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Craig Neff
August 22, 1988
An innovative backstroker, David Berkoff, led the way at the U.S. Olympic Trials
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August 22, 1988

Back To The Future

An innovative backstroker, David Berkoff, led the way at the U.S. Olympic Trials

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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.

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.

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