chance, really—but only to feel the spirit of the Games, to live with swimmers from other nations in one camp. That is the biggest part of the Games, I think." Gross says he may continue swimming through 1988, though perhaps only at the club level. He's that kind of rare bird, the Albatross. Untethered and happy just to fly.