A Clash Of Wills The two best individual medleyists in the world will be stroking it out

September 13, 1988

TAMAS DARNYI IS A FUTURIST. He reads science fiction, and as a
hobby he builds 21st-century cities and spaceships out of toy
construction sets. Between his long hours of training -- probably the
toughest workout regimen of any Hungarian swimmer -- he rests at his
apartment in the old Buda section of his native Budapest and
patiently pieces together a plastic, fantastic tomorrow. The world's
greatest all-around swimmer likes to dream.
Some 4,500 miles away, David Wharton is immersed in the present:
the set he is swimming, the turn he is practicing, the alarm clock
going off at 5:15 a.m. in his room at his parents' home in
Warminster, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. Between his long hours of
training -- likely the most arduous program of any American swimmer
-- he takes naps, watches some television, plays tennis with his
family and occasionally is called to the door to sign an autograph
for a young admirer from the neighborhood. Wharton wants to swim as
fast as he can, so he concentrates on every workout, every day.
''I've learned that working hard will pay off in the end,'' he says.

These two quiet yeomen compete in the 400- and 200-meter
individual medleys. The 400 is their sport's equivalent of the
decathlon. Call it the quadrathlon: 100 meters each of butterfly,
backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle, swum in that order. ''It's a
wonderful event because you can let each swimmer be himself,'' says
Wharton's coach, Dick Shoulberg, of Team Foxcatcher/Germantown
Academy in Fort Washington, Pa. ''It's an expressive event.''
Darnyi and Wharton expressed themselves last year by becoming the
two fastest 400 IMers in history at 4:15.42 and 4:16.12,
respectively. Darnyi also set a world record of 2:00.56 in the
200-meter IM. Then, at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Austin, Texas,
Wharton set up a Seoul showdown by clocking a 4:16.32 in the 400 and
an American-record 2:00.98 in the 200, which he considers by far his
weaker event. (These were the fastest times in the world this year.)
He and Darnyi expect they will have to go 4:12 to 4:13 in the 400 and
below two minutes in the 200 to win gold medals.
''The 200- and 400-meter medley events are going to be the
toughest ones in the Olympics,'' says Darnyi's coach, Tamas Szechi of
the Central Sports School in Budapest. ''Darnyi is the favorite ((in
both events)), but that just means he has a slightly better chance
than Wharton, ((Vadim)) Yaroshuk ((of the Soviet Union)) and the
Australian ((Rob)) Woodhouse.'' Yaroshuk has swum a very good 2:01.67
in the 200 IM and conceivably could beat Darnyi and Wharton in the
event. But in the 400, neither he nor Woodhouse figures to overtake
those two.
In waging their 400 duel, the Hungarian and the American will
follow notably different racing strategies. ''One thing I've been
taught is to race against myself and the clock,'' says Wharton.
''In competition I do not swim against the clock but against the
opposition,'' says Darnyi.
Darnyi, 21, has the more impressive international credentials. He
is not only the world-record holder in the 400 and 200, but he is
also the world and European champion. He has won every major
championship meet he has entered since 1985. But Wharton has been
coming on strong. Only 19 and a USC . sophomore, he didn't take his
first trip abroad until 1986, when he went to the world championships
in Madrid, fell victim to intestinal problems and wound up in the
consolation finals of both the 400 and 200. At the Pan Pacific meet
in Brisbane, Australia, in August 1987, Wharton swam his 4:16.12 to
break the three-year-old world record of 4:17.41 set by Alex Baumann
of Canada, but the joy of victory was short-lived: Darnyi swam his
4:15.42 five days later at the European Championships in Strasbourg,
The 6 ft. 1 1/4 in., 176-pound Darnyi and the 6-foot, 172-pound
Wharton have swum against each other in the 400 and 200 only once.
That was in March 1986, in a 25-yard pool at the U.S. Indoor
Nationals in Orlando, Fla. Darnyi won the 400-yard IM by 1.89
seconds, in 3:46.67. Wharton took the 200 in 1:47.11; Darnyi finished
third in 1:48.47. The two swimmers have improved greatly since then.
Each puts in as many as 20,000 meters a day and does weight work and
other dry-land training.
At morning workouts, Wharton often swims to Bach, at music-lover
Shoulberg's insistence. ''There's a type of dictatorship there,''
Shoulberg says. ''But in the afternoon I let them listen to Pink
Floyd or whatever the hell it is. Maybe when they're 50 they'll hear
a little Bach and say, 'Oh, my, I heard that at Germantown!' ''
''And I'll still hate it,'' grumbles Wharton.
Incredibly, Wharton once did a 16,000-meter individual medley in
practice -- it took nearly four hours -- and a 65,000-yard workout,
swimming for two hours and taking an hour off, in 24 hours. ''If Dick
Shoulberg suggested that running through a steel wall would be
beneficial, Dave would do it,'' says U.S. Olympic coach Richard
Coincidentally, both swimmers have overcome disabilities. Darnyi
is 50% blind in his left eye, which was struck by a snowball during
horseplay five years ago and has required four operations to repair.
Wharton is classified as moderately to severely deaf in both ears. It
is a congenital condition he shares with his two brothers, and he
wears a hearing aid when not in the water.
Each swimmer is adept at all four IM strokes, though not equally
so. Darnyi is particularly strong in backstroke and will swim the 200
back along with the two IMs in Seoul. Szechi believes Darnyi could be
a world-class butterflyer, too, if he tried. ''I am convinced that at
200 meters he could compete with ((West German world-record holder))
Michael Gross,'' Szechi says.
& Wharton excels in the butterfly and freestyle. ''I think if he
concentrated on any 200 event, in any stroke, he could have made the
Olympic team,'' says Shoulberg.
The race in Seoul will be a seesaw affair. Wharton may grab an
edge on the opening butterfly leg, but Darnyi will roar past him in
the backstroke. Wharton has been coached to use the back as his
''relaxed'' leg; he saves himself for a strong finish. And so, on
the third leg, breaststroke, he should close slightly on Darnyi.
That leaves freestyle. ''Darnyi's freestyle is excellent, but he's
never come home faster than David,'' says Shoulberg.
If Wharton is within a couple of feet of Darnyi going into the
freestyle, he will have a chance to run the Hungarian down. If not,
Darnyi will triumph. Either way, it should be a wonderful matchup of
At the Olympics, after all, the future is now.