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As though assembling a flesh-and-blood jigsaw puzzle, Jack and Jean Carey sit in their living room, piecing together memories, anecdotes and bits of psychological insight. Their five-bedroom home in Mount Kisco, N.Y. is a child-worn testament to family life, lorded over by Max the golden retriever and Jeremiah the overweight beagle. The Careys, teachers both, are familiar with all the foibles of youth, and they've raised four children of their own, but they're having trouble this winter afternoon explaining their 21-year-old son, Rick. "He's just always been so...so intense," says Jean.
Rick, a junior at the University of Texas, is the fastest backstroker ever, a world and Pan Am Games gold medalist and 10-time NCAA or U.S. national champion who last year smashed his sport's longest-standing world records, the 100-and 200-meter backstroke marks set by John Naber at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and was named World Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine. Last winter Carey established U.S. short-course records five times in a 25-yard pool, then, during the summer, he lowered Naber's long-course world records a total of four times, from 55.49 to 55.44 to 55.38 to 55.19 and 1:59.19 to 1:58.93. Says Naber, "To use The Right Stuff vernacular, he's pushing back the envelope of the backstroke."
Yet Carey is by his own description a swimming "outsider." Neither chlorine nor sun could ever bleach his jet-black hair to a swimmer's greenish-blond. He never surfed, waterskied or hung out at the beach. Carey grew up in Mount Kisco, 30 miles north of New York City, and for years did two-a-day workouts in the area's small, often cold, indoor pools. "Physically he doesn't even look like a swimmer," says Rowdy Gaines, the 100-meter freestyle world-record holder and Carey's training partner at Texas. "He's got a little belly on him and he looks kind of stocky. But his muscles are deceivingly well-placed."
Naber was the backstroking prototype: 6'6" and 195 pounds, lanky and long-armed. Carey is 5'11¾" and 185, with well-muscled arms. "He's probably got the greatest upper-body strength of any competitive swimmer in the world," says Jack Carey. Indeed, Rick's power lifts him high in the water, exposing broad yet exceptionally flexible shoulders. "Ricky's shoulders are double-jointed or something," says his lifelong coach, John Collins of the Larchmont, N.Y.-based Badger Swim Club. "He's able to really dig down and grab the water behind him. His knees are hyperextensive, like [Mark] Spitz's, which gives him more whip action on his kick."
This much, at least, is certain: Carey, who next week leads the Longhorns against favored Stanford at the NCAA meet in Cleveland, is the nation's top college swimmer. When he's competing at the U.S. nationals for Badger, Carey is the most dominant swimmer, male or female, regardless of event. For this summer's Olympics in Los Angeles, he is America's surest bet to win an individual swimming gold medal—or two.
But both in and away from the pool, Collins says, "Rick has always been his own worst enemy." Most people find him confoundingly hard to pin down and intensely private. "Sometimes you'll find him sitting in his apartment alone, just staring at a wall," says a friend. "He spends a lot of time just thinking." Carey is not only extremely bright—he's an aerospace engineering major with a passion for his home computer—but also self-critical, moody, blunt, serious, stubborn, sensitive and hot-tempered. Some have misinterpreted Carey's shyness as conceit, even rudeness. "When I met him I was like everybody else," says Gaines. "I thought he was a cocky son of a bitch. It took time to learn that he isn't."
What keeps alive the reputation for arrogance is Carey's competitive fury. At last year's NCAAs in Indianapolis, Stanford's Dave Bottom twice broke Carey's U.S. 100-yard back record of 48.80 on relay leadoff legs. Carey stormed about the deck, upset both at losing the record and at what he deemed to be Bottom's illegal turns. "He's not touching the wall with his hand," Carey fumed. "He's not touching———!" Carey promised his Texas teammates that he would regain the American mark in the 100-yard back finals. And so he did, with a vengeance, in 48.25, leaving Bottom more than a body length behind. "I wanted to convince him the record was mine," says Carey. The next day, for good measure, he whipped Bottom again in the 200 back final, lowering his own U.S. mark by .14.
For better or worse, Carey's emotional furnace has always burned hot. "He's a textbook example of extremes at work," says Naber. "He doesn't feel apathetic about anything. His world is black and white." Carey is deeply loyal to his family and a few close friends; his strong encouragement kept Gaines from retiring during a slump last summer. But Carey can also be obsessive. He comes back and crushes any rival swimmer who, like Bottom, dares to break one of his records or beat him even once, and he can be just as viciously competitive in practice. "When it comes down to it, Rick would give you the shirt off his back," says Gaines. "But he also has a way of making you incredibly teed off." In his younger and wilder days, Carey regularly strained Collins' patience with poolside tantrums that included goggle throwing and even an angry walk off the deck during a meet. "He was a little on the obnoxious side," says Collins. Carey has matured considerably since then, but even today Collins refers, only half jokingly, to his prized swimmer's "neurotic" tendencies.
Which is what Jack and Jean Carey have been gently treading around in their living-room discourse. It's clear by now that their son has drawn character in equal measure from two loving and proud but oddly matched parents. Jack Carey, who stands 6'2" and weighs 220 pounds, has a long white mane, a Fu Manchu mustache and a ruddy face. He's boisterous, opinionated, tartly profane. A seventh-grade math teacher in the local public school system, Jack commutes to work on a Honda 750 motorcycle. Jean Carey, in contrast, is a slight, quiet woman, an extraordinarily intent listener. "She has kind of a gypsyish quality about her," Collins has said. "It wouldn't surprise me if she took out a deck of Tarot cards and started reading your fortune." Several years ago, Jean, a first-grade instructor, tried to introduce her son. to "pyramid power" (he wasn't interested), and she once gave him two tiny black stones called Apache tears to relieve anxiety and stress. (Rick carried them around in his pocket for two years before giving them away.) She, too, rides a motorcycle, though not to school. "I don't know if the principal could handle it," Jean says.
Handling Rick is another delicate matter. "I guess you know Ricky's had some problems with the press," Jack says. Indeed, though Rick is articulate, analytical and generally cooperative, he has left verbal scorch marks on more than one shocked reporter. A few years back he lit into Frank Litsky of The New York Times, who'd written that Carey "seems to work extra hard in the water. His head bobs and his shoulders roll." After that, for reasons unrelated to the incident, the Times didn't send a staff reporter to a swim meet for more than two years; other swimmers, however, blamed Carey for having driven the paper away. "He wrote that I 'thrashed in the water,' " Carey recalls. "All my friends gave me a hard time about it. My girl friend even called me and said, 'I didn't know you thrashed.' "