Ambition has a way of expanding under the wide blue sky of western Australia. As he looked ahead to last Saturday night's 200-meter butterfly at the sixth World Swimming Championships, in Perth, Melvin Stewart warned, "It's not going to be a walk in the park. It may take a world record. In fact, even a world record might not do the job."
The world record was 1:56.24. It belonged to Germany's Michael Gross, the man called the Albatross, whom many consider to be the greatest swimmer of this era. Earlier in the week Gross, now 26, had hiked his record total of world championship medals to 11 with a silver in the 100-meter fly and a gold in the 800-meter freestyle relay. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Stewart finished a disappointing fifth in the 200 fly while Gross won the gold. "He beat me like I was his son," said Stewart. "It was humiliating. I've been on a comeback ever since."
The Tennessee junior, who is 22, has an offbeat view of the world, the result, perhaps, of having grown up on the grounds of Heritage USA, where his father worked as recreation director for PTL Club director Jim Bakker—"the preacher with the water slide," as Stewart calls him. Things have a way of happening to Stewart, like the time three years ago when a nude photo of him appeared mysteriously outside the dining room of the U.S. swim team's training camp in Honolulu. Not that Stewart minded. He thought he looked pretty good.
This year Stewart started swimming for Las Vegas Gold, a club sponsored by entrepreneur Dick Carson. Carson convinced casino owner Bob Stupak to offer $100,000 to any member of his club who breaks a world record at a national championship or the U.S. Open. "The money was the eye-catcher," says Stewart, explaining his decision to join the club. "How much can you make in swimming?"
January 21, 1991
Gross got out fast in the 200 fly final. He covered the first 100 meters in 54.86, .60 of a second faster than he had in his world-record swim in 1986. Stewart was a body length behind at the midway point, but he pulled even in the next 50 meters and blew past Gross with 30 meters to go. Stewart touched in 1:55.69, 1.09 ahead of Gross, who came in second. Not one to pass up a golden opportunity, Stewart used the victory march to broach the subject with Gross of their collaborating on an instructional video. Asked later whether he had considered putting on the brakes to make it easier for him to win the $100,000 bonus at the nationals this spring in Seattle, Stewart said, "I'm an American. I'm a capitalist. I probably should have slowed down a bit."
Gross seemed to delight in Stewart's performance. "For me it was always a goal to swim under 1:56," he said. "I am quite happy as a butterfly swimmer that it is possible. Melvin is part of a new generation and shows people all over the world that the sport of swimming is improving."
And changing. If the championships proved anything, it was that, while the U.S. remains the sport's leading power, swimming expertise and talent have spread to every corner of the globe. Gold medals were spread around more widely in Perth than at any previous world championships, thanks at least in part to the nurturing of foreign swimmers by the U.S. collegiate system. Anthony Nesty of Suriname won the 100 fly, and Martin Lopez Zubero of Spain the 200 backstroke. The two are teammates at the University of Florida. And Matt Biondi won the 100 freestyle by holding off his former Cal teammate, Tommy Werner of Sweden.
"There is no dominating nation anymore," said British breaststroker Adrian Moorhouse. "Technique is pretty much the same the world over. Everyone knows the methods, and training is based more on knowledge than on gut feeling."
The U.S. team's gut feeling going into the seven-day meet was one of cautious optimism. After the first two days, however, U.S. swimmers had claimed just one gold medal, Nicole Haislett's in the 100 free. It seemed the U.S. team was on its way to its third straight disappointing world championships. "We haven't set the world on fire like we thought we would," admitted Stewart. "But sometimes it takes a while to get into a meet."
In this case it took until the next to last day. On Saturday, ignited by Stewart's magnificent swim, the U.S. team won four more gold medals in rapid order. Tom Jager successfully defended his title in the 50 free. Janet Evans, who already had a silver in the 200 free and a gold in the 400 free, struck gold again, in the 800 free. Jeff Rouse won the 100 back, and Haislett, anchoring the 400 medley relay team, overtook Karen van Wirdum of Australia and touched in 4:06.51, an American record. The next day Summer Sanders, who had struggled earlier, finishing third in the 400 individual medley and second in the 200 IM, won the 200 butterfly. The U.S. then set a meet record in the finale, the men's 400 medley relay.
Obviously the U.S. women were helped by the crumbling of the powerful East German women's team. At the last two world championships, East German women won 23 of the 31 gold medals, and they still hold 10 of the 17 world records. "Their system created an aberration which women's swimming is still trying to catch up to," said Murray Rose, Australia's swimming hero at the '56 Olympics and now a vice-president of special events for the L.A. Forum.
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, says German freestyler Manuela Stellmach, "everything was turned upside down. Coaches lost their jobs. Athletes had to take care of things that were taken care of before—school, money. All the changes have been demotivating for athletes." Rivals long suspected that the East Germans used anabolic steroids, but Stellmach says such speculation is unfounded. Still, before coming to Perth, all German team members—coaches and athletes—were required to sign a contract stating that they had never used or promoted the use of performance-enhancing substances. ""We believe there's a level playing field now," said assistant U.S. women's coach Mark Schubert. "But there's also a feeling of bitterness. A lot of our swimmers in the past probably should have been gold medalists."
For whatever reasons, the German women in Perth were a shadow of their predecessors. They won only six individual medals, none of them gold. In fact, their only gold medal came when Haislett jumped and the U.S women's 800 free relay team was disqualified. It is a tribute to the East German women—and to the strength of their records—that of the six world marks that fell during the meet, not one went to a woman.
Before the meet it looked as if the women swimmers of another Communist country, China, might take the East Germans' place. The Chinese women dominated the swimming at last September's Asian Games. Most conspicuously, Wang Xiaohong and Qian Hong swam 58.87 and 58.89, respectively, in the 100 fly—closer to Mary T. Meagher's 1981 world record of 57.93 than anyone before them. When it became known that East German coaches had helped develop the Chinese program, eyebrows shot up. "Whether or not the standard was attained by hard work or was drug-induced, we've got to find out," declared Canada's head coach, Dave Johnson, on the eve of the meet. However, the Chinese swimmers did little to justify the commotion. They won four events—Lin Li both IMs, Qian the 100 fly and Zhaung Yong the 50 free—but most of their times were slower than those they had swum in September.
Some of the meet's most impressive performances came from athletes of one of the smallest countries, Hungary. "Hungarians—all over the place," said Moor-house after losing his world record in the 100 breast to one of them, Norbert Rozsa. Actually, there were only 11 Hungarian swimmers in Perth, but it certainly seemed like a lot more. Sixteen-year-old Krisztina Egerszegi, who likes to sing while she swims in training, won both backstrokes, and 23-year-old Tamàs Darnyi set world records in both IMs.
The Hungarians' superb swims put pressure on Stewart's roommate for the meet, Mike Barrowman. His coach, József Nagy, is a Hungarian and a bitter rival of Hungary's coach Tamàs Szèchy. Both claim to have invented the "wave-action" breaststroke technique that has helped Barrowman lower the world record three times in the last 18 months, most recently to 2:11.53 at the Goodwill Games.
Barrowman had the fastest time in Friday morning's prelims, a meet record of 2:13.82. But qualifying second and sixth, respectively, were Hungarians József Szabo, the Olympic champion, and Rozsa. Before the race Barrowman was more nervous than he had ever been. "Just the stupid are not scared," Nagy assured him. Barrowman's nerves propelled him crazily. He reached the halfway point in 1:03.19, .82 faster than he had at the Goodwill Games, and Nagy worried that he had moved out too fast. But Barrowman held on and reached the wall in 2:11.23, outpacing the fastest 200 breast field in history. Four other swimmers also broke 2:14, led by Rozsa, who slashed his prechampionships best by five seconds, to 2:12.03. "The team needed a boost," said Barrowman. "I gave it a kick in the pants."
The U.S. diving team got a kick of its own from Kent Ferguson, 27, a part-time model from Boca Raton, Fla. He came into the final round of the three-meter springboard event with a slim 1.68-point lead over China's Tan Liangde and nailed a reverse 1½ with 3½ twists. His score for the dive was 83.16, the highest in the competition. At the 1989 World Cup, Ferguson had been in a similar position only to have Tan pass him with his final dive. So what did Ferguson do? "I went outside, put on my Walkman and lay in the sun," he said. Inside, Tan's dive was short. Ferguson had won, 650.25 to 643.95 points.
Sunday produced an even more suspenseful duel. Vladimir Salnikov's world mark for the 1,500 free of 14:54.72 had stood almost eight years, longer than any other existing men's swimming record. But now Kieren Perkins, 17, of Australia and Joerg Hoffmann, 20, of Germany swam two lanes apart, clicking off lap after lap in 59 seconds. Perkins led at 400 in 3:54.12, Hoffmann at 800 in 7:52.55. With 30 meters left, Hoffmann kicked furiously and took control, reaching the wall in 14:50.36 with Perkins only .22 behind him.
The new record holder did not crack a smile on the victory platform. "You don't have to smile," he said later. "You can be happy inwardly."
The U.S. swimmers were finding it hard not to smile. Not only had they broken two world and six American records, but eight swimmers had earned individual golds. In the glow of victory, national team director Dennis Pursley was quick to point out that this was not a flashback to the 1960s and early '70s when the U.S. owned the sport. "We got the message here that there's a parity in the world that didn't used to be there," he declared on Sunday night. Which is easy to say when you are first among equals.