One by one the backstrokers at the U.S. Olympic Trials popped to the surface of the University of Texas pool in Austin last Friday morning in the final qualifying heat of the men's 100. A beep had sent seven starters knifing into the water, and now four, five, six heads came up—but not the seventh. Halfway down the 50-meter pool, Harvard senior David Berkoff was still gliding five feet underwater like a yellow-capped submarine, propelling himself with an undulating dolphin kick, his hands stretched above his head. He surfaced at about 35 meters, stroked to the wall and turned at 25.66 seconds—world-record pace.
Of all the intriguing developments at the six-day trials—which saw three world and 11 American records broken or equaled and big names like Pablo Morales fail to make the 43-member U.S. team—none was more absorbing than the performance of Berkoff, 21, a bright, slightly offbeat anthropology major with a yen for backpacking and fishing. "David gets lost every now and then," said his coach, Joe Bernal. "He goes out in the woods and doesn't come back until the next day."
Berkoff the explorer has revolutionized the 100 back with his technique of swimming most of the opening lap underwater. He got the idea from watching former U.S. great Jesse Vassallo stay under after turns in 1984 and started experimenting with it that fall. Bernal consulted experts in fluid dynamics at Harvard and MIT, who determined that the cross-sectional drag of the 5'10", 155-pound Berkoff is less during his streamlined underwater phase than when he is stroking on the surface. Berkoff has found he swims fastest when he stays under for about 32 dolphin kicks, which brings him to the surface about 35 meters up the pool—usually in the lead.
On Friday morning Berkoff cruised to the finish having no idea what he had done. "I thought I went 56-mid," he said later. To his amazement, the scoreboard read 54.95. He had erased Rick Carey's American record of 55.19 and the world mark of 55.00 held by Igor Poliansky of the Soviet Union. Berkoff flung both fists in the air, then calmly told reporters he might go even faster in the final.
August 21, 1988
Only the top two finishers in each final (plus relay extras from certain freestyle events) would qualify for the U.S. team. Berkoff who prepared for his submarine swims with intensive kicking drills, no-breath underwater training and up to 500 sit-ups and six miles of 5:40-per-mile running a day, was taking no chances. He blasted through the first 50 meters of the final in 25.36 and touched in 54.91 for his second world record of the day. Berkoff imitator Jay Mortenson went the first 25 meters underwater and finished second in 55.97; he vowed to do 800 sit-ups every day between now and the Games, where he may try to stay under for 40 meters.
The trials seemed to be a hothouse of science and innovation. The indoor Texas pool was lightning quick and chlorine-free, thanks to state-of-the-art, wave-damping side drains and a new electronic water-purification system. Talk was of altitude training—suddenly back in vogue—and of what U.S. Swimming was touting as America's "secret weapon" for Seoul: Darlexx Superskin, a waterproof fabric made of a laminate of Lycra and a special hydrophilic thermoplastic film. Only a few souls in Austin dared to try the suits, which have a different feel and tend to trap water and air inside them.
"The slicky thing?" said 16-year-old water-bug Janet Evans, when asked about the high-tech fabric. The 5'5", 105-pound Evans, who last year broke the three oldest world records in swimming—the women's 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle marks, dating back as far as 1978—tested various Superskin suits and reported her findings with something of a scrunched-up nose. "You carry, like, two pounds of water with you," she complained. Suit designers are at work on the problem.
In a traditional Lycra suit, Evans swept all three of her events. She dominated the 400 and 800 frees with her stiff-armed style and chugged through the 400 IM like a toy car with a V-8 engine, finishing in 4:38.58 to trim .66 off Tracy Caulkins's American record.
The only other triple winner in Austin was the powerfully built Angel Myers, 21, of Americus, Ga., and Furman University, who logged four American-record swims and gave the U.S. new life in sprint freestyling. Myers began by smashing Dara Torres's American record of 55.30 in the women's 100 free, lowering it to 55.15 in the prelims and to 54.95 in the finals. After upsetting world-record holder Mary T. Meagher in the 100 butterfly, 59.77 to 59.82, Myers broke Torres's U.S. mark of 25.59 in the finals of the 50 free with a 25.40 clocking. "It's all sort of a surprise," said Myers. "A pleasant surprise."
The 5'5", 145-pound Myers learned her swimming in a 16-yard indoor pool at Georgia Southwestern, where her dad and coach, Kirt, is a special education professor. "We call it the dungeon," groans Myers. When her father went on sabbatical in 1982, he took the family to Quito, Ecuador, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Myers swam in 25- and 50-meter pools for the first time. Only in the past two years has she begun twice-a-day pool sessions; she still swims a paltry 3,000 to 6,000 yards a day.
Myers has put on 10 pounds of muscle in two years through a program set up by her fiancè, Mike Martino, a weight-training coach, and can now bench-press 225 pounds. At the urging of her scientific-minded dad, she put in four sessions of altitude work in the last year, two in Quito (9,000 feet), and two in Colorado Springs (6,000 feet). She also sleeps next to a negative-ion generator, which her dad says helps purify the air. Whatever her secret, Myers may be a new force in women's swimming.
America's most prominent male swimmer, 6'6" Cal grad Matt Biondi, came to the trials full of questions. He had trained harder and better than ever in recent months but had had few races in which to test himself. "I've put my life on hold for this," he said.
Biondi, 22, was attempting to qualify in four events—the 50, 100 and 200 free-styles and the 100 butterfly—in order to have a shot at a Mark Spitzian seven individual and relay medals in Seoul. Clean-shaven from head to toe for his first qualifying swim on Aug. 8, he lowered his American record in the 200 free by 17 with a 1:47.72 clocking. The sense of relief in the Texas Swim Center was palpable. Many observers, including Olympic coach Richard Quick, had been concerned about how well Biondi would perform after taking it easy much of last year and dropping out of the Top 25 in the world in the 200.
Biondi looked more graceful than ever, his stroke long and smooth. A budding environmentalist as well as a thoughtful student of his sport, in the past 14 months he has twice seized opportunities to swim with the dolphins off the Bahamas and off the coast of Florida. He played games of dodge and chase with the dolphins, and they brought their young to see this human marvel. "They made me more aware of how water moves across my body when I'm swimming," says Biondi. "It was an amazing experience."
Biondi tried to take off like a dolphin on the third 50 of the 200-free final, turning on a furious, white-water kick that propelled him ahead of world-record pace. The effort left him drained. Coming home, Troy Dalbey, 19, of San Jose closed on Biondi and outtouched him. 1:48.35 to 1:48.37. "Matt put himself in oxygen debt," said his coach, Nort Thornton. "Any time you go from zero to 60 all at once, you pay the price."
In his other races Biondi was perhaps more cautious but nevertheless impressive, winning the 100 fly in 53.09, taking second to Tom Jager in the 50 free and demolishing his own 100-free world record (48.74) with a 48.42.
The trials were not as kind to former Stanford star Morales, 23, winner of three Olympic medals and a record 11 NCAA titles. He finished third in both butterflys, missing the team by .23 in the 100—an event in which he holds the world record—and .54 in the 200. In his farewell swim on Saturday morning he failed to reach the final of the 200 IM: that night he lost his U.S. record (2:02.23) when Dave Wharton, 19, of Warminster, Pa., went 2:00.98. "The trials afford no special advantage to world-or American-record holders." said Morales. "That's how it should be."
But even as old stars bowed out in Austin, a slew of new ones appeared. Michigan sophomore Mike Barrowman stunned everyone by improving his PR in the 200-meter breaststroke by nearly five seconds to 2:13.74. His time—which he swam twice, in prelims and finals—shattered Steve Bentley's American record of 2:14.99.
While training near his family's Rockville. Md., home 2½ years ago, Barrowman met a Hungarian coach named Jozsef Nagy, who completely changed the swimmer's stroke and training habits. Nagy came to the U.S. with his wife when she began a three-year stint with the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. in 1985.
Nagy is changing breaststroking almost as dramatically as Berkoff is altering the backstroke. After years of studying the event, he has developed a more rolling version of the breaststroke that Barrowman likens to the motion of a sine wave. Only two other swimmers in the world use the technique: Peter Szabo and world champion and Olympic favorite Josef Szabo (no relation), both of Hungary, both of whom learned it from Nagy. And so, in a rare display of Olympic idealism, a Hungarian coach has helped not only his countrymen but also their top U.S. challenger. "He is the reason I am here," said Barrowman.
Among the trials' other standouts were sober-faced Matt Cetlinski, 23, of Lake Worth, Fla., who erased Dan Jorgensen's American 400-free record with a 3:48.06, and Canada-born Tracey McFarlane, 22, winner of the 100 and 200 breaststrokes. McFarlane, who became a U.S. citizen in April, lowered Caulkins's American record in the 100 breast by .62 to 1:08.91.
"It'll be fun to watch the chemistry of the team develop," said Quick. His squad includes such veterans as Meagher and breaststroker Susan Rapp, both of whom made their third Olympic team, and newcomers like 200-free winner Mitzi Kremer, 20, the dimple-cheeked daughter of Dutch immigrants. It seems to be a promising mix of age and youth—not to mention waterbugs, dolphins and submarines.