Your head is heavier than you might think," says Melvin Stewart, preparing to explain for the umpteenth time why breathing to the side is a more efficient way to swim the butterfly than breathing forward. "If you don't believe me, lie on this table, have someone sit on your butt and lean out over the floor horizontally. Drop your head, and then lift it straight up. You'll feel the weight. This isn't rocket science."
Stewart, 23, is proposing this experiment in a Knoxville, Tenn., restaurant at the peak of the Saturday dinner rush, and it is suggested to him that the lady who is dining in the next booth might not be quite ready to watch a Mapplethorpe photograph come suddenly to life. "It's amazing how people embarrass so easily," he says, his grin widening as he contemplates the future uses of this insight.
Humor may be the sanest response to a life like Stewart's. His metamorphosis from Little Melvin, the yapping scourge of Gastonia, N.C., into the finest butterfly swimmer in the world has been a journey of Dickensian twists and turns. He has been snatched from the humble world of Fort Mill (S.C.) High School and plunked down on the lush green lawns of the Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy. He has dwelt among the sinners of Las Vegas and the "saints" of the PTL (Praise the Lord) ministry, and he has discovered that it's not always easy to tell them apart. Like Pip, Stewart has great expectations, not merely of swimming magnificent races in Barcelona this summer, but of someday going on to a life in politics or business.
For now swimming is his priority. In March, at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis, Stewart set himself up for a very busy Olympics, making the team in the 100 and 200 flies and the 800-freestyle relay. If he beats teammate Pablo Morales in the 100 fly in Barcelona, Stewart will also swim the 400 medley relay.
July 5, 1992
But the 200 fly is Stewart's specialty, the event in which he stands a good chance of doing something mind-boggling in Barcelona. At last year's world championships in Perth, he went into the final turn a meter behind '88 Olympic champion Michael Gross of Germany, then pulled ahead in the last 50 meters to finish in 1:55.69, .55 of a second under Gross's world record. Stewart is the only person to have twice broken 1:56 in the 200 fly. Someone is going to have to improve mightily between now and July 30—the day the 200 fly will be swum in Barcelona—if Stewart is to have any competition at all.
Growing up in Gastonia and then in Charlotte, Stewart was a bully's dream. His swimming bag had LITTLE MELVIN written on it, and he would wear his swim-suit as underwear for a week before big races. "When I was 10," he says, "I was swimming in a lane with 15- to 18-year-olds. I was a cocky little kid, and I loved to beat those guys. They used to rough me up a bit. But that was all right: I'd kick their butts in the water."
His coach at that time was Frankie Bell, and it was she who taught Stewart the side-breathing technique he has used ever since. Two hundred yards, she reasoned, was a long way for a little boy to keep lifting something as heavy as his head. "I really believe it's a faster way to swim the 200 fly," says Stewart. "When you're breathing forward, you lift your head straight up. When you breathe to the side, at a 45-degree angle, there's no lift."
Little Melvin was ranked among the nation's top 10 in his age group in 16 of 21 events that year. In four of them he was first. "Every time I fell into the water, it seemed I set a record," he says. "It was great." By the time Stewart was 13, he had been featured on the P.M. Magazine television show and had announced to the Charlotte Observer, "My name is Melvin Stewart, and I'm the best. I'm going to win Olympic medals."
"His confidence has always been misunderstood," says his mother, Myra. "The press says he's cocky. They don't know. He's had to fight for his life."
She is not referring to Little Melvin's teenage tormentors but to Jim Bakker, the televangelist who presided over the PTL ministry until 1987. Bakker was convicted of fraud in '89 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. For nine years, from 1978 to '87, Melvin Sr. served as recreation director for the PTL and as athletic director of its school, the Heritage Academy.
For the first five years of Melvin Sr.'s tenure, the family lived in Charlotte. But when Melvin was 14, they moved to the grounds of PTL's Heritage USA. "It was like a little fairyland," Stewart recalls. "Water slides. Hotels. Malls. Satellite dishes everywhere."
Though Myra Stewart is a fundamentalist Christian who made her son read seven chapters of the Bible each day—out loud—she never trusted Bakker. "God was never a part of [the PTL]," she says firmly, adding that Bakker was "like a vacuum cleaner when it came to money." She and Melvin Sr. used to baby-sit for the Bakker children, but because of her doubts about Bakker's ministry, Myra refused to let her children go to Heritage Academy, so Melvin and his older sister Kim attended Fort Mill High.
Melvin's recollections of Bakker are softer than his mother's. "He's got a lot of charm," he says. But Myra, ever vigilant, thought Bakker was out to brainwash her family. "Jim Bakker kept reaching out for my husband and son," she says. "All along I knew the man was going to prison. I let his people know in no uncertain terms: You back off my family." Her son still resents being linked with Bakker's empire. "It's been like dragging a bag of trash around behind me," he says.
The one thing Stewart was always devoted to was swimming. "I worked hard," he says. "Swimming was a release. I had to get away."
The chance to get farther away came early in Stewart's junior year at Fort Mill High. Bill Close, a businessman in Fort Mill and a Mercersburg Academy alumnus, had called the prep school in 1984, to tell officials about the superb young swimmer who lived in his town, and a year later Stewart decided to go. Stewart seemed like a natural for Mercersburg, which had produced 15 Olympic swimmers and under its young coach, John Trembley, 32, had "won" five mythical national high school championships over the past six years.
The only problem was that the Stewarts couldn't afford Mercersburg's $13,900-a-year tuition. And because the school term was already well under way, the money in Mercersburg's scholarship fund had already been allocated. But fate smiled on Little Melvin when Walter Burgin, the Mercersburg headmaster, called George Baxter, a wealthy alumnus, to see if he would be interested in sponsoring Stewart. Baxter set up a scholarship fund for Stewart but didn't get to meet him until after he had been paying Stewart's bills for a month. "The Baxters took me under their wing," says Stewart. "They said to me, 'This is how you dress. This is what you do. You're already a winner. You just don't know the social graces.' "
Stewart also didn't know what he was in for academically. Despite the fact that he was repeating his sophomore year because of bad grades, his academic average that first year at Mercersburg was 60, the lowest passing grade possible. "Most of the time I felt clueless," he says. He was required to write an extra paper each week and was shocked to find himself spending more time behind his desk than in the pool.
Still, life at prep school was not all work. One night during his first year Stewart was caught in his girlfriend's dorm wearing only boxer shorts and a smile. "It was 2 a.m.," he confesses, as if poor timing was his only offense. Yet by the time Stewart graduated in 1988, he was an honors student and a dorm prefect. And he had jumped up the world rankings in the 200 fly from 33rd to second. "The single greatest thing that's happened to me was going to Mercersburg," he says.
"This prep school thing is a bigger deal for him than for anyone else I've known," says Roger Jenkins, a dean at the University of Tennessee, who serves as Stewart's academic adviser. And Baxter has shown Stewart a life-style that Little Melvin never dreamed of. Every fall Stewart visits New York City with Mr. B—as he calls Baxter—and they stay at the Plaza Hotel; when he visits Mr. B in West Palm Beach, he stays at the swank Breakers Hotel, If Stewart has developed a taste for the good life, can you blame him? "He's also very goal-oriented," says Don Bosch, the Knoxville attorney who represents Stewart. "Melvin's thinking 15, 20 years down the road."
At the same time he is impulsively mischievous. Asked in Indianapolis to evaluate the U.S. women's team, he answered, "It's probably the greatest women's team ever assembled. And probably the best-looking, too. I'm glad to be part of this team in more ways than one."
If Stewart seems at times to be a bull in the china shop of political correctness, he is a gentle one, a provocateur more playful than mean. Last fall he was having dinner with Betty Bean, a friend and a columnist for the now-defunct Knoxville Journal. When Bean teased him about the number of young women who came over to say hello, Stewart made an observation he has regretted ever since. "Women are like the four food groups," he said. "You have to have each and every one to stay healthy." Stewart forgot about the comment until it appeared in Bean's column some months later. For the next few weeks the tape on Stewart's answering machine was filled with irate calls from women friends. "I want to be a politician someday," Stewart moans. "That's going to come back to haunt me."
There is a tug-of-war going on inside Stewart. He swims between adolescent silliness—he counts cow-tipping among his hobbies—and adult respectability In 1987 he was nominated by the Charlotte Athletic Club as its scholastic athlete of the year, along with two football players. At the club's black-tie dinner, he stood before an audience that included Michael Jordan's parents and NBA commissioner David Stern. The other nominees, says Stewart, "thanked God, their mothers and everybody else they could think of." Stewart made an immodest proposal: "I have a way to increase swimming's popularity," he said, and the paused for effect. "What if we swam naked?"
For Stewart, humor is an antidote to the hours he spends in a state of virtual sensory deprivation. "Some people thin I'm not a serious athlete because I go to a press conference and joke and laugh," he says. "But when you're out of the pool, it's time to wind down. That's why I've been able to swim so long and enjoy it so much. I genuinely enjoy swimming. That's kind of crazy in itself."
The butterfly is the most masochistic of the four strokes. The 200 fly is thus the perfect event for Stewart, for whom hard work possesses an almost spiritual quality. He is contemptuous of shortcuts.
"People in the swimming community are looking for an easy way out, a way to decrease the amount of time they spend in the water," Stewart says. "But in years to come we're going to sec athletes doing much more work. You've got to feel pain every day."
In this Stewart is far ahead of his time. He does roughly three times the fly work that most swimmers do, sometimes as much as 8,000 meters in a single workout. Stewart's work ethic can be traced to his devastating memory of the last Olympics. He went to Seoul with the second-fastest 200 fly and fully expected to win the gold medal. Gross won, in 1:56.94. Stewart finished fifth, in 1:59.19. "My stomach felt sick," he recalls. "I knew it would be the longest time until 1992. A guy finally had to walk over and tell me to get out of the pool."
In fact, the time has passed quickly. A year ago, when the NCAA announced it was limiting practice hours to 20 a week, Stewart decided to give up his final year of eligibility at Tennessee. That meant he could start earning money. In the summers of 1990 and '91 he lived in Las Vegas and trained with Las Vegas Gold, a swim club promoted by casino owner Bob Stupak, who offered $100,000 to any club member who broke a world record at a national championship or U.S. Open. Nobody won the bonus, and Stewart moved back to Knoxville when the desert lost its appeal. Now, besides the $1,500 monthly stipend he receives from U.S. Swimming, he is sponsored by The Finals swimwear company and PowerBar, the nutritional energy bar, and he seems to be prospering. He bought a Porsche in February and owns a two-bedroom condo on the outskirts of Knoxville, which he shares with a roommate, Derek Kennedy.
"Melvin has a strong will," says Kennedy. "Any desire he has, he puts into action." There is a ritual that Stewart performs every morning upon awaking. He goes into the kitchen, where a notepad hangs on the refrigerator door. He writes down the time he hopes to swim at his next big meet, reads it aloud, then erases it. "I'm reminding myself that this is another day in which I'm taking a step toward being the athlete I want to be," he says. Stewart won't reveal what time he is writing as the Olympics approach, only that it's under 1:55. "Swimming for him really is self-expression," says Kennedy. "Melvin feels joy when he swims."