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During World War I, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank a Scandinavian freighter in the north Bering Strait, leaving Chief Engineer Reinhardt von Dohn and his mates in the icy water. Von Dohn, a 6'7", 300-pound Dane who had once rescued the entire crew of an overturned schooner single-handedly, instructed two of his shipmates to grab hold of his back. They did. With the two men in tow, von Dohn then swam and swam and swam—for eight hours, or so the story goes—until another ship picked them up. By then, one of the men on von Dohn's back had died. The rest of the crew had drowned.
"Quite a story, isn't it?" says Russ Beardsley, 54, von Dohn's 6'1½", 252-pound grandson, in the living room of the Beardsley home in Harrington Park, N.J. He has recounted the exploit with pride—and with a point. "Yes, there must be something in the genes," says his wife, Jeanne, a tiny, bespectacled woman who was born in China. The room is decorated with swimming medals and plaques and trophies. "Yes, a gene," she says. "Craig must have inherited from the grandfather."
Craig is the Beardsleys' slightly chubby 21-year-old son, a senior at the University of Florida. He's also the best 200 butterfly swimmer in the world. Says Randy Hart, the information director of U.S. Swimming and an authority on just about every swimmer since von Dohn, "Beardsley is just awesome. Just awesome." Too true. Beardsley hasn't lost a 200 fly—in either meters or yards—since Mike Bruner, then the world-record holder, beat him at the April 1980 nationals. That's more than 40 consecutive wins in two years. "Craig has won races from behind, from in front, from any angle you can," says Florida Coach Randy Reese. "No matter where he is at the 100 mark in a 200 fly, he knows he can pull it out. His opponents know that, too."
Twice Beardsley has lowered the 200-meter world record, by a stunning total of 1.22 seconds. The mark now stands at 1:58.01. "Just think, .02 faster and I'd be the first person to break 1:59 and the first to break 1:58," Craig says with gee-whiz excitement. "Wouldn't that be great?" Beardsley, the only American at last January's U.S. Swimming International meet in Gainesville, Fla. to establish a world best (the equivalent, in a short pool, of a world record), is considered a cinch to extend his string of 200 fly victories at this weekend's NCAA championships in Brown Deer, Wis. "The streak gets me kind of nervy at times," says Beardsley, who, to tell the truth, seems fidgety at all times. "But somebody will beat me somewhere, sometime, and it won't be the end of the world."
Beardsley doesn't have his great-grandfather's size—he's only 5'11", 160—but he certainly has the von Dohn stamina. He can hold his stroke, swimming's most exhausting, over extraordinary distances. "Craig's best event would be a 10,000-meter fly—or farther," says his father, a New York City audio dealer and his son's most avid fan. In a 6,000-yard workout, Craig will swim more than 2,000 yards of fly, and do most of it at or near race pace. Only women's world-record holder Mary T. Meagher, the remarkable 17-year-old butterflyer from Louisville, Ky., trains comparably.
"The hard work comes from a Chinese gene," says Russ. "Give his mother an eight-hour job and she's looking for more work." Indeed, since escaping to America from Shanghai in 1948, only days before the Communists took over that city—"I was on the last boat out," she says, "a slow boat"—Jeanne Loh Beardsley has earned two college degrees, become an outstanding pianist and served as a head librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. Like Craig and his sister Karen, a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, she maintains a pace that falls between fast and frenetic. "Every one of those three is nervous and jerky," says Russ, a workaholic of more stolid mien, who has built a thriving three-store audio business from scratch.
Craig's success, however, involves more than moil. "I swim flatter than most butterflyers," he explains. "Some people say you want body undulation. But I think you want your force to move you forward, not up and down. I try to kick back instead of up and down, and with my arms I try to push myself ahead, not lift myself up out of the water." Beardsley is pigeon-toed, and keeping his feet together and pointed inward enhances his kick. "Craig is also less muscled than your average butterflyer," says Reese, being polite. "That keeps him from tying up over long distances."
"I just have a gut," says Beardsley, whose teammates call him Buddha. "I've always had a gut. I think it floats me."
Beardsley also has an ingenuous candor that ranges from refreshing ("The one thing I can't stand is getting into a cold pool, especially in the morning," he says. "But it's a great cure for a hangover") to downright disarming ("One time this guy I know shaved everything before a meet—even his pubic hair. Boy, he was sorry. That stuff doesn't grow back real fast"). He'll talk your ear off, but without boast or pretension: He's still awestruck, it seems, by the fact that he's the world's best anything.
Until he enrolled at Florida, Beardsley had never swum for a school team. His schools didn't have swimming teams. For eight years he attended New York's United Nations International School, where his only competitive activity was playing the cello. "I remember I took group lessons with these twin brothers," he says, "and I always wanted to beat them so bad. I had to be better." He must have succeeded because he became first cello in the school orchestra and was later asked to study at the Manhattan School of Music, an honor he passed up. Beardsley also learned to speak French and Chinese at the U.N. school, and studied calculus in the seventh grade. "It sailed right through my head," he says.