Your head is heavier than you might think," says Melvin Stewart, preparing to explain for the umpteenth time why breathing to the side is a more efficient way to swim the butterfly than breathing forward. "If you don't believe me, lie on this table, have someone sit on your butt and lean out over the floor horizontally. Drop your head, and then lift it straight up. You'll feel the weight. This isn't rocket science."
Stewart, 23, is proposing this experiment in a Knoxville, Tenn., restaurant at the peak of the Saturday dinner rush, and it is suggested to him that the lady who is dining in the next booth might not be quite ready to watch a Mapplethorpe photograph come suddenly to life. "It's amazing how people embarrass so easily," he says, his grin widening as he contemplates the future uses of this insight.
Humor may be the sanest response to a life like Stewart's. His metamorphosis from Little Melvin, the yapping scourge of Gastonia, N.C., into the finest butterfly swimmer in the world has been a journey of Dickensian twists and turns. He has been snatched from the humble world of Fort Mill (S.C.) High School and plunked down on the lush green lawns of the Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy. He has dwelt among the sinners of Las Vegas and the "saints" of the PTL (Praise the Lord) ministry, and he has discovered that it's not always easy to tell them apart. Like Pip, Stewart has great expectations, not merely of swimming magnificent races in Barcelona this summer, but of someday going on to a life in politics or business.
For now swimming is his priority. In March, at the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis, Stewart set himself up for a very busy Olympics, making the team in the 100 and 200 flies and the 800-freestyle relay. If he beats teammate Pablo Morales in the 100 fly in Barcelona, Stewart will also swim the 400 medley relay.
But the 200 fly is Stewart's specialty, the event in which he stands a good chance of doing something mind-boggling in Barcelona. At last year's world championships in Perth, he went into the final turn a meter behind '88 Olympic champion Michael Gross of Germany, then pulled ahead in the last 50 meters to finish in 1:55.69, .55 of a second under Gross's world record. Stewart is the only person to have twice broken 1:56 in the 200 fly. Someone is going to have to improve mightily between now and July 30—the day the 200 fly will be swum in Barcelona—if Stewart is to have any competition at all.
Growing up in Gastonia and then in Charlotte, Stewart was a bully's dream. His swimming bag had LITTLE MELVIN written on it, and he would wear his swim-suit as underwear for a week before big races. "When I was 10," he says, "I was swimming in a lane with 15- to 18-year-olds. I was a cocky little kid, and I loved to beat those guys. They used to rough me up a bit. But that was all right: I'd kick their butts in the water."
His coach at that time was Frankie Bell, and it was she who taught Stewart the side-breathing technique he has used ever since. Two hundred yards, she reasoned, was a long way for a little boy to keep lifting something as heavy as his head. "I really believe it's a faster way to swim the 200 fly," says Stewart. "When you're breathing forward, you lift your head straight up. When you breathe to the side, at a 45-degree angle, there's no lift."
Little Melvin was ranked among the nation's top 10 in his age group in 16 of 21 events that year. In four of them he was first. "Every time I fell into the water, it seemed I set a record," he says. "It was great." By the time Stewart was 13, he had been featured on the P.M. Magazine television show and had announced to the Charlotte Observer, "My name is Melvin Stewart, and I'm the best. I'm going to win Olympic medals."
"His confidence has always been misunderstood," says his mother, Myra. "The press says he's cocky. They don't know. He's had to fight for his life."
She is not referring to Little Melvin's teenage tormentors but to Jim Bakker, the televangelist who presided over the PTL ministry until 1987. Bakker was convicted of fraud in '89 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. For nine years, from 1978 to '87, Melvin Sr. served as recreation director for the PTL and as athletic director of its school, the Heritage Academy.