Peter Berndt felt he was ready. "I now have the choice," he told his American adoptive parents, Tom and Becky Patterson. And so last Aug. 10, 19 months after his sudden defection from the East German swim team, Berndt and the four members of his new family traveled from their Birmingham home to the easternmost prong of West Germany. They drove east until the road ended, then trudged across a potato field to an obelisk painted in the yellow, red and black of both German flags. The obelisk bore a sign that read DEUTSCHE DEMO-KRATISCHE REPUBLIK—German Democratic Republic. They were at the East German border.
Berndt and the Pattersons strode past the sign, going 25 yards onto East German soil until they reached a 12-foot-high chain link fence. A shorter fence stood beyond it, and 300 yards farther rose a guard tower. "Peter didn't say much," recalls Tom Patterson. All five glanced back at the rolling West German farmland, the red roofs of a village and the steeple of a church. It was a Sunday. Three days later would be the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall, a structure Berndt had often seen while living in his native Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin.
Out of curiosity Berndt threw a handful of coins at the fence. It was not electrified. "They're brought up believing the security is airtight at every inch of the border," says Tom. "But here we were on East German soil and it all seemed very tranquil." After a few long and tense moments, the 23-year-old Berndt flashed the smile that has served him so well in America. "So where's the action?" he asked. April Patterson, 16, took out her camera and posed Berndt with his arm around the obelisk. With that, he and the Pattersons turned and headed back to the West.
Last Friday morning Berndt sat in the bleachers at the Justus Aquatics Center in Orlando, Fla. He sat just a few feet—and yet thousands of miles—away from the eight-member East German team competing in the U.S. Swimming Open. "It is difficult," Berndt said. "I would love to talk to them, not to tell them how good it is to defect but just to find out how they are. But I'm trying not to bring them into some embarrassing situation."
December 15, 1986
Berndt had bumped into his old teammates the day before in a shopping mall, and neither he nor they had said a word. In the bleachers the East German swimmers acted as if Berndt didn't exist—although a few sneaked glances at him. "They are probably advised to avoid me," he said. "It's something I expected. It is part of being a defector and a deserter. You can't expect people to hug you for that."
Berndt, a former lieutenant in the G.D.R. army, had not seen his ex-teammates since walking away from them at the airport in Oklahoma City on the way home from the 1985 U.S. Swimming International in Fayetteville, Ark. (SI, Jan. 21, 1985). Before defecting—a swift, apolitical decision he still can't fully explain—he had been East Germany's preeminent male swimmer; he is still the only East German male to have set a world record in the last decade. But just as his 400-meter individual medley mark from 1984 has been replaced in the record book, so has he been eradicated from memory by the East Germans. Last week Wolfgang Richter, the G.D.R.'s team leader in Orlando, pronounced Berndt a deserter and would say no more about him. His swimmers, when asked to comment on their former friend, merely shook their heads.
The meet itself was a rematch of sorts between U.S. swimmers and some of the East Germans who had swept up so many gold medals at last summer's world championships in Madrid. This time the flipper was on the other foot: Young U.S. prospects such as freestyler-individual medleyist Janet Evans, 15, of Placentia, Calif., and backstroker Beth Barr, 14, of Pensacola, Fla., took the measure of such veteran East German stars as Astrid Strauss and Kristin Otto. Evans, all of 5'3½" and 90 pounds, took a rather timid glance at the 6'1" Strauss before the women's 400 free but then outkicked both her and Florida sophomore Tami Bruce to win in 4:11.06, a personal best by more than four seconds. Evans then lowered her PR in the 400 IM by nearly five seconds to 4:45.81, winning that event by 25 feet, and the 800 free in 8:32.85, another personal best. "I've been growing a lot," said Evans, who has added three inches and 10 pounds in the last year. In all, the clearly tired and under-prepared East Germans won just one event. Only Silke H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árner, flu-ridden but game, came through, taking the 100-meter breaststroke in 1:10.40.
Berndt, now an Alabama sophomore, was happy just to be competing in Orlando. He has swum in several college meets since defecting, but had not entered a major international meet until last week. And even though he was not shaved, tapered or fully fit, he made the finals of all three of his events—200-meter backstroke, 200-meter individual medley and 400 individual medley—and had a duel of sorts with a former East German friend in the 400 IM.
Berndt is a swimmer in limbo. He has been granted permanent-resident status in the U.S. but not citizenship. As a result he cannot represent the U.S. in international competition. Legislation awarding him immediate citizenship (that is, waiving the standard five-year residency requirement) passed the U.S. Senate this year but stalled in the House and will have to be reintroduced. Crimson Tide coach Don Gambril hopes it will pass both houses next year; the Dothan (Ala.) Boys Club is spearheading a nationwide letter-writing campaign on Berndt's behalf. Although Berndt's supporters argue that his athletic talent is fleeting and will soon be gone, Congress may not feel the same urgency.
It has not been a painless two years for Berndt. He left behind in East Germany his sister and his father, and their letters to him have asked why he chose to hurt them. Berndt has cried reading them. Why did he defect? His mother had died of leukemia in 1981, his engagement had been broken off, freedom was right there for him—pick a reason and add 10 others. Anything but politics. Berndt could become a West German citizen tomorrow merely by picking up a passport—world record freestyler Michael Gross has been recruiting him—but he says he fears that the West Germans would use him only for propaganda. He has also turned down citizenship offers from France, Canada and Australia, so strongly does he want to be an American.
Berndt has enriched the lives of the Pattersons, who took him in shortly after his arrival. Says April: "He's the older brother we [she and sister Amy, 18] have always wanted. It's so natural—it's like he's always been there."
Berndt, who exercises his freedom by, among other things, sporting a diamond earring, is a dean's list student at Alabama. It was therefore surprising when an English teacher accused him of glancing at someone else's paper during a quiz earlier this year. Berndt denied the charge and was allowed to drop the course without penalty. "A learning experience," Tom Patterson calls it.
Saturday night's 400 IM final was a learning experience, too: In the lane next to Berndt was Patrick Kühl, a former training partner from Potsdam. When Berndt wished Kühl luck, Kühl stared right through him. Whereupon Berndt focused so intently on racing his old partner that he lost his pace and finished seventh. Kühl placed eighth and left the pool without turning to shake Berndt's hand. "I usually do not concentrate on another swimmer," said Berndt afterward, scolding himself.
So ended a stressful but educational few days. Berndt had cleared a small hurdle in his return to international swimming. "I'm pretty much tired and a little out of shape," he said. "Still, I had fun out there." And he will have more fun if he finally swims as an American.