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On a recent Sunday evening IN Ann Arbor, Mich., Mike Barrowman stood at a pay phone outside a movie theater, speaking in pidgin English. Barrowman, a University of Michigan junior with a 3.4 grade point average, sounded as if he were auditioning to be one of Saturday Night Lives Wild and Crazy Guys. "Many times I know what is wrong," he said, haltingly. "But now, I don't know. Was terrible, terrible, terrible this morning."
The person at the other end of the line was Barrowman's personal coach, Jozsef Nagy. They have worked together since April 1986, when Nagy, now 37, moved from Hungary to the U.S. with his wife, Piroska, an economist with the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. Though Nagy's English is limited, leading to Barrowman's odd conversation, the swimmer-coach collaboration has proved abundantly fruitful. Last August, Barrowman set a world record for the 200-meter breaststroke of 2:12.90, and after the time was equaled by Britain's Nick Gillingham, he lowered the mark again by .01.
But now, with the NCAA meet less than three weeks away, Barrowman sounded worried. He had struggled through the Big Ten Championships, winning the 200-yard breaststroke in 1:58.00 but finishing third in both the 100 breast and 200 individual medley. His stroke desperately needed fine-tuning. "So," he concluded his call to Nagy, "you come what time tomorrow?"
With help on the way, Barrowman could relax. He hung up and went to see The Hunt for Red October. The movie—about a Soviet submarine that is equipped with a revolutionary propulsion mechanism that makes it faster than any of its predecessors—was rife with metaphor. Since adopting what Nagy calls his "wave-action" technique, Barrowman has become the fastest 200-meter breaststroker in the world. Not only that, but in December he was named World Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine.
Whatever Nagy did when he joined Barrowman the next day, it worked. At the NCAA meet last Saturday in Indianapolis, Barrowman won the final of the 200-yard breaststroke in dramatic fashion, slashing 1.24 seconds off the American record of 1:55.01, which was set by Steve Lundquist in 1981. Texas coach Eddie Reese, whose team won its third consecutive NCAA team championship, was awestruck by Barrow-man's performance. "That was a miracle swim," he said. "What was it, 1:53.77? God! He came back [the second 100 yards] in 58. That's faster than a lot of guys go out in with a dive. It's like somebody running the 800 meters in 1:39 when Sebastian Coe's world record is 1:41.73."
Breaststrokers have long been considered the oddballs of the swimming world. "I think they're really weird," says Michigan's Brent Lang, the NCAA champion in the 50 and 100 freestyle. "Most swimmers are pretty much the same...and then there are breaststrokers. They are unusually meticulous about their feet and the restaurants where they'll eat. But it's not so much the restaurants, it's the mind-set that goes along with it."
Barrowman is no exception. Let's save his choice of eating establishments for later and talk, instead, about his feet.
"I can walk backwards," Barrowman offers, and stands up in a busy restaurant to demonstrate. He splays his feet farther and farther out until they are pointing 45 degrees behind him. Then he takes a couple of steps backward. Such flexibility in the ankles and knees allows him to get optimal traction in the water. "I was born to be a breaststroker," Barrowman announces and sits down.
At 5'11", 163 pounds, the 21-year-old Barrowman is not big for a swimmer, and he hasn't lifted weights since he was 16. But, says Michigan sophomore Eric Wunderlich, "it's amazing how strong he is." One of Barrowman's more peculiar exercises involves squatting on his haunches and jumping straight up and down like a frog. "A lot of coaches won't let their swimmers do that," says Jon Urbanchek, the Michigan coach, who was born in Hungary. "It would rip their knees apart." Barrowman not only does the exercise, he can actually hop up 100 stadium steps employing this eccentric form of locomotion.
Despite his unusual physical attributes, Barrowman did not have instant success. He was born in Asunci�n, Paraguay, where his father, Ray, was working as a cartographer for the U.S. Army. Barrowman's first exposure to the water came at eight months, when his grandmother, Jean Albert, a Red Cross swimming instructor, began taking him into the pool with her in Bethesda, Md. "She is one of those perfectionists," says Mike's mother, Donna. "He developed perfect strokes."