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'I MADE A SUDDEN DECISION AT THE AIRPORT'
Last Friday afternoon, four days after his defection to the U.S., East German swimmer Jens-Peter Berndt was standing around the University of Alabama pool in Tuscaloosa, flat broke, unsure about his future and wearing his only remaining possessions: a light-blue jersey, gray gingham pants and dirty running shoes. Yet he was happy. "I have to borrow some clothes," he shrugged. "I lost everything at the airport. It all happened very quickly."
Indeed, Berndt, 21, a former world-record holder in the 400-meter individual medley, made the transformation from premier East-German male swimmer to coveted U.S. college recruit in whirlwind fashion. He had begun his trip home from the U.S. Swimming International meet (SI, Jan. 14) in Fayetteville, Ark. on Monday, Jan. 7 routinely enough, but while his 13 G.D.R. teammates and coaches were boarding a connecting flight at the Oklahoma City airport that afternoon, he'd walked away from the departure gate. "I made a sudden decision at the airport," says Berndt. "I had made no plans beforehand. I was playing cards with my teammates while we waited." Berndt went to the airport's administrative offices, announced his desire to stay in the United States and, while the East German coaches futilely paged him, waited until a van from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service whisked him off to a downtown INS office. "He seemed a little nervous, but he spoke English well and was very courteous," said airport public-information director Tom Morton. "When we went to the soda machine he said, 'I'll have a Coca-Cola please, sir.' And then, 'What is it they say? " Coke is it"?' "
After initial processing by the INS, Berndt moved into a dorm at the University of Oklahoma. But Oklahoma doesn't have a high-caliber swimming program, and on Thursday morning Alabama coach Don Gambril called and invited Berndt on an all-expenses-paid recruiting visit. Sure, said Berndt, who knew of Gambril as the 1984 U.S. Olympic coach and as a man who has coached many foreign swimmers. By Thursday evening, Berndt was in Tuscaloosa.
By nature gregarious and self-confident, Berndt was ebullient as he toured the Alabama campus, met students, asked questions ("Which newspapers are controlled by which political parties?"), and took in a basketball game and a swim meet. While placing an order on his first visit to a drive-through fast-food restaurant, he exclaimed, "I'm talking to a sign!" Before leaving Tuscaloosa last Saturday night, Berndt decided to enroll at Alabama.
Berndt, a lieutenant in the East German army and a would-be swim coach, left behind in his native Potsdam a father and an older sister, his mother having died of leukemia in 1981. "My father [an engineering supervisor] will probably be put in a lower position," he said with some remorse. Berndt said his defection was not political but was prompted in part by a conviction that "I'm like the Americans. They're more...." With a reporter's help, he settled on "independent" and "open" as suitable adjectives.
Berndt was always something of a rebel within the rigid East German sports system. He quit his elite sports school at age 12 and didn't swim again for three years. More recently he had difficulties with his coach, but, he said, "You can change coaches only if the national federation says so. The swimmer does not decide." Still, Berndt wasn't totally out of step with the G.D.R. sports establishment. It is his genuine belief that East-bloc athletes would have been in danger of terrorist attack if they'd attended the Los Angeles Olympics.
Berndt has not yet been granted asylum, but that should come through soon. "Everyone here has been helpful," he said. "Please tell them thank you." Eventually he must decide whether to apply for U.S. citizenship—which, barring a special act of Congress, he could not attain for at least six years. Until then he could not represent America in international competition. Thus he might be better off choosing West Germany as his new official homeland, because under West German laws he, like all other East Germans, is already considered a citizen. "But then I would become a political case," he says. "I don't want that."
Berndt hopes to be eligible at 'Bama for the NCAA championships in March. But Gambril says, "That's of minor concern at this point. The main thing is to get him settled in his new life. It's unbelievable what he's done, when you think how much he had to leave behind."