Stewart is a killer on the flake circuit

Ken Rosenthal

July 28, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

BARCELONA, Spain -- He leaves tickets for Elvis and Sheena Easton. He lists cow tipping as a hobby. He wants to meet Charles Barkley.

America, get ready for Melvin Stewart. He didn't win either of the U.S. swimming gold medals last night, but his big day is coming. Get ready, you're going to love this guy.

His father was recreation director for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Heritage USA theme park. His mother used to make him recite Scripture. But somehow, Melvin grew up a flake.

Last night, he finished fifth in the men's 100-meter butterfly, the event won by U.S. teammate Pablo Morales. No problem: Melvin is the world record-holder in the 200.

That race is Thursday, and Melvin intends to atone for his crushing fifth-place finish in 1988. He doesn't just visualize beating opponents anymore. He visualizes killing them.

Not killing, as in trouncing.

Killing, as in murder.

Melvin, 23, might be the son of fundamentalist Christians, but who would know? He nearly was expelled from boarding school for getting caught on a late-night visit to his girlfriend.

"Someone said I was naked," Melvin explained recently in an effort to set the record straight. "I was not naked. I was wearing boxers."

The incident occurred 20 miles northwest of Hagerstown, in Pennsylvania Amish country, at a rather exclusive place known as the Mercersburg Academy.

Melvin's family couldn't afford the tuition, room and board, now $15,500 a year. It all was paid for by George Baxter, a wealthy benefactor from his hometown of Charlotte, N.C.

Melvin's parents aren't in Barcelona, but Baxter and his wife Ruth are. "He gave me my education," says Melvin, now at Tennessee. "I'm going to give him my 200 gold medal."

But enough sentiment.

Back to Mercersburg.

"My teachers were -- how shall I say it? -- they were very tolerant," Melvin says. "I had no attention span whatsoever. Fifty-nine was failing and 60 was passing. I'd get a 60."

In fact, according to a school official who pulled his records, Melvin finished with a 68 average the year he repeated 10th grade. He improved to 73 as a junior, 76 as a senior.

Anyway, Melvin recalls going to his academic adviser's office, and hearing him humiliate the honors student who was just ahead in line.

"He'd be yelling at him, 'You're slipping, you've got to get your grades up,' " Melvin says.

Then Melvin would enter.

"He'd jump up, shake my hand and say, 'Mel, you passed.' "

The adviser's name was Tom Rahauser, and today Melvin cites him as an inspiration. Mercersburg, with 400 students from 28 states and 30 countries, remains equally fond of Melvin.

"He's an original," says the school's headmaster, Walter Burgin. "He was not a good student when he began, but he became one. He's a very enjoyable guy.

"Some of that is put on: Underneath there's a genuinely serious side. But he likes to do attention-getting things."

Take Melvin's interest in dating bombshell U.S. female swimmer Summer Sanders. He joked about it at first, but then he thought, why not?

"She's bright. She's attractive. She's a 200 butterflier," Melvin says. "We could propagate an incredible 200 flier."

That's our Melvin, who as a boy swam in the pool underneath PTL's television studio. Jim Bakker would tell him, "Someday, you're going to have to teach me that butterfly stroke."

Melvin never did -- "I've become very wary of people who practice religion for profit" -- but Bakker can turn on his prison TV Thursday if he still wants that lesson.

"I get so wound up, I don't feel my feet touching the ground, and my fingertips tingle," Melvin says. "It's truly an emotional burst."

Not surprisingly, Melvin crashed hard after failing to win a medal in '88. It was then he started visualizing the murder of Olympic champion Michael Gross.

Fortunately, he chose a healthier outlet, beating Gross to set the world record at the 1991 world championships. This year, he was so focused, he couldn't even enjoy his two three-day breaks.

"After two days," he says, "I'd get headaches."

He swims again Thursday. The way things are going, U.S. swimming might need a lift. Get ready for Melvin, America. He's moving in for the kill.

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