Melvin Stewart is, as usual, talking. "I guess you could say I've had some interesting teenage years," he says over a late-night burrito at Taco Bell, one of his favorite Charlotte, N.C., haunts. "Changing schools, becoming a world-class swimmer, traveling to Russia, having a father who works for an evangelical ministry that got involved in the biggest religious scandal in history. I don't know—is all that good or bad?"
Stewart likes to chat about almost any topic: swimming, movies, presidential politics, girls. Just 19 years old and a month out of prep school, he is engaging, bright and exceptionally confident. Somewhat to his embarrassment, he is also the finest athlete ever to live on the grounds of Heritage USA, the PTL ministry's theme park and religious retreat in Fort Mill, S.C. His father, Melvin Sr., is recreation director of the Heritage Church and athletic director of its school, Heritage Academy.
Those closest to Stewart have helped feed his belief in himself. "Melvin, you're the best swimmer I've seen in my entire life," John Trembley repeatedly told Stewart while coaching him for three years at Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy. This fall Stewart will enroll at Tennessee, where Trembley, a former Vol star, is taking over as head coach. "You're by far the best 200 butterflyer in the world," Trembley would say.
Stewart would shift uncomfortably. "Well, I'm very good," he would say.
"Well...the best," Stewart would finally admit.
And in fact, he is the fastest 200-meter butterflyer in the world this year. At the U.S. indoor nationals in Orlando, Fla., in March he clocked a 1:57.89, just .14 off Pablo Morales's American record. He'll be a favorite in the 200 fly at the U.S. Olympic Trials in mid-August in Austin, Texas, and a strong contender for the gold medal at the Seoul Games.
In the water the 6'1", 180-pound Stewart's assets are manifold: flexibility, quick hands and feet, great turning ability, tremendous kicking power. "The reason Melvin is so good is his ability to focus on what he's doing all the time," says Jeff Gaeckle, Stewart's summertime coach at the Mecklenburg Aquatic Club in Charlotte. "Even in warmups, every dive is perfectly streamlined, every stroke is a calculated movement. Melvin has a pretty strong imagination, too. When it starts to hurt during a workout, he'll envision [200-fly world-record holder Michael] Gross or Morales next to him, and you can see him shift into overdrive."
Stewart is a "side-breather" in the butterfly; rather than lift his head straight up, he tilts it about 45 degrees to the right and takes a breath virtually under his armpit. Many swim coaches claim the unusual technique hurts performance by making a swimmer's stroke asymmetrical and shorter. Stewart feels otherwise. "Your head weighs a lot," he says. "When you lift it, you lift your whole body a little. It doesn't take as much energy to turn it to the side."
Stewart has been making waves since infancy. When he was still in diapers, his mother, a devout Christian who has been a strong force in her son's career, took him to a pool and kept dropping him in, even though he sank like lead and came up screaming each time. "Melvin got over his fear of the water in one lesson," Myra Stewart says firmly.
When he was seven, Stewart began training with Frankie Bell, his third coach and the one who taught him the side-breathing technique. Motivated by Bell's promise of a banana split for each victory, he dominated his competition. At 10 he was ranked among the top 10 in the nation in his age group in 16 events and was the subject of a Charlotte Observer feature bearing the headline IS HE AN OLYMPIAN OR IS HE A DREAMER?
Stewart, who still holds 39 North Carolina age-group records, wasn't exactly modest about his success. "I didn't know what it was like to lose," he says. "When I was 10 I would tell you how great I was—you just had to ask. Sometimes you didn't have to ask." He was profiled on the P.M. Magazine television show at 12, by which time he was routinely beating the 15-to-18-year-olds he trained with. "They'd rough me up in the front seat of the car on the way to practice," says Stewart. "They didn't like losing to me, and I had a big mouth.
At Fort Mill High, Stewart spent too much time swimming and socializing and too little time on academics. In 1985, after he had finished the 10th grade, the Stewarts sent Melvin to Mercersburg, a small, academically rigorous boarding school that has produced 15 Olympic swimmers, including Betsy Mitchell, the world-record holder in the 200-meter backstroke. "That school was his salvation," says Myra. In his three years there—he repeated the 10th grade—Stewart was transformed into a class leader and honor student. As a senior he counseled freshmen and was a prefect in his dorm; as a junior he led Mercersburg to its fifth mythical national prep title in seven years.
In the summer of '86, Stewart blossomed on the international swimming scene, jumping from 33rd to eighth in the 200-fly world rankings. He displayed grit by winning the event at the Goodwill Games in Moscow despite intestinal problems that caused him to lose 10 pounds in five days. He has won the past four national titles in the 200 fly.
This summer, Stewart is living in a south Charlotte apartment, five minutes from the Revolution Park pool, where he trains and where he won a key pre-Olympic trials victory in the 200 fly last week, beating Morales and others in 2:03.20 at the Pepsi Open. He talks of mentally breaking Gross at Seoul and of eventually lowering the West German's world record of 1:56.24 to perhaps 1:52. "There's no telling what I might do," he says. "It scares me to think about it."
Stewart offers a few more bold predictions, then laughs. "People will read this stuff and say, 'Who is this guy?' " he says. They'll likely find out when the trials roll around.
Banana splits haven't hurt Stewart's pool splits.
His side-breathing style has helped make Stewart the fastest in his event in 1988.