Midway through his career at the University of California-Berkeley, Roque Santos searched for something, anything, that would inject new life into his swimming.
He found it 3,000 miles away, in Maryland, where Jozsef Nagy, a Hungarian, was training Potomac's Mike Barrowman, who during that summer of 1989 would break the world record for the 200-meter breaststroke.
"I wanted to try something different," Santos said. "It was a lot different -- a lot of breaststroke training and a lot of racing one-on-one against Mike. Obviously, I didn't beat him much."
Last month, almost three years after his first summer of swimming under Nagy, Santos edged Barrowman when it counted. At the U.S. Olympic Trials, Santos and Barrowman finished one-two in the 200 breaststroke, separated by a mere 4/100ths of a second. Both thereby qualified for the Olympics this summer in Barcelona, Spain.
James Roque Santos (he goes by his Portuguese middle name) gave a clinic at the Severna Park YMCA Sunday for Maryland Masters swimmers going to the YMCA National Masters Championships this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
He demonstrated, among other things, the revolutionary breaststroke developed by Nagy. Called the Hungarian Wave, it involves a lunge forward over the water during the recovery phase. It was by using Nagy's method that Barrowman was able to keep lowering the world record, currently at 2:10.60.
Santos' improvement has been just as dramatic. In his first summer under Nagy, Santos lowered his 200 breast time five seconds -- but was still five seconds behind Barrowman.
A year later, in 1990, he shaved another second off his time, another second the following year and two more in his victory in the Olympic Trials over Barrowman.
Since 1989, Santos' time has dropped nine seconds, to 2:13.50. Although that was good enough to beat Barrowman by 4/100ths of a second in the Trials, it was almost three seconds above his world record.
"Mike said he simply had a horrible race," Santos said. "That will give him more incentive in Barcelona. He knows now he's not invincible.
"Two weeks after the Trials, his dad died. That's even more incentive. A great athlete is able to look at bad things, put them in perspective and use them to their advantage."
Nagy coaches his breaststrokers at pools in the suburban Washington area. It is a small group of four or five that includes Spain's Sergio Lopez, the 1988 Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 breast.
Santos' upset of Barrowman in the Trials by no means assures him of Olympic gold. At least six 200 breaststrokers with better times than his will be in the hunt -- two from Hungary, two from Spain, one from Great Britain and, of course, Barrowman.
"Guys from China or Australia could move in, too, so I can't waste time worrying about other swimmers," Santos said. "My concern is myself. If I do my best time, maybe I'll win -- or maybe I'll be eighth."