Skip to main content
Original Issue

A Little Water Music, Please

The University of Florida's Craig Beardsley, who bows a mean cello, swims the 200 fly faster than anyone in the world

During World War I, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank a Scandinavian freighter in the north Bering Strait, leaving Chief Engineer Reinhardt von Dohn and his mates in the icy water. Von Dohn, a 6'7", 300-pound Dane who had once rescued the entire crew of an overturned schooner single-handedly, instructed two of his shipmates to grab hold of his back. They did. With the two men in tow, von Dohn then swam and swam and swam—for eight hours, or so the story goes—until another ship picked them up. By then, one of the men on von Dohn's back had died. The rest of the crew had drowned.

"Quite a story, isn't it?" says Russ Beardsley, 54, von Dohn's 6'1½", 252-pound grandson, in the living room of the Beardsley home in Harrington Park, N.J. He has recounted the exploit with pride—and with a point. "Yes, there must be something in the genes," says his wife, Jeanne, a tiny, bespectacled woman who was born in China. The room is decorated with swimming medals and plaques and trophies. "Yes, a gene," she says. "Craig must have inherited from the grandfather."

Craig is the Beardsleys' slightly chubby 21-year-old son, a senior at the University of Florida. He's also the best 200 butterfly swimmer in the world. Says Randy Hart, the information director of U.S. Swimming and an authority on just about every swimmer since von Dohn, "Beardsley is just awesome. Just awesome." Too true. Beardsley hasn't lost a 200 fly—in either meters or yards—since Mike Bruner, then the world-record holder, beat him at the April 1980 nationals. That's more than 40 consecutive wins in two years. "Craig has won races from behind, from in front, from any angle you can," says Florida Coach Randy Reese. "No matter where he is at the 100 mark in a 200 fly, he knows he can pull it out. His opponents know that, too."

Twice Beardsley has lowered the 200-meter world record, by a stunning total of 1.22 seconds. The mark now stands at 1:58.01. "Just think, .02 faster and I'd be the first person to break 1:59 and the first to break 1:58," Craig says with gee-whiz excitement. "Wouldn't that be great?" Beardsley, the only American at last January's U.S. Swimming International meet in Gainesville, Fla. to establish a world best (the equivalent, in a short pool, of a world record), is considered a cinch to extend his string of 200 fly victories at this weekend's NCAA championships in Brown Deer, Wis. "The streak gets me kind of nervy at times," says Beardsley, who, to tell the truth, seems fidgety at all times. "But somebody will beat me somewhere, sometime, and it won't be the end of the world."

Beardsley doesn't have his great-grandfather's size—he's only 5'11", 160—but he certainly has the von Dohn stamina. He can hold his stroke, swimming's most exhausting, over extraordinary distances. "Craig's best event would be a 10,000-meter fly—or farther," says his father, a New York City audio dealer and his son's most avid fan. In a 6,000-yard workout, Craig will swim more than 2,000 yards of fly, and do most of it at or near race pace. Only women's world-record holder Mary T. Meagher, the remarkable 17-year-old butterflyer from Louisville, Ky., trains comparably.

"The hard work comes from a Chinese gene," says Russ. "Give his mother an eight-hour job and she's looking for more work." Indeed, since escaping to America from Shanghai in 1948, only days before the Communists took over that city—"I was on the last boat out," she says, "a slow boat"—Jeanne Loh Beardsley has earned two college degrees, become an outstanding pianist and served as a head librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. Like Craig and his sister Karen, a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, she maintains a pace that falls between fast and frenetic. "Every one of those three is nervous and jerky," says Russ, a workaholic of more stolid mien, who has built a thriving three-store audio business from scratch.

Craig's success, however, involves more than moil. "I swim flatter than most butterflyers," he explains. "Some people say you want body undulation. But I think you want your force to move you forward, not up and down. I try to kick back instead of up and down, and with my arms I try to push myself ahead, not lift myself up out of the water." Beardsley is pigeon-toed, and keeping his feet together and pointed inward enhances his kick. "Craig is also less muscled than your average butterflyer," says Reese, being polite. "That keeps him from tying up over long distances."

"I just have a gut," says Beardsley, whose teammates call him Buddha. "I've always had a gut. I think it floats me."

Beardsley also has an ingenuous candor that ranges from refreshing ("The one thing I can't stand is getting into a cold pool, especially in the morning," he says. "But it's a great cure for a hangover") to downright disarming ("One time this guy I know shaved everything before a meet—even his pubic hair. Boy, he was sorry. That stuff doesn't grow back real fast"). He'll talk your ear off, but without boast or pretension: He's still awestruck, it seems, by the fact that he's the world's best anything.

Until he enrolled at Florida, Beardsley had never swum for a school team. His schools didn't have swimming teams. For eight years he attended New York's United Nations International School, where his only competitive activity was playing the cello. "I remember I took group lessons with these twin brothers," he says, "and I always wanted to beat them so bad. I had to be better." He must have succeeded because he became first cello in the school orchestra and was later asked to study at the Manhattan School of Music, an honor he passed up. Beardsley also learned to speak French and Chinese at the U.N. school, and studied calculus in the seventh grade. "It sailed right through my head," he says.

In this period Craig attended operas and concerts with his family. "We've always been musical," he says. "My mom plays piano, I play cello, Karen plays violin and Dad plays the radio." Russ Beardsley had no trouble obtaining Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall tickets because his audio stores—"the sort of places where you'll spend $15,000 or $20,000 on a visit," he says—have a clientele that has included Ira Gershwin, Zubin Mehta and half the New York Philharmonic. (Not to mention Rodney Dangerfield and, through an agreement with the Topps baseball card people, major-leaguers like Reggie Jackson.) In fact, Russ's business dealings with United Nations delegates are what helped get his two children into the U.N. school. It didn't hurt, either, that Jeanne's father was a prominent educator and government official in China.

Craig developed a cultural and intellectual eclecticism that is still evident: In his room at Gainesville are hundreds of jazz, rock and classical record albums, and, right next to scores by Vivaldi, Brahms and Saint-Saëns, surfing magazines and dozens of science-fiction novels. In one breath he'll talk about the Soviet black market in Western jeans and clothing and in the next describe a Japanese wet T shirt contest.

The U.N. school had one drawback. It left the 10-year-old Beardsley with very few friends when his family moved from New York City to New Jersey and he and his sister commuted to school. "Craig was very, very introverted at that time," says his father. "We encouraged him to start swimming so that he'd mix with people his own age. As it turned out, swimming gave him a handle on life."

From the beginning Beardsley did well in the pool, winning the 8-to-10-year-old 50-yard butterfly event at the Bergen County age-group meet in his first year of competition. But his lungs would often fill with fluid during a workout and he would have difficulty breathing. "Craig was allergic to every tree in New Jersey," says his mother. Pools were scarce in the area and often as frigid as the Bering Strait, and the chlorine made Beardsley's jet-black hair turn frizzy and blond. Students at Old Tappan High, which he attended from 1974 to '78, accused him of using peroxide. "I knew white hair was genetically impossible," says Russ, turning to his wife. "I thought maybe someone had slipped into your household."

Russ was for some time the main force behind Craig's swimming. For several years he drove his son from a 5 a.m. swim workout at a pool in Ridgewood, N.J., to 8 a.m. classes at the U.N. school and then back to a 4 p.m. workout in New Jersey. "There were a few February mornings I could have lived without," the elder Beardsley says.

Only once did Russ play the pushy poolside parent, and that was when he made the 11-year-old Craig run 1½ miles every afternoon to supplement his swimming. "The neighborhood kids would ride alongside me on their bicycles yelling, 'Hurry, hurry,' " says Craig. "It was bizarre."

Swimming for the Dolphin Aquatic Club of Ridgewood, Beardsley attained a national age-group ranking in the 200 fly at 13, and by 1977, three years later, he was ninth in the U.S. and 13th in the world in the event. But then his performances leveled off. "He wasn't motivated to win, but only to keep from looking bad," says his father.

"I was down on swimming," says Craig. "I needed a totally fresh start." He got that start in the fall of 1978, when he joined Reese at Florida, passing up offers from Texas and Indiana. "I figured it would be a great change," Beardsley says. "Sun, beaches, surfing, red-necks, pickup trucks...."

During his freshman year Beardsley made what Reese calls his "big breakthrough," in a meet against Tennessee. "Craig had been sick for three days, and on the day of the meet he had a fever and was throwing up," says Reese. "But he wanted a go anyway. He ended up swimming the fastest [200-yard fly] time in a dual meet in the country. It was 1:47.2, which was unheard-of for a dual meet." Beardsley went on to win the 200 fly at the 1979 Pan Am Games and, at the August 1980 Olympic Trials in Irvine, Calif., he broke Bruner's world record. "It's funny," Craig says. "That and my second world record [last summer in Kiev] were the two easiest swims of my life." The Olympic Trials victory was especially rewarding because it gave Beardsley a chance to tour the People's Republic of China with the U.S. national team. "Mom had heard about the trip and written to all her relatives over there," says Beardsley. "I'd have been in trouble if I hadn't made it."

Beardsley was a celebrity among literally hundreds of Chinese relatives, whom his mother hasn't seen since 1948. Unfortunately, the only butterfly races swum in the Chinese meets were 100s, and Beardsley finished second in every one to teammate William Paulus, now the world-record holder at that distance. "It was embarrassing," says Beardsley. "They'd get to me in the pre-race introductions and talk on and on, for about five minutes, with the crowd cheering. Then I'd lose." What mortified Jeanne Beardsley were the photographs of her son with his hair down to his shoulders. "My relatives, oooh, what did they think?" she groans. She should be grateful they didn't see Craig in Canton, when the U.S. team held its own Gong Show. While four of his male teammates in punk outfits stood behind him singing the Kinks' song Lola ("...girls will be boys and boys will be girls..."), Beardsley acted out the lyrics, wearing heavy makeup, a wraparound skirt, a tissue-stuffed bikini bra and his hair in braids. "We won the show," he says.

After that performance, the only person who still considers Craig introverted is his girl friend, Florida swimmer Rosie Brown. "We shared the same lane in practice for a year before he said a word to me," she says. Brown, a native of Brisbane, Australia, who swam freestyle events at the Moscow Olympics, belongs to one of Australia's better-known families. One of her sisters is a leading model there and the weather girl on national television, and the other is married to Dick Crealy, an Australian tennis player. Rosie wants to go into broadcasting herself, though probably in the U.S. "My father can't understand me over the phone anymore," she says. "He claims that I've got a horrible American accent."

The couple has gone together for a year and a half with the blessing of Reese, who normally discourages romance between team members. During that time Beardsley has won one NCAA and two national titles. "It surely hasn't hurt," says Craig. He has taught her how to use chopsticks; she has taught him Australian slang.

In Gainesville, Beardsley rents a remarkably messy slab house with three current or former Florida swimmers. "The roaches pay nothing," says Rosie, who lives in a dorm. What amazes Beardsley's roommates, as it always has his parents, is his appetite. "I'd leave the house after cooking a three-pound roast for dinner," says his mother, "and when I'd come back a few hours later the whole roast would be gone."

"I've counted him eating 25,000 to 30,000 calories in a single day," says Russ. "We even took him to a doctor to see if something was wrong. It's just all that swimming. If he stops for a week, he'll put on 15 pounds."

Oddly, when he came to Florida, Beardsley was too light; he once had to slip a 2½-pound weight down the back of his suit at a team weigh-in to avoid getting in dutch with Reese. These days he munches Oreos while he studies, and knows every all-you-can-eat deal in town, from the Holiday Inn West's $3.25 breakfast buffet to Papa Jay's $2.89 fried chicken special. "The best place to go is Burrito Brothers," he says. "They've got the biggest burritos you've ever seen."

Beardsley rides a motorcycle around campus, but plans to sell it. It isn't adequate to carry his surfboard, his cello or Rosie. "My father gave me a choice between a motorcycle and a home computer as a reward for my world record last summer," says Beardsley. "I made a stupid choice." A business major, he hopes to become his father's partner someday and work with the small computers that are Russ's newest line. But until the 1984 Olympics, Craig intends to stay at Florida and train.

"People ask Rosie and me, 'If you get married and have kids, what'll they look like?' " says Beardsley, whose family is already a melting pot. Russ Beardsley has a half-Chinese step-brother named Elliott Chan, and Jeanne Beardsley has relatives who live in Peru. "Well, we don't have any wedding plans or anything yet," says Craig. "We're both pretty busy now. What I have are a lot of swimming plans." And those are big plans, indeed.



Beardsley and Brown get along just swimmingly.


Craig kids around in the pool with Florida star Tracy Caulkins.


Beardsleys at home: Russ reads, Karen fiddles, Jeanne tickles ivories, Travis dogs it.