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Original Issue


While yearning for another time in another place, Scotsman David Wilkie has carved a niche for himself at the University of Miami with his world-record swimming

Two summers ago Henry George Wilkie, a retired director of Brown & Company, Ltd., a British import-export firm, received word of his son David's selection to the All-America swimming team by something called the NCAA. This curious piece of intelligence left David's hometown of Aberdeen, Scotland perplexed, his parents nonplussed. Now what was a Scottish lad, clan Macdonald on both sides, doing on an All-America team? Not that Mr. Wilkie was worried. But he did give up his trips to the Highland trout streams and kept interrupting his wife's gardening until an exchange of transatlantic letters more or less sorted things out.

The Wilkies never did quite comprehend; they had to take it on faith that this NCAA business was another honor in the armful garnered by young David.

In recent years those honors, most notably a silver medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1972 Olympics, have come thick and fast, particularly since he enrolled at the University of Miami in 1973, joining Coach Bill Diaz' legion of foreign swimmers. In March them first-semester freshman beat his arch-rivals from Stanford, John (The Rocket Man) Hencken and perennial 200-yard breaststroke champion Brian Job, in the NCAA championships at Knoxville, Tenn. Five months later at Belgrade's world swimming championship Wilkie set a world record of 2:19.28 in the 200-meter breaststroke. Then last August at the European championship in Vienna he swam the 200-meter individual medley in 2:06.32, to add another world record to his collection. His triumph in this, the most versatile and demanding swimming event, was more than an embellishment. It firmly placed Scotland's David Wilkie center pool in international swimming.

One honor that followed needed no clarification to be understood by Mr. and Mrs. Wilkie: David was accorded the M.B.E. (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth. There was barely time to have the M.B.E. framed and hung before Hencken broke Wilkie's breaststroke record and USC's Steve Furniss tied his IM mark. With the 1975 collegiate season churning to its climax next week at the NCAA championships in Cleveland, Wilkie the pursued is now the pursuer girding himself for another go at Hencken and at the same time trying to stay No. 1 in the IM.

In a sport where records may last all of a minute, and preeminence is transitory, Wilkie is an anomaly. His moments of glory have inevitably been saved for the big meets and, wonder of wonders, David Andrew Wilkie improves with age.

Nonetheless, Scotland's anxiety over Wilkie is understandable. It could ill afford to lose a world sports hero of any description. Outside of a pair of world champion auto racers and a recent lightweight boxing champion, the rallying cry of "Scotland, the Brave" is nowadays most often an anguished shout of frustration. And as far as swimmers go, the firths and Highlands have proved to be a hostile environment. Before Wilkie, Scotland had produced only four world-class swimmers in the decades since World War II.

"A man has to be a hardy soul to swim outdoors at any time in Scotland," says another displaced Scot, Ian McCready, whose interest in aviation drew him to the Miami area. "Then again we don't have enough long baths [Olympic-size pools] to condition the lads for international competition." Despite the unfavorable climate and the lack of baths, David Wilkie has attained a proficiency in the water equaled only by half a dozen humans. "The Wilk is a solid blue-chipper," says Diaz. "All he is going to do is get better and better and better."

This bodes ill for the Henckens and Furnisses and well for Miami and Diaz, who says facetiously, "I am one of the few Puerto Ricans to make it." The combination of a Scot who prevailed and a Puerto Rican who made it has done wonders for the U. of Miami. Five years ago, when Diaz reluctantly agreed to leave Miami Springs High, the university had never scored a point at the NCAA championships. In 1973, with Wilkie leading a team heavy on Latin American Olympians and South Africans, Miami placed a creditable 12th and eight of its swimmers were designated All-Americas. Last year Diaz' protégés finished ninth in the NCAAs, and the authoritative monthly Swimming World picks them to hold that ranking in Cleveland.

Besides his Latin American pipeline, Diaz has a salesman's flair. For example, the outdoor training pool is bordered by cabanas and decorated by coeds in bikinis. "Our plant sells the program," says Diaz.

At first, the setting seemed a trifle alien to Wilkie, a 1972 graduate of Daniel Stewart College, an Edinburgh boarding school. Recently, he was passing through a breezeway en route to the student union and the pool. A loudspeaker in front of a booth for Aid to Israel blared Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, while a clutch of Cubans shrilled in Spanish. The multicultural din was shattering, but the Scot was oblivious to it. He was tuned in to his own thoughts.

Sitting by the pool, Wilkie said he had spent so much time in the water that he was slightly disoriented moving upright. "Look at my legs when I stand," he said. "They bow in." In truth, on land Wilkie has the appearance of some long-legged bird, a heron or ibis. At each step he seems to be waiting for a splash. Obviously, water is his preferred habitat, and although he has traveled around the world for competition, never had he seen anything like the Miami pool. "It's a distraction, but somehow a distraction I don't mind," he said, glancing at the non-bathing beauties.

Wilkie wears goggles in his races and these, along with an orange bathing cap, make up what he refers to as his "trademark." He is the first world-class swimmer to wear goggles in competition and the sci-fi effect delights him. The goggles, anyway, are practical, especially on the turns. They allow him to look quickly left and right for the opposition, like a man crossing Times Square keeping an eye out for the traffic. There is an art to this, and in the backstroke he had problems mastering it. At Belgrade, Wilkie was leading in the IM until the backstroke leg, when he became too involved with looking instead of anticipating the end of the pool, bashed his head and finished a dazed third.

He has yet to conk his skull in Miami practices, but he would be better advised to wear blinders, as would his teammates, for Diaz is an ardent champion of equal rights for women athletes. Miami has 12 girl swimmers on scholarship and the university's women's team is of national championship caliber. The best of the women work out with the men. No one is complaining, but some of the male swimmers find the mixed practices depressing. "It's scary," says one. "If we don't work hard enough, the girls are apt to beat us."

"It's different," says Wilkie. "In Scotland the coaches are so very dignified and serious. Here the coach wants to win badly but he believes in laughing and fun. When he says, 'Dave, baby, you're going to win,' I want to break up. But if you fail, Diaz is very understanding. He knows that you're upset. I respect him for it."

Wilkie appreciates Diaz for more than his gentle hand at coaching. They are simpatico. Despite gaps in age, culture and temperament, the 49-year-old Puerto Rican and the 20-year-old Scot have a strong mutual interest. They are both avowed team men. "It's touching to be with a team," says Wilkie. "There's a sense of closeness that I enjoy. You share a common, unselfish goal."

Without this sense of identity, Wilkie would be one lonely Scot. He certainly has little rapport with most of the Miami students, while the U.S. as a whole he finds totally bewildering.

"Oh, they're friendly enough, too bloody friendly," says Wilkie of his contemporaries. "But how does anyone know when he is put on?" His outlook on the country is equally bloody-minded. "The Watergate went on endlessly, and to what end?" he says. As a result, Wilkie chose to live in a news vacuum during his first few months in the U.S., apparently trying to ease the culture shock. "What bothers me most of all is the certainty about everything. This is a big, great country but how can Americans be so bloody positive, so certain that what they do has a divine direction? I guess I am a strange fish for these waters." After a pause he allows that David Wilkie could be an oddity in any environment: "I was even atypical of Scottish prep-school boys. I don't know who I am. I just know I'm a different person."

To begin with, Wilkie is a traditionalist, and you go on from there and arrive at a picture of a 19th century romantic. "The passing of tradition is tragic," he says bleakly. "People are already faceless, and soon they will be nameless. Even Scotland is affected, and Scots don't change quickly. I like the idea of the clans, just about anything that gives a man a strong sense of identification. Once the empire did that for the British, but it too is passing. The changes are difficult to accept."

Mementos are important to him. He has been an ocean distant from parents and home since he first left for prep school at age 11. Until three years ago, home was Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), where his father managed the Brown & Company interests. "In the last eight years I've spent a lot of time thinking of home, parents and friends," Wilkie says. "Of good times, of old times. That's why I like Burns' verse Auld Lang Syne. The New Year is treated very seriously in Scotland. It's called First Footing. Everybody visits friends at midnight and the host will offer you whiskey, shortbread and currant cake. In turn, you're meant to bring a gift. Anything will do: a lump of coal or kipper. In Ceylon everyone gathered at the club and would listen on the radio for Big Ben to strike the New Year from London. Big Ben would bong and the band would strike up Auld Lang Syne. It brings back old memories. In case you couldn't tell, I am an emotional, sentimental person."

In choosing a college, Wilkie was characteristically deliberate. It was no coach's siren song that brought him to Miami. In fact, Diaz barely had to exercise a vocal cord, thanks to Tyrone Tozer, Johannesburg's gift to the Miami coeds and one of Diaz' original recruits, who did most of the spadework, bending Wilkie"s ear at a Commonwealth meet. Tozer may have oversold the university. As salesmen are apt to do, Tyrone got carried away with his pitch. He related the classic tales of Sun Tan U., a sort of Arabian Nights with credits.

Miami has long since outgrown its frivolous image. It is a serious big city university with highly regarded programs in a number of fields. Miami academicians point out that the law school twice won the International Moot Court competition, that the university was one of a select few in the country to receive lunar samples for research and that one of its artists-in-residence is renowned concert pianist Ivan Davis.

In tune with most recruitments, fun and games were emphasized when Diaz flew Wilkie in from Scotland for a weekend late in the fall of 1972. "It's cheaper than flying a kid in from the West Coast," says the coach, who kept his contact with Wilkie down to a handshake and a few straight words.

In all probability, the weekend was no more than the average reception for a hot football prospect. To Wilkie it was an impressive do, with enough of a touch of the old Sun Tan U. to make Tozer's tales plausible. "I was overwhelmed," he says. "Tozer and Robert Vandermerwe, another South African swimmer, met me at the airport. Robert drove his own E-Type Jag while Tozer had a borrowed Corvette. I suppose I should have realized it was a bit much but, frankly, I was impressed." The social schedule was hectic; it was meant to be. There was a date with a Timet, one of the coeds who serve as timers at swim meets, a football game, parties and a stop at a Playboy Club. In the end Diaz was encouraged. Wilkie had been given a game football but left it behind saying he would reclaim it upon his return. "I mean the kid was telling us, Miami, I'm yours," said the coach.

Not quite. First Wilkie considered and weighed all his options. "Harvard was interested, but I understand that's a difficult school," he recalls thinking, "so if I had gone there, I probably would not swim." The University of Edinburgh was considered but dismissed. Wilkie needed a change of scene and, besides, the training conditions were dismal. Ultimately, he settled on Miami because he could have his course and swim, too. Miami's department of oceanography is preeminent, and Wilkie had planned to become a marine biologist. Since then his interests have changed and he is majoring in communications.

Although he never discovered the Miami marvels Tozer described, Wilkie is philosophical. "As it turns out, Tyrone told me a lot of rubbish," he says. "All about the good life, the fun and parties, that sort of thing. I suppose Tozer was just borrowing from the truth. Actually, he is a pleasant person and an excellent conversationalist."

Wilkie is not nearly as tolerant of "rubbish" as he sounds. Basically, he is a rather square, straight-down-the-middle Scot, although he has shoulder-length, sun-bleached hair and a wispy mustache, and his ready sense of humor saves him from being a bit much—or too unworldly—to take.

Recently, there was a rumor that beards and mustaches were to be outlawed during swimming season. Someone asked Wilkie if he expected to be exempted. "Not at all," he replied coolly. "This mustache only took 20 years. I suppose I have 20 left to grow another."

The British newspapers often refer to Wilkie as Jungle Boy because of his birthplace. Sri Lanka, in fact, explains much about the manner of today's Miami student. The 11 years he spent there did not prepare him for athletic stardom, American-style. The seven years he lived in a Scottish prep school were no help along those lines, either. He has no concept of the opportunities available to a "privileged athlete," and is amused by the attention he gets.

For his part, Diaz is baffled by Wilkie. "He's different, superintelligent, and take it from there," the coach says. "He's a puzzle, a definite puzzle, but I'm working on it. Give me time."

Wilkie is likely to be one Diaz puzzle that remains unsolved. While the coach was fighting his way to modest fame and fortune Wilkie was growing up colonial-style, with a Ceylonese nanny and a full staff of native servants. "The beach was just over the seawall from the club. It was the center of social activity," says Wilkie dreamily. "The building was a white colonial, with a large porch and a long run of green lawn. The adults sat in deck chairs sipping gin drinks or whiskey brought by servants in sarongs and white jackets with silver buttons. They were the ones dressed up, but we called them 'boys.' There were three pools and the beach for the kids to muck around on. It was the best of all times."

He means it and pines for an era of gracious living he believes has vanished with the empire, a loss that embittered his father, who was forced into a premature retirement. To David, East is best. He talks of a cleaner, greener land as if he were a retired pukka sahib. His favorite food is Ceylonese curry; haggis he was happy to leave behind in Scotland. Nothing measures up to Ceylon's standards, definitely not Miami's crowded beaches and polluted bay. "Ceylon is the land I identify with, the place I call home, where I want to be," he says.

All this despite the fact Wilkie has been gone from Ceylon for nine years, when he left for boarding school in Edinburgh. Actually, his mother and father brought him back and stayed a month while he settled in. "My father enrolled me in a swim club and bought me a membership at a place called The Warrender Bath Club, so I would have a chance to get away from school," he recalls.

The David Wilkie of this period would have been a stranger to the dedicated swimmer/student Bill Diaz knows. It was a time of aimless Holden Caulfield adventures. Indeed, Wilkie identifies with Caulfield, except that he never believed life was pointless. "I've always known what I'm doing, understood when something was wrong...but then I did it anyway," he says, refusing to find excuses. "I thieved, played hooky, went to the soccer matches, read comics and ate sweets at the cafeteria. Mostly, I just mucked around, losing all my money on pinball machines and hanging out at the carnival grounds."

At that point, Wilkie gave swimming less time than he did Stewart's College. "I wouldn't go to practice for months, and Frank Thomas, the coach, a good man, got disgusted with me." But the truancy slackened and interest increased after a victory over a more advanced swimmer. The triumph hardly rated headlines, but it was Wilkie's first successful response to a challenge.

Just before his turnaround, Wilkie had been a no-account freestyler. "You swim to win," he says, "and as a freestyler I was not making progress. Basically, I'm lazy, and there was nothing to move me, to push me. Almost immediately after I was switched to the breaststroke I improved, and my times have continued to drop. But that first time, there was a sense of power, an exaltation in winning. I had a sense of accomplishment, and suddenly I saw that I had a chance to achieve."

"He's got that mean streak great swimmers must have to succeed," says Diaz, who claims Wilkie is one of those able to fight through the pain barrier. "It cannot be done unless you're mad—which I am not," counters Wilkie, rejecting the pain "rubbish".

However, his success in the breast-stroke could be in part a matter of a body peculiarly adapted to the event. The breaststroke is swimming's slowest competitive race, yet perhaps the most difficult. The effort is enormously painful, for the stroke makes no allowance for the structure of the human form. Anatomically, the body was not meant to move in the manner prescribed. The rules demand that a portion of the head always be out of the water; meanwhile, the hands and arms must move simultaneously and always horizontally. Freelancing right or left in the slightest degree is disallowed. Moreover, the legs and feet must go through the same simultaneous horizontal rigmarole. And there is an added fillip: the feet must be turned out at the back of the kick. That is what the rules decree, but in practice allowances are made for creative stroking. The butterfly is a spin-off of the breaststroke, an attempt by officials to pin down a narrow interpretation. Yet the variations go on. Some critics claim the Japanese 200-meter Olympic bronze medal winner, Nobutaka Taguchi, should have been disqualified at Munich. "Technically, none of us measured up to a stiff standard," says Wilkie. "We all could have gotten the boot.

"That race revealed all the incredible problems of judging the breaststroke. There is a different style and approach in each country. It's amazing. Hencken was essentially all arms, the Japanese had what amounted to a modified dolphin kick and I depended on my legs."

Wilkie probably comes as close as a man can to conforming to the rules. All of his assorted parts, which were not intended for running, jumping or punching volleyballs, come together for the breast-stroke's contortions.

Diaz enthuses—no, rhapsodizes—about his star's highly floatable skinny body, but it is Wilkie's legs that do the job; elongated, concave limbs with a heavy cap of muscle extending over the knee, and ankles loose enough to rotate in a full circle. When Hencken and Wilkie meet, it is pull against kick. Of late pull has won out. As he stands waiting for the gun and the plunge, Wilkie's fists are clenched. He has nothing to say to his opponents. "In the water they are my enemies, and I don't want any pleasant thoughts to disturb the image," he says. As he waits, Wilkie thinks. "I review the field and my strategy. I know Hencken is going to bomb, take it out so fast he'll open a depressing water gap between us. It's his psych. I've got to bomb with him, stay close and then come on, kick home."

At Belgrade, Hencken was expecting Wilkie but could not hold off his charge. A British coach claims the Rocket's arms died in the stretch. More accurately, the record pace killed both swimmers. "I was no better off," says Wilkie. "My arms were dead and my legs didn't feel much livelier." But Wilkie managed to win by a finger-touch in a race in which both men beat 2:20.

Even the moment of glory after the race is often dim and warped by pain. Yet one question has never crossed Wilkie's mind—is it worth it? Worth it! David Wilkie won his Olympic medal on his father's birthday. Afterward, Henry Wilkie told his son it was the best present he could imagine. It had eased the bitterness of recent events.

For Wilkie, the unabashed sentimentalist, the poignant moments have accumulated with the victories. And no moment was as thrilling as when he stood on the victory stand at Belgrade. "I was delirious, shocked out of my mind to think I had broken the world record," he said recently. "Then they raised the Union Jack and played God Save the Queen. Suddenly I realized all the Aussies and Canadians were singing. Although I had been thrilled by the record, now I was touched emotionally. To me it was a rare display of empire unity. A moment I won't forget."

After a pause, David Wilkie, whose shoulders could well be slumping under the load he carries—the combined hopes of Britain, Scotland, Sri Lanka, Miami, father, mother and coach—said, "But I guess in the end I would have to say I swim for myself. I swim for David Wilkie."