Ambition has a way of expanding under the wide blue sky of western Australia. As he looked ahead to last Saturday night's 200-meter butterfly at the sixth World Swimming Championships, in Perth, Melvin Stewart warned, "It's not going to be a walk in the park. It may take a world record. In fact, even a world record might not do the job."
The world record was 1:56.24. It belonged to Germany's Michael Gross, the man called the Albatross, whom many consider to be the greatest swimmer of this era. Earlier in the week Gross, now 26, had hiked his record total of world championship medals to 11 with a silver in the 100-meter fly and a gold in the 800-meter freestyle relay. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Stewart finished a disappointing fifth in the 200 fly while Gross won the gold. "He beat me like I was his son," said Stewart. "It was humiliating. I've been on a comeback ever since."
The Tennessee junior, who is 22, has an offbeat view of the world, the result, perhaps, of having grown up on the grounds of Heritage USA, where his father worked as recreation director for PTL Club director Jim Bakker—"the preacher with the water slide," as Stewart calls him. Things have a way of happening to Stewart, like the time three years ago when a nude photo of him appeared mysteriously outside the dining room of the U.S. swim team's training camp in Honolulu. Not that Stewart minded. He thought he looked pretty good.
This year Stewart started swimming for Las Vegas Gold, a club sponsored by entrepreneur Dick Carson. Carson convinced casino owner Bob Stupak to offer $100,000 to any member of his club who breaks a world record at a national championship or the U.S. Open. "The money was the eye-catcher," says Stewart, explaining his decision to join the club. "How much can you make in swimming?"
Gross got out fast in the 200 fly final. He covered the first 100 meters in 54.86, .60 of a second faster than he had in his world-record swim in 1986. Stewart was a body length behind at the midway point, but he pulled even in the next 50 meters and blew past Gross with 30 meters to go. Stewart touched in 1:55.69, 1.09 ahead of Gross, who came in second. Not one to pass up a golden opportunity, Stewart used the victory march to broach the subject with Gross of their collaborating on an instructional video. Asked later whether he had considered putting on the brakes to make it easier for him to win the $100,000 bonus at the nationals this spring in Seattle, Stewart said, "I'm an American. I'm a capitalist. I probably should have slowed down a bit."
Gross seemed to delight in Stewart's performance. "For me it was always a goal to swim under 1:56," he said. "I am quite happy as a butterfly swimmer that it is possible. Melvin is part of a new generation and shows people all over the world that the sport of swimming is improving."
And changing. If the championships proved anything, it was that, while the U.S. remains the sport's leading power, swimming expertise and talent have spread to every corner of the globe. Gold medals were spread around more widely in Perth than at any previous world championships, thanks at least in part to the nurturing of foreign swimmers by the U.S. collegiate system. Anthony Nesty of Suriname won the 100 fly, and Martin Lopez Zubero of Spain the 200 backstroke. The two are teammates at the University of Florida. And Matt Biondi won the 100 freestyle by holding off his former Cal teammate, Tommy Werner of Sweden.
"There is no dominating nation anymore," said British breaststroker Adrian Moorhouse. "Technique is pretty much the same the world over. Everyone knows the methods, and training is based more on knowledge than on gut feeling."
The U.S. team's gut feeling going into the seven-day meet was one of cautious optimism. After the first two days, however, U.S. swimmers had claimed just one gold medal, Nicole Haislett's in the 100 free. It seemed the U.S. team was on its way to its third straight disappointing world championships. "We haven't set the world on fire like we thought we would," admitted Stewart. "But sometimes it takes a while to get into a meet."
In this case it took until the next to last day. On Saturday, ignited by Stewart's magnificent swim, the U.S. team won four more gold medals in rapid order. Tom Jager successfully defended his title in the 50 free. Janet Evans, who already had a silver in the 200 free and a gold in the 400 free, struck gold again, in the 800 free. Jeff Rouse won the 100 back, and Haislett, anchoring the 400 medley relay team, overtook Karen van Wirdum of Australia and touched in 4:06.51, an American record. The next day Summer Sanders, who had struggled earlier, finishing third in the 400 individual medley and second in the 200 IM, won the 200 butterfly. The U.S. then set a meet record in the finale, the men's 400 medley relay.