The Albatross, as he's known, is loping through a forest of 110-foot Scotch pines, accompanied by a few teenagers in sweats. Fall, winter and spring he comes here, to these vacant woodlands of central West Germany, to run for as much as an hour. "Normally I run 15 kilometers," he says. "If I am strong, I run 18 kilometers." His pace is that of a 2:20 to 2:40 marathoner, remarkable land speed for a tall and gangly water bird. But this Albatross is Michael Gross, 20 years old and fresh out of a West German secondary school, and he runs ahead of both his rivals and his time. He is the rarest of birds.
On this occasion Gross completes his forest loop after just a few kilometers because it's April, a time of tapered training this year. He emerges at the Tambourbad swim complex, a small compound surrounded by wire fencing on the outskirts of Offenbach. He and his running companions, teammates at the Erster Offenbacher Schwimm-Club—the First Swim Club of Offenbach, or EOSC—head for a gray plastic bubble that encloses a 50-meter pool. Near the entrance is a poster showing four smiling members of a relay team. EOSC-OFFENBACH MIT SUPERSTAR MICHAEL GROSS reads the caption. Every day Gross passes this poster and says nothing. Intelligent and serious-minded, generally disdainful of the press, he has no use for Albatross or Superstar or Schwimmstar or any of the other labels given him by the media. Yet he can't escape them; he's too good, too different, too newsworthy. A double world-record holder and double world champion, Gross is perhaps the most talented male swimmer in the world. Without question, he's the best swimmer West Germany has ever produced. As he goes in to swim on this typical afternoon, a gaggle of Offenbach age-groupers, hair still damp from practice, hang around the pool entrance, excited, chatting up a storm. Their every third utterance seems to be the same proud chirp: "Mee-shah-el Gross!"
He's clearly a national hero, yet beyond his swimming accomplishments Gross is something of a mystery, both at home and abroad. Which is how he prefers it. Gross still lives with his parents, Günter and Ursula, in the old Sachsenhausen section of Frankfurt, and stubbornly guards both his and his parents' privacy. It's a firm rule: He wants to be considered, if at all, only as a swimmer—the rest is his business. As friends and acquaintances admit, Gross's stiff public casing can be hard to break through.
Among U.S. swimmers, Gross used to be known simply as Two Meters Tall. It was a hushed tribute to his size, for this Albatross—like the feathered creature for which he's nicknamed—is quite large. Americans, having heard little else about him, would whisper fearfully, "They say he's two meters tall!" as if that converted to 10 feet. Gross, after all, is the German word for "big." The image his name and nicknames helped reinforce loomed larger than Gross himself at the 1982 world championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he and the best Americans met for the first time at a major competition, and where Gross first showed his extraordinary versatility. In the finals of the 200-meter freestyle and 200 butterfly there, he upset then world-record holders Rowdy Gaines and Craig Beardsley, respectively, to attain his first world swimming titles. Neither Gaines nor Beardsley swam with any confidence, and both seemed tense. Gross, it seemed, was a very tall order for them to handle psychologically.
In reality, the 185-pound Gross stretches out to more than two meters—2.02 according to Michael—but that measures up to only 6'7½". He buys his jeans and T shirts off the rack and sees no big deal in being the first extra tall world champion swimmer since 6'6½" backstroker John Naber of the U.S. hung up his suit in 1977. Gross doesn't seem to get worked up over anything he is or does; his personality is as even as the surface of a calm pool. "You really do not have problems with height until you are 2.10 meters [6'10¾"], I think," he says with a shrug.
Gross's opponents have problems whenever he enters the water. He followed up his '82 world championship victories with one of the most memorable performances in swimming history, a total domination of the European championships in Rome last August. There he not only won four gold medals (100 and 200 fly, 200 free and 4 X 200 free relay) and one silver (400 medley relay), but also shattered three world records in a span of five days. Gross took nearly a second off Beards-ley's world mark in the 200 fly with a time of 1:57.05; improved his own mark in the 200 free from 1:48.28 to 1:47.87—he had eclipsed Gaines's world record of 1:48.93 at the West German championships two months earlier—and anchored West Germany's record performance (7:20.40) in the 4 x 200 free relay with the fastest 200 split ever recorded (1:47.21). To place Gross's relay swim in perspective, consider that none of his three teammates went faster than 1:50.78, and that two of them failed to break 1:51.
And to put Gross's freestyle-butterfly double in perspective, consider that not since Mark Spitz simultaneously held a total of four world fly and free marks in the early 1970s had a male swimmer held world records in two different strokes at the same time. But this is the Albatross, and he isn't impressed by his feats. "Swimming is just a hobby for me, really," he says, in English that has been polished smooth by five years of study. "My school is much more important." As usual, Gross isn't kidding.
Certainly, his approach to his sport is unique, if not casual. He rejects much of swimming dogma, including such traditional elements as predawn workouts and megayardage training programs. "The earliest time I ever trained in my life was eight o'clock," he says, "and that was because we were at a championship meet and the schedule of training pools was so bad." Gross also looks at swimming as a team sport; the highlight of his year is the West German club championships each December, an event at which there are no individual titles.
"His whole philosophy of swimming is, I think, very fantastic," says Dr. Jürgen Kozel, chairman of the West German swim committee. "He says, 'It is my hobby, it is fun for me. I train so hard because I want to learn something about my body and my constitution. When I believe I have had enough, when it is no more fun, I stop.' "
Except on weekends, when Gross also has a midmorning pool session, he swims only once a day, late in the afternoon. His workouts vary from 6,000 to 9,000 meters, less than half of what many American swimmers log. Says West German national men's coach Manfred Thiesmann, "He doesn't want to say after a training period, 'Now I have swum so many kilometers.' He says, 'I have swum these kilometers in such a quality.' "