Barrowman Finds His Strength in Seoul


Something is pushing Mike Barrowman. It moves him faster and faster in the pool, a memory that will not go away even as his every breaststroke takes him further and further from it. It is as unforgettable and unbelievable today as it was 2 1/2 years ago when it happened.

New and vulnerable in the treacherous waters of international swimming, Barrowman was going to win a medal, perhaps gold, in the Seoul Olympics. The 19-year-old, from Potomac, Md., was the U.S. record holder in the 200-meter breaststroke. He had swum the best time in the world in 1988. He was training harder than any of his U.S. teammates. Yes, this was going to happen.

But that day in the Olympics, when his race ended, he grabbed the lane rope, hung on and raised his eyes to the electronic scoreboard. He stared in disbelief. There was his name. Beside it was his place. He finished fourth. Fourth?

When they handed out the medals and played the winner's national anthem, Barrowman was under the stands, in the practice pool, all alone. He felt as if he had let down everyone: his parents, sister, friends, coaches. He said he had never felt so bad in all his life. From the time he was 7, watching the 1976 Olympics on television, he had wanted a gold medal. He had left the University of Michigan for a semester to train for the most important moment of his life, and he had lost.

What happened to Barrowman that day in Seoul was the moment that came to define him as an athlete and possess him as a competitor. It made him want to dominate his specialty in a way it never had been dominated before.

Today, with his sights dead set on the 200-meter breaststroke in the 1992 Barcelona Games, Mike Barrowman, 22, arguably is the best swimmer in the United States and the most consistently remarkable swimmer in the world. A finalist for the prestigious Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the country, he has not lost a race in his specialty since the Olympics, Sept. 23, 1988. He has broken the world record four times since then, lowering it from 2 minutes 12.90 seconds to the present 2:11.23. He swam that time last month at the world championships in Perth, Australia, to defeat the fastest 200 breaststroke field ever assembled.

Once in 1989, in the midst of Barrowman's phenomenal post-Olympic turnaround, a British swimmer named Nick Gillingham tied Barrowman's world record at a meet in Bonn. Sixteen hours later, after hearing the news while at a meet in Tokyo, Barrowman stole his record right back by one-hundredth of a second, the narrowest margin possible.

"You spend a year avenging yourself and then someone takes away the record you care so much about," Barrowman said. "You think I'm not going to try to get that back?"

Barrowman's grandmother, Jean Albert, was a Red Cross swimming instructor in the Maryland suburbs and began taking him to the pool when he was 6 months old. Mike and his younger sister, Sophia, now on the American University swim team, both became strong swimmers as children.

"Every pool in the county, there we were," said Donna Barrowman, their mother.

Barrowman was born in Asuncion, Paraguay, where his father, Ray, was working as a cartographer for the U.S. Army. But the family soon moved to the Washington suburbs, where they live today.

Barrowman swam all through high school. One day, at the pool he looked up to see a blond, pleasant-looking, mid-thirtyish man standing on deck.

"I knew he was coming," Barrowman said. "I didn't know what he looked like, but I had heard the coach of the Hungarian champion was coming."

This was Jozsef Nagy, now 38, who came to Washington because his wife took a job with the International Monetary Fund. It turned out he didn't coach the top Hungarian breaststroker, but another world-caliber breaststroker with the same last name. It turned out that it didn't matter.

Nagy had been the Hungarian national champion in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1973, but became frustrated when he got no better. As he neared the end of his career and began studying to become a coach, he started looking for a more efficient way of going through the water. The breaststroke is the slowest stroke, a halting, vertical movement, hardly a fluid way to move fast. For six or seven years, Nagy was obsessed by it. He watched videotapes of breaststrokers. He turned the TV upside down and watched that way.

Nagy knew he was close when he watched a tape of a cheetah running. As Barrowman explained, "At high speed, its shoulders will come up, its head will fall and its momentum will carry it forward as it's running."

Nagy applied that to the water, and the wave-action breaststroke was born.

Barrowman and Nagy soon were inseparable. Nagy was teaching his stroke to his most willing pupil, and Barrowman actually was getting it, although it took him two years to learn the complicated technique.

"At least 25 points have got to be right in the stroke," Barrowman said. "There are so many pieces to the puzzle that if one little thing is off, everything's off."

It is the thinking man's stroke -- perfect for Barrowman, a 3.4 student in English. But it also fits him physically.

"The breaststroke chose me," he said. At 5 feet 11 and 163 pounds, he is not too big across to create the drag that can ruin any swimmer.

He walks with stooped shoulders: "I have heavy muscles in front and lighter ones in back. I can't help but fall forward."

He has extra-long arms and also can twist his ankles 135 degrees, until his toes are pointed nearly straight backward -- perfect for the breaststroke's frog kick.

"That's loose knees," he said. "I've worked five years to get that kind of flexibility."

Barrowman works harder on his swimming, in and out of the pool, than any American, his coaches and fellow swimmers say. Among other things, he leapfrogs steps, throws a 10-pound medicine ball 30 minutes without stopping and spends 33 hours a week swimming -- all in the name of Barcelona.

Barrowman splashed onto the U.S. Olympic team in August 1988 in a stunning way. He had swum just the 64th best time in the world that year (2:21.34) until the Olympic trials in Austin, Tex., when he swam the morning preliminary in 2:13.74, a U.S. record. That evening, in the final, he proved he was no fluke by swimming the exact same time -- 2:13.74 -- an incredible feat. It would have been as if, in baseball, a hitter drove consecutive home runs into the same seat in the upper deck.

He went to Seoul as one of the favorites, but everything was moving too fast.

When he dove into the water, he felt bad. When he got out, he felt worse. Jozsef Szabo, the Hungarian it turned out Nagy didn't coach, won the gold medal in 2:13.52. Barrowman swam 2:15.45.

Less than 11 months later, in August 1989, Barrowman set his first world record: 2:12.90 in Los Angeles, breaking the mark of 2:13.34 set by the late Victor Davis of Canada in the same lane of the same pool in the 1984 Olympics. When Gillingham tied him two weeks later, Barrowman lowered it to 2:12.89.

There it stood until the Goodwill Games last summer, when Barrowman dropped the time more than a second to 2:11.53. It was the sixth consecutive major competition in which he had broken either a national or world record. That simply set up the world championships last month, when he swam his current world record of 2:11.23, beating Gillingham and the latest Hungarian, 18-year-old Norbert Rozsa.

For all his efforts, Barrowman has not made a cent in swimming. In fact, he is in debt, and it's going to get worse. He won't even consider the 1996 Olympics because of the financial burden swimmers face, although he hopes to put on a special race with the top 200-meter breaststrokers in the world in Washington this summer, complete with sponsors and prize money, which now is allowed by the International Swimming Federation.

So when you ask him why he swims when this life sounds so miserable, he says he sometimes wonders the same thing. "But I have this God-given talent and I feel I'm supposed to use it."

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