CATCHING A WAVE

Breaststroker Mike Barrowman has become a world-beater, thanks at least in part to his more efficient "wave-action" technique
April 01, 1990

On a recent Sunday evening IN Ann Arbor, Mich., Mike Barrowman stood at a pay phone outside a movie theater, speaking in pidgin English. Barrowman, a University of Michigan junior with a 3.4 grade point average, sounded as if he were auditioning to be one of Saturday Night Lives Wild and Crazy Guys. "Many times I know what is wrong," he said, haltingly. "But now, I don't know. Was terrible, terrible, terrible this morning."

The person at the other end of the line was Barrowman's personal coach, Jozsef Nagy. They have worked together since April 1986, when Nagy, now 37, moved from Hungary to the U.S. with his wife, Piroska, an economist with the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. Though Nagy's English is limited, leading to Barrowman's odd conversation, the swimmer-coach collaboration has proved abundantly fruitful. Last August, Barrowman set a world record for the 200-meter breaststroke of 2:12.90, and after the time was equaled by Britain's Nick Gillingham, he lowered the mark again by .01.

But now, with the NCAA meet less than three weeks away, Barrowman sounded worried. He had struggled through the Big Ten Championships, winning the 200-yard breaststroke in 1:58.00 but finishing third in both the 100 breast and 200 individual medley. His stroke desperately needed fine-tuning. "So," he concluded his call to Nagy, "you come what time tomorrow?"

With help on the way, Barrowman could relax. He hung up and went to see The Hunt for Red October. The movie—about a Soviet submarine that is equipped with a revolutionary propulsion mechanism that makes it faster than any of its predecessors—was rife with metaphor. Since adopting what Nagy calls his "wave-action" technique, Barrowman has become the fastest 200-meter breaststroker in the world. Not only that, but in December he was named World Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine.

Whatever Nagy did when he joined Barrowman the next day, it worked. At the NCAA meet last Saturday in Indianapolis, Barrowman won the final of the 200-yard breaststroke in dramatic fashion, slashing 1.24 seconds off the American record of 1:55.01, which was set by Steve Lundquist in 1981. Texas coach Eddie Reese, whose team won its third consecutive NCAA team championship, was awestruck by Barrow-man's performance. "That was a miracle swim," he said. "What was it, 1:53.77? God! He came back [the second 100 yards] in 58. That's faster than a lot of guys go out in with a dive. It's like somebody running the 800 meters in 1:39 when Sebastian Coe's world record is 1:41.73."

Breaststrokers have long been considered the oddballs of the swimming world. "I think they're really weird," says Michigan's Brent Lang, the NCAA champion in the 50 and 100 freestyle. "Most swimmers are pretty much the same...and then there are breaststrokers. They are unusually meticulous about their feet and the restaurants where they'll eat. But it's not so much the restaurants, it's the mind-set that goes along with it."

Barrowman is no exception. Let's save his choice of eating establishments for later and talk, instead, about his feet.

"I can walk backwards," Barrowman offers, and stands up in a busy restaurant to demonstrate. He splays his feet farther and farther out until they are pointing 45 degrees behind him. Then he takes a couple of steps backward. Such flexibility in the ankles and knees allows him to get optimal traction in the water. "I was born to be a breaststroker," Barrowman announces and sits down.

At 5'11", 163 pounds, the 21-year-old Barrowman is not big for a swimmer, and he hasn't lifted weights since he was 16. But, says Michigan sophomore Eric Wunderlich, "it's amazing how strong he is." One of Barrowman's more peculiar exercises involves squatting on his haunches and jumping straight up and down like a frog. "A lot of coaches won't let their swimmers do that," says Jon Urbanchek, the Michigan coach, who was born in Hungary. "It would rip their knees apart." Barrowman not only does the exercise, he can actually hop up 100 stadium steps employing this eccentric form of locomotion.

Despite his unusual physical attributes, Barrowman did not have instant success. He was born in Asunción, Paraguay, where his father, Ray, was working as a cartographer for the U.S. Army. Barrowman's first exposure to the water came at eight months, when his grandmother, Jean Albert, a Red Cross swimming instructor, began taking him into the pool with her in Bethesda, Md. "She is one of those perfectionists," says Mike's mother, Donna. "He developed perfect strokes."

He was not, however, especially fast. "I was a country club swimmer until I was 12," says Barrowman. That was when his family moved from Maryland to Rhode Island, and he suddenly broke three state age-group records. "It was kind of a momentous time for me." he says. "I'd never broken a record before." Still, it was not until he was 15, and after his family had moved back to Maryland, that his name appeared in the national age-group rankings.

Two years later Barrowman met the man who may know more about the breaststroke than anyone in the world. The stroke looms as large in Nagy's mind as Moby Dick did in Ahab's. "It's all he cares about," says Urbanchek. "It's an obsession."

Not surprisingly, Nagy was a breaststroker himself, finishing sixth in the 100-meter event at the 1973 Europa Cup. Still, he was frustrated. "I wanted to find a more efficient style," he says with the help of Urbanchek. "It started to stimulate my mind."

As Nagy saw it, there were two problems with the conventional breaststroke. First, there was too much vertical movement, which was pointless because it brought the swimmer no closer to the finish. Second, says Nagy, "There is dead time between the completion of the arm pull and before the power of the kick is applied." It is that "dead time" that gives the breast-stroke its herky-jerky, stuttering look. "You'd like to eliminate that time completely, but you can't," he says. "So you reduce it as much as possible."

After he retired from swimming in 1976, Nagy studied physical education at the University of Budapest, earned the title Master Coach of Swimming (of which there are only five in Hungary) and, most important, began his search for a better breaststroke. During that period he came upon an article on the pattern of ocean waves by Nobel physicist Richard Phillips Feynman and had a brainstorm. "The idea came to me of not just coming up with the shoulders," he explains, "but of moving up and forward. The idea was for the shoulders to follow the wave pattern. Since they can't follow a straight line, the closest thing would be the wave."

Urbanchek puts it slightly differently. "The old breaststroke has two phases—the kick, followed by the pull," he says. "Jozsef's wave-action stroke adds a third phase, the lunge. That's the key. What you're trying to do with the lunge forward is to eliminate the deceleration."

Nagy knew he was on to something when one of his first protègès, Hungarian swimmer Janos Dzvonyar, finished fifth in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 1980 Olympics. Not everyone, however, considers Nagy's stroke an advance over earlier versions. One skeptic is retiring Indiana coach Doc Counsilman (page 13). "I don't think it's anything new," he says. "Coaches like to feel they've originated something. I just think Mike swims a darn good stroke."

When he arrived in the U.S. four years ago, Nagy landed a job, with Urbanchek's help, at the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club in Rockville, Md. It was there that he met Barrowman, then 17. "I saw this stranger up on the deck one day," Barrowman recalls. "I thought, Maybe this is that Hungarian coach people are talking about." So he swam harder to impress the stranger, and afterward the man came over and said, "Breaststroke. Strong."

The usual routine at Rockville-Montgomery called for the young swimmers to do a group warmup and then split into smaller groups of their own choosing. Nagy's workouts were so demanding that his group soon dwindled from eight swimmers to one: Barrowman. "After some days, nobody else chose my lane," recalls Nagy, without a trace of regret. "But Mike wanted to understand me."

Even for a pupil as willing as Barrowman, it was not easy. First, there was the problem of communication. Nagy had just about exhausted his English vocabulary with his first two words to Barrowman. The two made do with sign language and sketches.

The demands of both the stroke and its inventor often seemed impossible. "Every day Jozsef would pick out one thing and tell me to fix it," says Barrowman. "I'd get that right, but something else would be wrong. It was frustrating because I could never get it all right."

But Barrowman was not about to punk out. "What I need from a coach," he says, "is someone to stand there and beat me into the ground."

By all accounts, the give-and-take between Nagy and Barrowman differs from war only in minor details. At the Olympic team's training camp in 1988, p.r. director Jeff Dimond drove the duo back to the hotel after workouts. "Mike was always the last guy out of the pool, and I would wait while he and Jozsef went at each other," says Dimond. "Nagy would yell things like 'I've seen girls kick faster,' and Mike would scream right back. Yet after Mike set his second world record, in Tokyo, he insisted on calling Nagy before he did anything else. It's a love-hate relationship."

That was what made the Olympics especially painful for them both. Barrowman had gone to the trials in Austin hoping only to make the team. Even that seemed a little presumptuous, since he had only the ninth-fastest qualifying time. But he shocked everyone, including himself, by chopping almost five seconds off his best time and swimmimg a U.S. record 2:13.74 in the prelims and then tying it in the finals. "For the first time," says Nagy, "the entire stroke, all parts, fell into place."

But Barrowman had just six weeks in which to overhaul his expectations. And, at 19, he was not equipped to do it. "It was obvious he was very scared," says Nagy. "After 20 meters, I could tell he was not going to race those people."

Barrowman finished fourth, behind Jozsef Szabo of Hungary, Gillingham and Sergio Lopez of Spain. Six months went by before Barrowman could bear to watch a tape of the race. It was then he saw the pained look on Nagy's face.

"Gee, I wonder if he was disappointed?" Barrowman asks, with a touch of sarcasm.

It's unlikely that Nagy will be disappointed next January when Barrowman goes after the gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the world championships in Perth, Australia. "Nothing can get in the way of that," Barrowman says in a manner that lets you know nothing will. "I won't overlook any detail, no matter how small it is."

His meticulous attention to detail makes Barrow-man's choice of a restaurant hard to fathom. "He's superstitious," Urbanchek explains. "He once swam well after eating at McDonald's, so he has breakfast, lunch and dinner there for three or four days leading up to a major competition." It's worse than that. Before setting his first world record in Los Angeles last August, he ate all his meals at McDonald's for six straight days.

Earlier this year Barrowman traveled to Perth on a kind of scouting expedition, and he liked what he saw. He found a McDonald's a quarter of a mile from the hotel where he expects to be staying for the world championships.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBarrowman made a splash in '89 when he twice broke the 200-meter world record. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe stroke that Nagy (left) invented adds, between pull and kick, a third step, in which the shoulders (dotted line) lunge ahead rather than drop, reducing deceleration. ILLUSTRATIONGREG WAKABAYASHI[See caption above.]
TRADITIONAL STROKE
ILLUSTRATIONGREG WAKABAYASHI[See caption above.]
WAVE-ACTION STROKE
PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBarrowman's pre-meet dietary regimen is less than scientific.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)