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Four Different Strokes for These Two Folks : Baumann, Berndt Set for Showdown at Mission Viejo in 400-Meter Medley

Times Staff Writer

It could have been a scene straight out of a western movie. The friendly rivals--the two fastest alive--sat across from one another, calmly planning the big showdown.

There was no discussion of .44s at high noon, though, when swimmers Alex Baumann and Jens-Peter Berndt met while competing in Montreal earlier this spring and decided when and where it would be. This showdown would be precisely 400 meters--100 meters of each of the four swimming strokes--during the Speedo Swim Meet of Champions at the Mission Viejo international complex.

That meet will begin today and continue through Sunday, and the 400-meter individual medley, showdown time for Baumann and Berndt, will be Saturday. Baumann, of Canada, is the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder in the 400 individual medley. Berndt is the celebrated East German defector and former world record-holder in the same event.

“Alex said to me, ‘Hey, Peter, what race can we do this summer?’ ” Berndt said. “And I suggested we race at Speedo. In Canada, Alex was tired because he was training very heavy, and I was out of shape because the whole year had been pretty bad for me. Since my defection, the rhythm of my training was pretty bad.”

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Berndt, who walked away from his East German teammates at the airport in Oklahoma City last January, enrolled at the University of Alabama, went through a battle with the NCAA over eligibility and is spending the summer with a family in Mission Viejo while he trains with the Mission Viejo Nadadores.

Neither swimmer is predicting a world record, but the times should be more than respectable for this normally relaxed meet.

Still, the race could be memorable. If Baumann and Berndt spend too much time worrying about each other, Ricardo Prado, who won the Olympic silver for Brazil, or Rob Woodhouse, who took the bronze for Australia, could easily steal the show from the showdown.

“It’s something very special, I think,” Berndt said. “Anytime you’ve got the four top-ranked swimmers in the world in one race, it’s exciting. Alex and I decided on this race as a showdown, but now you’ve got four medal winners or record-holders. Anything can happen in sports. I’m looking forward to it.”

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Baumann agreed that Saturday’s event carries special significance.

“I’m approaching it a bit more seriously than you normally would in a meet like this,” he said. “I’ve rested a bit in preparation and I might even (body) shave. I don’t think anyone will be going 4:17 (his world record is 4:17.41), but it’s going to be a great race . . . like the Olympics with the Eastern Bloc there too.”

Berndt, of course, is no longer of the Eastern Bloc. He is, in fact, the new kid on the western block. And although his training schedule may be just getting back into shape, his tan is already world class.

“This is more fun than school,” Berndt said, flashing a huge grin. “You just work out and then do what you want. I’ve gotten four or five weeks of real good training in. The beach was a little cloudy today, though.”

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There are few clouds on Berndt’s horizon. He is more convinced than ever that he made the right move when he slipped away from his friends and a privileged--if somewhat restricted--life in East Germany.

It was in East Germany’s “boycott trials” in May, 1984, that Berndt set the world record in the 400 individual medley. It was a record he had devoted a lifetime to achieving.

It lasted less than a month.

Baumann broke it in the Canadian Olympic trials and then established the current mark a month later in L.A. during the Games.

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“My first 300 meters when I swam in the Friendship Games (the Soviet Bloc’s alternative Olympics) in Moscow were faster than Baumann’s world-record pace,” Berndt said. “But I had nobody to fight and I died badly in the last 100 meters.”

He expects plenty of fight Saturday, for this is a rivalry built on mutual respect.

One of the first things Berndt did after arriving in America was to get his left ear pierced, since Baumann has worn an earring for a number of years.

Berndt also has no qualms about admitting that Baumann, Swimming World magazine’s swimmer of the year in 1984, is the best individual medley swimmer ever. He also admits that he thinks of Baumann as a role model.

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He also thinks--make that knows --he can beat him.

“I want to beat him when he is in good shape,” Berndt said. “And I know he wants to show he is the best. I won’t be terribly disappointed if I give my best and lose. And I will never lose my optimism that I can beat him.”

Baumann was only 4 years old when his Czechoslovakian parents, who happened to be out of the country when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, decided to leave family and friends behind and start a new life in Canada. He was very young then, but he thinks he can understand what Berndt is going through.

“He doesn’t really have anyone here so I try to take the time to talk to him,” Baumann said. “We’ve become really good friends, too.

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“You know, there’s not really that much at stake here. It’s not like this is the most important meet in the world,” he said. “But this is definitely the best competition I’ll face this year. I might go faster in the Canadian nationals, but this is going to be a fun race.

“I guess we both have something to prove.”

Swimming Notes Twenty-seven Olympians, four world record-holders and representatives from 13 foreign countries will be among the 600 swimmers entered in this weekend’s meet. The world record-holders scheduled to compete are Alex Baumann, his Canadian teammate Victor Davis in the 200-meter breaststroke, Australia’s Jon Sieben, who upset West German superstar Michael Gross, in the 200-meter butterfly, and Rick Carey in the 100-meter backstroke. Dara Torres, the world’s fastest in the 50-meter freestyle, an event in which no world record is kept, will also be on hand. . . . Local Olympic medalists include Mission Viejo’s Tiffany Cohen, who won golds in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle events; Mike O’Brien, who won a gold in the 1,500-meter freestyle, and Amy White, who won a silver in the 200-meter backstroke; Placentia’s John Mykkanen, who won a silver in the 400-meter freestyle, and La Habra’s Jenna Johnson, who won a silver in the 100-meter butterfly. . . . The meet will begin today at 2 p.m. with the women’s and men’s 800-meter freestyle events. Preliminary events are scheduled at 9:30 a.m., Friday through Sunday, with the finals at 5 p.m. each day.


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