As Mike Barrowman was leaving his home in Rockville, Md., for last week's U.S. Swimming Long Course National Championships in Los Angeles, his mother gave him a hug and said, "Come on, honey, break the world record."
Barrowman looked at her and replied, "Mom, an American hasn't had the world record in 16 years." Actually, the period in question was 13 years. The last U.S. swimmer to be on top of the heap in Barrowman's event, the 200-meter breaststroke, had been John Hencken, who set the record in 1974 but surrendered it two years later to David Wilkie of Great Britain at the Montreal Olympics. After that the record passed from one foreigner to the next, right down to Victor Davis of Canada, who at the 1984 Olympics set the mark Barrowman had to beat—2:13.34. And ever since he had finished a bitterly disappointed fourth at the '88 Games in Seoul, Barrowman, his protestations to his mother notwithstanding, had been obsessed with breaking Davis's record.
Wasting no time, Barrowman, a 20-year-old University of Michigan junior, decided to go after the record in Thursday morning's preliminaries in the USC Olympic Pool rather than wait for the finals that night. But no sooner did he leave the starting block in Lane 4, the same lane in the same pool in which Davis had done his magic five years and one day earlier, than his record attempt appeared to go awry.
"I dove in and my goggles flipped up," he said later. "I thought I was going to have a terrible swim. My stroke felt really poor." He swam the first 100 meters in 1:05.13, which gave him a .71-of-a-second lead over his closest pursuer. Nelson Diebel, but was 1.3 seconds off Davis's record pace.
August 13, 1989
Barrowman had plenty in reserve, however. "Mike swam not so nice first 100," said Jozsef Nagy, his Hungarian coach. "But at the third wall, I heard people screaming, and I couldn't believe it." Barrowman took off in the final lap, and when he touched the finish, the clock read 2:12.90, or .44 of a second under Davis's time. That evening Barrowman's goggles gave him trouble again, but he won the finals anyway in an easy 2:14.74.
Barrowman's record-breaking swim was the highlight of the meet but not the only outstanding performance. USC's David Wharton won the 400 individual medley in 4:15.93, trimming .19 off his two-year-old U.S. record, while Olympic champion Janet Evans won all four of her events, coming from behind in the last 50 meters to win the 200 IM.
The most eagerly awaited event was the men's 50 freestyle, featuring the hottest rivalry in the sport: Matt Biondi versus Tom Jager. The last time the two met, at the Seoul Games, Biondi raced to a world-record 22.14 to hold off Jager and win the fourth of his five '88 Olympic gold medals.
Jager had the fastest clocking in the prelims (22.58), but he was disqualified in the finals on Friday night for moving on the starting block before the gun went off. Incensed upon learning of the decision, Jager screamed at the referee, Anneliese Eggert, for several minutes while the crowd chanted, "Let him swim! Let him swim!" But Eggert stood firm, and Jager was gone.
On the next start, SMU senior Todd Pace was also DQ'd by Eggert for moving early. That left a patchwork field of survivors for Biondi, who glided to victory in 22.36.
Because it occurred in a prelim, Barrowman's world record was witnessed by only a smattering of spectators. But the moment was electric all the same. He climbed out of the pool, embraced Nagy, then remembered what the coach had told him last December at the U.S. Open swimming championships: "If somebody swim world record, then somebody can push somebody in the pool." The next thing Nagy knew, he was floating, clothes and all, in a nearby warmup pool.
Nagy, a former Hungarian breast-stroke champion, came to the U.S. in April 1986, when his wife got an assignment with the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. Shortly afterward, he found a job with the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club, where Barrowman was a talented 17-year-old swimmer with a lot to learn. Barrowman, who moved with Nagy last year to the Curl-Burke Swim Club, says the only two words of English Nagy knew when they first met were breaststroke and strong. Nagy nonetheless rebuilt Barrowman's stroke and gave him the conditioning background that helped make his strong second 100 possible.
Nagy has spent more time kicking Barrowman in the butt than patting him on the back. "He's told me I've done something good maybe four times," Barrowman says. "Everything I do is bad. Everything I do, 100 people have done better. Girls have done it better." Strangely, Barrowman thrived on the negativism—or, in this case, the Nagytivism. "Some people couldn't handle it," he says. "But it works for me."
Last year Barrowman lowered his personal best by nearly five seconds and knocked more than a second off the U.S. record when he won the 200-meter breaststroke at the Olympic trials in 2:13.74. That made him a favorite, along with Josef Szabo of Hungary, in the event at Seoul. However, Szabo won the gold, while Barrowman finished out of the medals.
Barrowman couldn't bring himself to watch a videotape of his Olympic swim until April. The most painful part, he says, was seeing Nagy slumped over a railing after the finish. "He was hanging his head in pure disappointment." Barrowman says.
Breaking the world record was Barrowman's way of setting things right with his poolside sparring partner. "I paid back my coach," he says. "That was really important."