Southern Cal sophomore David Wharton kicked into the freestyle leg of the 200-yard individual medley last Thursday night in a familiar position: playing catch-up. Though he had won a silver medal in the 400-meter IM in Seoul, he had failed to make the final in the 200 IM. So he had come to Indianapolis for the NCAA men's swimming and diving championships hoping to redeem himself by breaking former UCLA champion Bill Barrett's American record of 1:45, which had stood for seven years. With a little over 50 yards to go, however, Wharton was more than a second off Barrett's pace, but he was also a yard behind Cal senior Ron Karnaugh, who had beaten him badly at the PAC-10 championships three weeks earlier. Forget the record, Wharton had a race on his hands.
The freestyle leg had always been Wharton's forte, and at Indy, as he said later, "I put all I had into the final 50." He caught Karnaugh at the turn, opened up a lead of more than a second in the final 25-yard lap and touched in 1:44.70. There was more to come. The next night Wharton swam away with the 400-yard IM (3:44.69), and on Saturday he finished third in the 200-yard butterfly (1:44.98). In the end Wharton was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year for the second year in a row.
But such heroics could do nothing to deter Texas's steady drive to a second straight team title. "We have what I like to call good depth," said Texas coach Eddie Reese. "We don't just get a lot of guys to qualify, they place well, too." The Longhorns won only two individual events—junior Kirk Stackle took the 100 breaststroke, sophomore Shaun Jordan the 100 free—but the team won four of five relays, setting an American record in the 200 (1:18.44). After trailing briefly on the first day, the Longhorns rebounded to beat second-place Stanford 475 points to 396.
The only controversy at the NCAAs was the addition this year of two sprint relays, the 200 free and the 200 medley. This was meant to enhance spectator appeal, but the strategy may have backfired. Surely it was no coincidence that while records fell in the first three events—to Wharton in the 200 IM; to Texas in the 200 free relay; and to Iowa freshman Artur Wojdat in the 500 free, in which he cut .82 of a second off the U.S. Open record—nobody set any national marks on Saturday. "We'll have more people against these relays after the meet," predicted Reese, "'because it's killing the young guys off. They're swimming too many races as it is."
One swimmer who stayed clear of controversy was Harvard senior David Berkoff, who caused a stir last year when he used a 35-meter underwater start in the 100-meter backstroke to break the world record three times. Berkoff's unorthodox start attracted many imitators and the concern of FINA, the international governing body of swimming. But Berkoff didn't win Olympic gold—he finished second to Japan's Daichi Suzuki—and shortly after the Games FINA announced that backstrokers would have to limit their underwater starts to 10 meters. The NCAA, however, has no such rule, so in Indianapolis Berkoff put his sights on breaking the 47-second barrier and leaving behind a record that would stand for years.
Berkoff stayed under for almost the entire first lap. In all, he took just 32 strokes, about half the number of a conventional backstroker. He reached the wall in 47.02, hacking .31 off his own American record. "I made a very conservative touch," he later explained. "'Maybe that cost me. I guess I left something for somebody else to do."
He now has the six fastest times in the event and is a whopping .92 of a second ahead of Stanford senior Jay Mortenson, the event's second-fastest performer. Perhaps even more remarkable, Berkoff's time in the 100 back was faster than Mortenson's winning time in the 100-yard fly (47.14), the first time that has happened at the NCAAs since 1957, when the dolphin kick became legal in the butterfly. Said Reese, "I doubt Flipper ever timed one that fast."
Berkoff may soon get a chance to prove Reese right. Later this year he intends to visit the Bahamas, with Olympic star Matt Biondi, to swim with the dolphins there. "I wonder what the dolphins would do if I was splashing around with them?" mused Berkoff. "With flippers on, I think I could go pretty fast."