At 14, Royce Sharp wanted to be a swimmer like crazy. "Unfortunately I was totally whacked at the time," says Sharp, the U.S.-record holder in the 200-meter backstroke. "I hung out in Houston with the wrong people and did the wrong things." His mind fogged by drink and dope, his grades sinking lower and lower, Sharp asked his parents to send him to Peddie, a private school in New Jersey known for its swimming program. When his parents told him he had to be insane to want to leave home, Sharp played along. A psychologist held up an inkblot and asked Sharp what he saw.
"It looks kind of like Satan," Sharp deadpanned.
The shrink produced another inkblot.
"That's a knife hacking open a skull with blood spurting out." Within a week Sharp was on a plane to Peddie.
Six years later Sharp is swimming like crazy. On April Fools' Day at the National Swimming Championships in Nashville, Sharp, a freshman at Michigan, won the 200-meter backstroke in 2:00.80. It was his biggest splash since winning the 1992 Olympic trials in 1:58.66, a time that eclipsed Rick Carey's U.S. standard and would have earned Sharp a silver medal at last summer's Olympics.
Unfortunately Sharp finished a disappointing 11th in Barcelona. Now that he's back on form, he has his eyes on the world mark of 1:56.57, held by Martin Zubero of Spain. "Records are there to be broken by people who want to break them," he says.
Not a great swimmer on the shorter courses measured in yards—he was third in the 200-yard backstroke at last month's NCAAs in Indianapolis—Sharp excels in the long course. "That's where you find the people who've busted their butts," he says. Sharp is a world-class butt buster. "He is not a talented athlete," says Florida coach Chris Martin, who trained him at Peddie. "He's incredibly determined. You'll never find a swimmer who's gotten more out of less. No one puts himself in as much pain as Royce does. He loves to be in a state of discomfort. He thrives on it."
Most elite swimmers chart between 30,000 and 60,000 meters of work a week. At Peddie, Sharp logged as many as 130,000. "He trains harder than any human being I've met," says Nelson Diebel, another reformed drug user and Peddie alum, who was the '92 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke. "Royce never lets up. He goes full speed day after day, even in workouts. It's like he's beating himself to death." Even Sharp's strokes are painful to watch. Nearly every other backstroker swims smooth and flat. The hip-swiveling Sharp thrashes and flails in the water. "A few backstrokers do rolls, but Royce's roll is ridiculous," says Martin. "It's herky-jerky, but he gets results."
"There are probably other ways to get ahead in the water," says Sharp, "but this approach is what works for me. To swim, it helps to be crazy."