Mike Barrowman, normally the most unflappable of men, was staring hard at the scoreboard in the King County Aquatics Center, just south of Seattle, last Friday night. He gaped, tore off his goggles and gaped again. What Barrowman beheld was strange: 2:11.53. Barrowman's own world record for the event, the 200-meter breaststroke, had been 2:12.89, more than a second slower than the time showing on the scoreboard. "It took me a second to grasp it," Barrowman said later.
Barrowman, a Michigan senior, needed a world record just to win, for hard on his heels came a flotilla. Tying for second in 2:12.24, also under the world mark, were Kirk Stackle, a recent Texas grad, and Spain's Sergio Lopez, who trains with Barrowman at the Curl-Burke Swim Club in a suburb of Washington, D.C. It's fair to say the trio's magnificent swim brought the 1990 Goodwill Games to life.
For U.S. swimmers, the Goodwill competition was a critical test before the world championships in Australia in January, and some of them—for example, Melvin Stewart and Summer Sanders—reached startling new heights. Stewart, a junior at Tennessee, swam the 200-meter fly in 1:57.05, chopping .70 from Pablo Morales's six-year-old American record. And Sanders, an incoming Stanford freshman whose name evokes balmy beaches rather than competitive ferocity, handed the seemingly indomitable Janet Evans a stunning defeat, her first loss in the 400-meter IM since 1986.
Overall, the performances in Seattle hinted at a global shifting of power in the sport—particularly among the women. The East Germans, who won 13 of 16 gold medals at the 1986 world championships and 10 of 15 golds at the Seoul Olympics, were a shadow of their usual mighty selves. They did not claim a single individual gold in the meet's first three days. "They're down a little at this meet," said U.S. women's coach Richard Quick. "But they will be a force to be reckoned with at the world championships."
So, too, it seems, will Barrowman. Since May 1, when he went home to Potomac, Md., and resumed training at the Curl-Burke, he and Lopez have pared life down to its barest essentials. "We swim six or seven hours, go to a movie, then sleep," Barrowman said. "The only people I see are Sergio and the coaches."
Foremost among those coaches is Jozsef Nagy, the demanding Hungarian who has coached Barrowman since the swimmer was 17 years old. Using Nagy's "wave-action" technique, which employs a forward lunge at the top of each stroke, Barrowman finished a disappointing fourth in the 200 breaststroke in Seoul, but then he lowered the world record twice last summer. "Our workouts are intense," said Barrowman. "[Lopez and I] didn't do as much as we've done before, but everything we did was faster."
At the start of the race, Barrowman shot into the water. But even faster was Stackle, two lanes to Barrowman's right, who reached the halfway point in 1:03.97. Inches behind, Barrowman was unperturbed. "Every race I've ever swum, I've been behind the first 100," he said.
Barrowman drove off the wall and covered the third 50 in 33.28, faster than anyone else in the race. "I had to," he said. "I had to get way ahead." No one got close. Barrowman touched home well in front of his nearest pursuers. Lopez came on mightily to catch Stackle at the wall.
Experts struggled to put Barrowman's swim into perspective. "That's 10 feet ahead of where he was a year ago," said Jeff Dimond, the longtime spokesman for U.S. Swimming. Nagy, who seems loath to waste the little English he's worked so hard to learn by offering idle compliments, said simply, "Not so bad—2:11."
Barrowman now has the luxury of comparing his growing stash of record times. "Technically, this wasn't all that great a swim," he said. "The last 30 meters I couldn't get the stroke to be perfect."
Which makes one wonder how much faster Barrowman can go. After all, only two years ago, his best time for the 200 breast was 2:18.56. Barrowman, however, remains the very soul of caution. "I'll only say that I can go 2:11.53," he said before allowing, "Well...maybe 2:11.4."
Stackle is not as coy about his expectations. "By the Olympics, I'll be under 2:10," he said. That sounds outlandish until one realizes that before last Friday, his best time was 2:16.30. And, by the only yardstick that seems to matter in this event, Stackle has made tremendous strides. "I'm getting much closer to Mike," he said.
Matt Biondi has been similarly influenced by tiny fractions. On Friday night he beat Tom Jager, in the zillionth race at 50 meters between the two American swimmers, 22.10 to 22.31. But it was the rematch with Suriname's Anthony Nesty in the 100 fly that Biondi had been looking forward to most keenly. Their first race had come in Seoul, where Nesty edged Biondi by .01 when Biondi decided against taking a final stroke, choosing instead to glide to the wall. As the first citizen of Suriname to win an Olympic medal in any sport, Nesty became an instant hero in his tiny country, where, he says, there are only 10 swimming pools. But Nesty has lived the past two years knowing that most people considered his biggest victory a matter of luck.
"I was more nervous than I'd ever been," said Nesty, a junior at Florida. "Everyone, the whole world, kept telling me, You've got to swim Matt again."
On Sunday afternoon Biondi got out fast. He turned at the midway mark in 24.94, with Nesty well behind him, in fourth place. "When I dove into the pool," said Nesty, "I tried to scramble. I didn't get going until the final 25." He passed Biondi during that final stretch and touched a convincing arm's length ahead of his rival, with a time of 53.42 to Biondi's 53.82. "I kicked in pretty good," Nesty allowed.
After the race, Biondi sat by the pool subdued, his head resting in his hands. "I'm pretty disappointed," he said. "I just don't think I swam a good race. I never felt smooth today, never felt up on the water." Of Nesty, Biondi would only say what was obvious. "He's the best butter-flyer of this meet."
Among the women, Evans, a sophomore at Stanford, had seemed unapproachable by everyone save a handful of East Germans. So no one knew quite what to make of Sanders when she turned into the final leg of the 400 IM ahead of Evans. Sanders, a willowy 17-year-old from Roseville, Calif., had gone out like a rocket, clocking 1:02.47 for the opening leg, the fly, which was 2.5 seconds faster than she had ever gone before. Evans narrowed the gap on the backstroke, but Sanders opened it up again in the breast. She had three body lengths on Evans with 100 meters to swim. But freestyle is Evans's strongest event, and Sanders was carrying her own demons.
"I've been out front with 100 to go before, and had people come by me," said Sanders. "You want to just climb under a rock." At the 1988 Olympic trials, Sanders led the 200 IM with 25 meters to go but finished third, missing a trip to Seoul.
At the final turn Sanders still had 1½ body lengths on Evans. "I knew that if she wasn't there yet, she would be soon," Sanders said. "She's a freestyle maniac."
And Evans, winner of three gold medals in Seoul, does not take losing lightly. She put her head down and launched a furious sprint, churning closer and closer to Sanders. But with 25 meters to go, it was clear that Evans would not catch up.
Sanders finished in 4:39.22, with Evans about four feet behind her. "I was in shock when I touched," said Sanders. Not only did that time hack almost nine seconds off her previous best, but it was also the eighth-fastest time ever in the event.
Evans, though close to tears, accepted defeat graciously. "I'm not disappointed," she said. "That's why I compete. The sun will shine tomorrow, right?"
Surely it is shining on Quick, who will coach Evans and Summers at Stanford in the fall. He said, "When you are a great champion like Janet and you do lose, you find a way for it to make you better."
It didn't take long, in fact, for Evans to shed the ignominy of her rare defeat. On Sunday, she blew away the field in the 400 free, an event in which she holds the four fastest times ever. In Seattle she clocked 4:05.84, nearly five seconds faster than her nearest competitor. Evans said the loss to Sanders provided no "extra incentive. I just wanted to come back and fight and see what I could do."
Few understand such recuperative spirit better than Barrowman, who still feeds greedily on his bitter Olympic memories. "When Seoul stops bothering me, I'm in trouble," he said. "I hope it stays there, burning inside of me."