“My dad drove a truck and never made much money,” says Stewart. His mother wanted him to be safe in the water, and took him to the local YMCA for swim lessons at age 3. Somehow, swimming lessons turned into swim practice, and then into a family friend’s footing the bills to send him to a prestigious private school in Pennsylvania where he was a champion swimmer and honor student.
Stewart remembers the hard times as well as the wins.
“I didn’t grow at all between age 12 and 13, at a time when some of my competitors grew five inches. I didn’t win for a year while I waited for that growth spurt–and it was pretty hard to swallow. But fortunately, I had great parents and a great coach who told me that swimming was about improvement, not about winning. Being talented is only part of the equation for an athlete. You need determination, you need a good coach, you need your family behind you, you need your own feelings of selfworth and security–and then some luck, too. And I had all the ingredients.”
Stewart didn’t win a medal at his first Olympics in 1988. “I was so in awe, and so gripped by fear,” he remembers. “The fear paralyzed me, and I ended up getting fifth place in the 200-meter butterfly. For a long time after the ’88 Games, I had nightmares–and plenty of questions bout myself.”
But Stewart set goals for himself, going.
“I said that I would make `baby step’ improvements everyday, and that in four years I would go into the next Games. And in Barcelona in ’92, I took a world record and a gold medal [in the 200-meter].
“Swimming is one of the greatest sports in the world for staying fit. You always participate; you never sit on the bench.
And it’s incredibly demanding.” At age 27, many of Stewart’s peers have retired from swimming. But he says he “can’t resist” the urge to compete in Atlanta. “To swim for my home country in front of my family and friends? I wouldn’t miss it for the world–I have to be a part of it.”
This summer in Atlanta, we’ll be able to wish the modern Olympic Games a Happy 100th Birthday. The modern Games (brought back to life after a “time out” that lasted 15 centuries!) were begun with the idea of a French nobleman that the “cause of peace” would be served if nations competed on the athletic field instead of the battlefield. The ideals of the Olympics meshed with another turn-of-the-century idea: that a healthy mind and a healthy body went hand in hand–and that a bright scholar could be a “jock,” too. People shared the belief that with hard work and a healthy lifestyle, they could be competitors . . . not just spectators!
- 1896: Athens: A team of 14 U.S. athletes pays their own way to Athens on a tramp steamer and brings home 11 gold medals, more than any other nation that summer except Greece.