Stewart qualifies in fly, makes political waves

March 06, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- He lists cow tipping as a hobby, knows Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, drives a black Porsche and wants a match race with Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas.

Other than that, Melvin Stewart is just your average self-described "swimming geek."

"Some people fantasize about sex," he said. "I fantasize about winning an Olympic gold medal."

But Stewart can back up his flip talk with some terrific racing. Last night, in the Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships, Stewart missed breaking his world record in the 200-meter butterfly by three-hundredths of a second. He won in 1 minute, 55.72 seconds, securing his third spot on the U.S. team that will appear at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Moments after finishing the race, the 23-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., who is the leader of the Young Republicans at the University of Tennessee, laid down a challenge to the butterflyer who would be president: He wants Tsongas in a pool.

Stewart even promised to swim 150 yards to Tsongas' 100.

"I'd like to be the Republican who beats him," he said. "It's easy for him to look fantastic for a few strokes in a commercial."

Stewart and the other top American swimmers put together a wonderful splash-and--- commercial, with the top two finishers in each event earning tickets to Barcelona.

In the 50-meter freestyle, the event that could leave scorch marks on the bottom of the pool, reigning Olympic gold medalist Matt Biondi bested his longtime friend and rival Tom Jager. Biondi won in 22.12 seconds to Jager's 22.17.

Summer Sanders, a 19-year-old Stanford sophomore who previously qualified in the 400 individual medley and the 100 butterfly, won the 200 IM in 2:13.10. Nicole Haislett, 19, a 'N University of Florida sophomore, was second in 2:14.49.

Janet Evans and Erika Hansen, who train together at the University of Texas, went 1-2 in the women's 800 freestyle. Evans' winning mark of 8:27.24 was far slower than her world mark of 8:16.22.

Jeff Rouse, 22, of Fredericksburg, Va., the world-record holder and reigning world champion in the 100 backstroke, won the 200 backstroke in 54.07. David Berkoff, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist who lives in Huntington Valley, Pa., was second in 54.65.

But Day 5 of the U.S. trials belonged to Stewart.

He raced. He won -- Dave Wharton of Warminster, Pa., finished second. And he talked. A lot. In a sport filled with competitors who spend nearly half their lives in water, Stewart is refreshingly outspoken.

"The women have outdone us here," Stewart said. "This is probably the greatest women's team we've ever assembled -- and the best looking. I'm proud to be part of this team. In more ways than one."

Stewart fancies himself a rebel. Only in this sport, rebels are shuttled from one private school to the next. His father, Melvin Sr., was the athletic director for Jim and Tammy Bakker's Heritage USA theme park.

"I liked Jim Bakker," Stewart said. "But religion for profit is not something I support. If he had just stuck to television, he would have been OK."

A D-student when he began high school, Stewart was shipped north to Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy, 30 miles north of Hagerstown, Md. He eventually graduated with honors. He also picked up the hobby of cow tipping, shoving sleeping cattle in a pasture.

Despite the pranks, and the stylish GQ touches of wearing wire-rimmed glasses on the pool deck and driving a Porsche, Stewart is serious about his swimming. He went to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, with visions of glory. But he finished a badly beaten fifth behind Germany's Michael Gross in the 200 fly final.

"That race was devastating," he said. "I remember it right now. I remember looking up and seeing Gross waving his hands in slow motion. That drives me to improve. My goal before 1988 was just to make the Olympic team. But my goal this year is to be the best in the world."

Stewart won the 200 fly in the 1991 world championships, beating Gross and setting a world record of 1:55.69. In his drive to the Olympics, he decided to branch out, qualifying in the 100 fly and the 200 freestyle. By swimming more events, he figures, ** he improves his chances to win in the 200 fly.

Besides, he's angling for a date with the woman most likely to win gold in Barcelona -- Sanders.

"She's a nice girl," Stewart said. "Attractive. I'd like to go out with her. I've been known to grovel. I've been groveling for eight months."

Asked if she would go on a date with Stewart, Sanders laughed and said: "He doesn't talk to many of the girls. I don't know if he's afraid of us. Of course, if we went out, I wouldn't foot any of the bill."

To be continued.

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