Skip to main content
Original Issue

Putting His Back Into His Work

Intense, driven Rick Carey, a world record backstroker, goes all out for perfection in everything he does

As though assembling a flesh-and-blood jigsaw puzzle, Jack and Jean Carey sit in their living room, piecing together memories, anecdotes and bits of psychological insight. Their five-bedroom home in Mount Kisco, N.Y. is a child-worn testament to family life, lorded over by Max the golden retriever and Jeremiah the overweight beagle. The Careys, teachers both, are familiar with all the foibles of youth, and they've raised four children of their own, but they're having trouble this winter afternoon explaining their 21-year-old son, Rick. "He's just always been intense," says Jean.

Rick, a junior at the University of Texas, is the fastest backstroker ever, a world and Pan Am Games gold medalist and 10-time NCAA or U.S. national champion who last year smashed his sport's longest-standing world records, the 100-and 200-meter backstroke marks set by John Naber at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and was named World Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine. Last winter Carey established U.S. short-course records five times in a 25-yard pool, then, during the summer, he lowered Naber's long-course world records a total of four times, from 55.49 to 55.44 to 55.38 to 55.19 and 1:59.19 to 1:58.93. Says Naber, "To use The Right Stuff vernacular, he's pushing back the envelope of the backstroke."

Yet Carey is by his own description a swimming "outsider." Neither chlorine nor sun could ever bleach his jet-black hair to a swimmer's greenish-blond. He never surfed, waterskied or hung out at the beach. Carey grew up in Mount Kisco, 30 miles north of New York City, and for years did two-a-day workouts in the area's small, often cold, indoor pools. "Physically he doesn't even look like a swimmer," says Rowdy Gaines, the 100-meter freestyle world-record holder and Carey's training partner at Texas. "He's got a little belly on him and he looks kind of stocky. But his muscles are deceivingly well-placed."

Naber was the backstroking prototype: 6'6" and 195 pounds, lanky and long-armed. Carey is 5'11¾" and 185, with well-muscled arms. "He's probably got the greatest upper-body strength of any competitive swimmer in the world," says Jack Carey. Indeed, Rick's power lifts him high in the water, exposing broad yet exceptionally flexible shoulders. "Ricky's shoulders are double-jointed or something," says his lifelong coach, John Collins of the Larchmont, N.Y.-based Badger Swim Club. "He's able to really dig down and grab the water behind him. His knees are hyperextensive, like [Mark] Spitz's, which gives him more whip action on his kick."

This much, at least, is certain: Carey, who next week leads the Longhorns against favored Stanford at the NCAA meet in Cleveland, is the nation's top college swimmer. When he's competing at the U.S. nationals for Badger, Carey is the most dominant swimmer, male or female, regardless of event. For this summer's Olympics in Los Angeles, he is America's surest bet to win an individual swimming gold medal—or two.

But both in and away from the pool, Collins says, "Rick has always been his own worst enemy." Most people find him confoundingly hard to pin down and intensely private. "Sometimes you'll find him sitting in his apartment alone, just staring at a wall," says a friend. "He spends a lot of time just thinking." Carey is not only extremely bright—he's an aerospace engineering major with a passion for his home computer—but also self-critical, moody, blunt, serious, stubborn, sensitive and hot-tempered. Some have misinterpreted Carey's shyness as conceit, even rudeness. "When I met him I was like everybody else," says Gaines. "I thought he was a cocky son of a bitch. It took time to learn that he isn't."

What keeps alive the reputation for arrogance is Carey's competitive fury. At last year's NCAAs in Indianapolis, Stanford's Dave Bottom twice broke Carey's U.S. 100-yard back record of 48.80 on relay leadoff legs. Carey stormed about the deck, upset both at losing the record and at what he deemed to be Bottom's illegal turns. "He's not touching the wall with his hand," Carey fumed. "He's not touching———!" Carey promised his Texas teammates that he would regain the American mark in the 100-yard back finals. And so he did, with a vengeance, in 48.25, leaving Bottom more than a body length behind. "I wanted to convince him the record was mine," says Carey. The next day, for good measure, he whipped Bottom again in the 200 back final, lowering his own U.S. mark by .14.

For better or worse, Carey's emotional furnace has always burned hot. "He's a textbook example of extremes at work," says Naber. "He doesn't feel apathetic about anything. His world is black and white." Carey is deeply loyal to his family and a few close friends; his strong encouragement kept Gaines from retiring during a slump last summer. But Carey can also be obsessive. He comes back and crushes any rival swimmer who, like Bottom, dares to break one of his records or beat him even once, and he can be just as viciously competitive in practice. "When it comes down to it, Rick would give you the shirt off his back," says Gaines. "But he also has a way of making you incredibly teed off." In his younger and wilder days, Carey regularly strained Collins' patience with poolside tantrums that included goggle throwing and even an angry walk off the deck during a meet. "He was a little on the obnoxious side," says Collins. Carey has matured considerably since then, but even today Collins refers, only half jokingly, to his prized swimmer's "neurotic" tendencies.

Which is what Jack and Jean Carey have been gently treading around in their living-room discourse. It's clear by now that their son has drawn character in equal measure from two loving and proud but oddly matched parents. Jack Carey, who stands 6'2" and weighs 220 pounds, has a long white mane, a Fu Manchu mustache and a ruddy face. He's boisterous, opinionated, tartly profane. A seventh-grade math teacher in the local public school system, Jack commutes to work on a Honda 750 motorcycle. Jean Carey, in contrast, is a slight, quiet woman, an extraordinarily intent listener. "She has kind of a gypsyish quality about her," Collins has said. "It wouldn't surprise me if she took out a deck of Tarot cards and started reading your fortune." Several years ago, Jean, a first-grade instructor, tried to introduce her son. to "pyramid power" (he wasn't interested), and she once gave him two tiny black stones called Apache tears to relieve anxiety and stress. (Rick carried them around in his pocket for two years before giving them away.) She, too, rides a motorcycle, though not to school. "I don't know if the principal could handle it," Jean says.

Handling Rick is another delicate matter. "I guess you know Ricky's had some problems with the press," Jack says. Indeed, though Rick is articulate, analytical and generally cooperative, he has left verbal scorch marks on more than one shocked reporter. A few years back he lit into Frank Litsky of The New York Times, who'd written that Carey "seems to work extra hard in the water. His head bobs and his shoulders roll." After that, for reasons unrelated to the incident, the Times didn't send a staff reporter to a swim meet for more than two years; other swimmers, however, blamed Carey for having driven the paper away. "He wrote that I 'thrashed in the water,' " Carey recalls. "All my friends gave me a hard time about it. My girl friend even called me and said, 'I didn't know you thrashed.' "

"It started locally," Jack says. "The local paper would print something that made Ricky look foolish, and his friends would come at him about it. From then on, if there was ever a misquote, a mistake on the writer's part, Ricky would be hard-pressed to have anything to do with that person again.

"Ricky has these standards that everyone has to meet. Reporters, friends, everybody. Especially himself. They're unbelievably high standards." Jack pauses, realizing, perhaps, that this is the crux of the matter. "I guess you could say Ricky's not a very tolerant person. He allows no error in himself, and he expects none in anyone else."

The phone rings. It's Rick, calling from school. He's supposed to meet his younger sister, Lee, 19, a Texas sophomore, at the Austin airport this afternoon; he wants to know when she left New York. "Lee and Ricky have gotten closer to each other down at Texas," says Jean when she returns from the phone. "They used to compete against each other all the time. Of course, Lee was a swimmer, too. But now they shop together, eat together...."

Of the Careys' four children—two boys and two girls—only Rick, the next-to-youngest, was a fully gifted athlete. Lee and her sister, Leslie, 23, swam until they became interested in other things. Oldest son Michael, now 25 and a junior at Arizona, played lacrosse and was an outstanding football player in high school, a 6'5", 230-pound lineman with speed. Rick put all his athletic abilities into swimming. He had such talent and desire that by 13 he was ranked No. 1 in the nation in his age group for the 100-yard backstroke. And when he was 14 he was ranked No. 1 in the country in both the 100-and 200-meter backstroke, setting national age-group records of 59.77 and 2:08.12, which still stand. "I remember he'd lie over the seat of a kitchen chair before supper because he'd practiced so hard his stomach hurt," says Jean. "He would never ease up."

Ironically, Rick had taken up swimming to learn how to lose: His fifth-grade gym teacher had sent the Careys a stern note complaining that their 10-year-old became enraged any time he lost; Jack and Jean decided a dose of competitive swimming—and, briefly, diving—would solve that. "The joke was on us," says Jack. "He never lost."

Collins and his assistant coach, Bill Stremmel, were immediately impressed by Carey's natural stroke, tremendous flexibility and ability to handle massive quantities of backstroke work. Carey swam as much as 80% of his yardage using the stroke, and once he did a six-mile backstroking time trial. "He had a lane to himself," recalls Collins. "No one could swim with him—he was that fast. We'd have Carey in one lane, five people in another lane, eight in another, and so on. The pool was crowded, but no one could swim with Rick unless they could keep up. Rick wouldn't tolerate them. He'd run them out."

At age 15 Carey qualified for his first senior nationals, the 1978 U.S. short-course championships in Austin. Easily the meet's youngest male swimmer, he "froze up," in Jack's words, finishing 48th among 53 entries in the 200 back and 42nd among 55 swimmers in the 100 back. An unfortunate pattern was beginning. "After that, Ricky finished in the top eight in every national he went to," says Jack. "But he'd qualify first in the heats, then finish fourth in the finals. He'd qualify second and finish fifth. He'd qualify first and finish third. It was starting to be talked about."

Actually, Carey's performances were remarkable for someone his age, and that's what was being talked about. Jesse Vassallo, who was soon to become world champion in the 200 back, introduced himself to Jack Carey on a pool deck one day in 1978 and said, "Your son is coming after me, isn't he?"

Naber met Rick that same year, at the short-course nationals in Austin, and told him, "Someday you're going to break my world records." Carey's reaction, recalls Naber, was one of "quiet aloofness, as if to say, 'Don't bother me, I'm trying to swim hard.' "

But two years later, at the long-course meet in Austin, Carey, then 17, was blown out of the water in the finals of the 100. The pattern was continuing. He was disconsolate. That night before dinner, as his father was parking their car outside a Wendy's, Rick uncharacteristically opened up. "I can't hit the big ones, Dad, I choke," he said.

Jack Carey was adamant. "You don't choke."

"I do," said Rick tearfully. "I don't have any social life. I'm tired of swimming. All I do is swim. And when I get to the big ones, I choke."

The two sat there for hours. The restaurant closed before they got inside. "We talked and talked," says Jack. "Ricky pounded the dashboard, and he put his head down, and he cried a little bit. He finally got it all out."

Carey's body continued to mature, and four months after the Wendy's episode he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the 100 back at Irvine, Calif. That was the turning point for Rick. In December of 1980 he set his first American record, a 200-meter short-course mark, at a meet in Toronto.

Four months after that he broke one of Naber's records for the first time, shaving .09 off his 200-yard mark at the short-course nationals at Harvard. The choking stigma was gone. Soon Carey was on his way to Texas to join the defending NCAA champion Longhorns. "When it came to picking schools, Ricky told me he didn't want to be the big fish in a small pond," says Jack Carey. "At the time, Texas was the biggest pond around. But what Ricky didn't realize then"—and here Jack flashes a broad smile—"was that he was going to be the biggest fish in any pond."

Half a year has passed since Rick Carey became that biggest fish, since his three world-record swims at the U.S. Long-Course championships in Fresno, Calif. and his two world records (including a relay) at the Pan Am Games in Caracas. A pre-Olympic media blitz has come and gone, Carey having cut off virtually all interviews weeks ago. It's now a February evening in Austin, and Rick is sitting on the floor of his small, sparsely decorated college apartment, watching TV.

Rick, his sister Lee and a friend, Mike Wilson, have just finished off plates of Hamburger Helper. Last night's snack was two cans of refrigerated rolls. "We went shopping today," Lee says cheerily, but all there is to show for it is about two gallons of Diet Coke in the refrigerator. On the floor Rick is draining a two-liter bottle himself, sometimes using a glass, sometimes swigging straight from the jug. Avoiding, refined sugar, it seems, is as much a part of his fitness program as the push-ups he does in the weight room.

This is the simple, private life-style that Carey cherishes. He and Lee share a 1980 Dodge Colt, but often Rick walks—not to the bars of Sixth Street in Austin (he doesn't touch alcohol) nor even to classes (he's on a self-paced program that will allow him to return to Mount Kisco in April and train with Collins for the Olympic Trials). He walks the short, well-trodden path from his apartment to the UT Swim Center and back. At the pool his only relief from the monotony of training is the sarcastic humor of Longhorn coach Eddie Reese ("I said swim slow, that isn't fast enough to be slow"). At home Carey has his real pleasures: his chess set, his science-fiction and fantasy novels and his computer. His next-door neighbors are also good friends, a couple of wild and crazy New Yorkers, Ed Butowsky and Danny Magnus. "We call this little area the Bronx," says Butowsky. "We're on a mission from Ed Koch." Both try to coax Carey into a more active social life, to no avail. "Last Texan we lynched, he didn't want to come along," jokes Butowsky.

Instead, Rick spends long hours with his computer, doing engineering homework, playing video games, using it to create unusual designs that he prints out and sends to his mom. While Carey has grown tired of swimming to the point where he's eager to retire from the sport and begin a normal social life, he never wearies of sitting at his computer.

At his apartment this night, Rick is content with TV and Diet Coke. The Winter Olympics are being shown on ABC, but he has tuned the set to a movie about a killer at large on a college campus. Carey, it seems, would rather not get too worked up about the Olympics. "I swim best when I go into a meet feeling blasé about it," he says. "I hate to say that about the Olympics, but that's going to be my approach." Carey carries the burdens of a gold-medal favorite reluctantly. "I used to be out on the edge," is how he wistfully puts it. "Now I'm too much in the middle of things."

It's hard to imagine Carey being either blase or out of the center of the action. One thinks back to the 1982 world championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Carey came to the meet incensed that he'd lost a race three months earlier to 1980 Olympic champion Sandor Wladar of Hungary. In the world 200-meter final, Carey took charge from the start and beat Wladar by half a body length. As his father has noted, "Something happens to Rick Carey when he loses."

A 200-meter defeat by his top Olympic rival, East Germany's Dirk Richter, at the U.S. Swimming International meet in Austin in January, may already have put Richter in the cross hairs for Los Angeles. Richter swam the Austin meet tapered, while Carey was in the middle of heavy training.

"Rick and I both think the world records are slow," says Reese, looking toward L.A. "I can tell you this: He's not interested in breaking them by just a couple of tenths."

Collins agrees. "I know Ricky's shooting for some pretty fast times this summer," he says. "He'd like to go 54 [seconds] in the 100 and 1:57 in the 200. Those are amazing times, really. Personally, I'd be happy just to see Ricky win."

But Carey wants more than just medals. It's in his nature to stretch that backstroke envelope farther and farther—as far as it will go. This, too, is clear about Rick Carey: He's got the right stuff.




Carey is notable for his hyperextensive knees (see start, inset) and powerful arms.



Carey gets the word from Reese, written and oral.



For relaxation Carey creates designs on his computer, then sends them home to Mom.



Lee and Rick may eye the oranges in an Austin supermarket, but they buy Diet Coke.



Jean and Jack are as one in vocation and locomotion.