Sports Illustrated September 1991

Salnikov's record falls to Perkins

PerkinsThe Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, which involved athletes from the U.S. and 15 other countries, seemed like a lull before next year's Olympic storm. Crowds at the Kinsmen Aquatic Centre in Edmonton last week were small and hushed, and with only a half hour to go in the five-day meet, no world record had fallen. Then Kieren Perkins, an 18-year-old high school senior from Brisbane, Australia, plunged into the pool for the 1,500-metre freestyle. After having missed Vladimir Salnikov's five-year-old world record in the 800 free by .04 of a second last Friday night, Perkins had his sights set on breaking that mark en route to winning the 1,500 on Sunday night. With 800 of the 1,500 metres behind him, Perkins touched the wall, stopped and looked up at the clock. ''I wasn't going to wait another 700 metres to see if I'd got it,'' Perkins said.

The time was 7:47.85, which was 2.79 seconds faster than Salnikov's record. Noting his triumph, Perkins pumped his fist into the air and resumed his quest for the 1,500 title. He went on to win the race in 14:59.79, an impressive but not record-breaking time.

Swimming was therapy for Perkins long before it was his sport. At age nine he ran through a plate glass window while chasing his little brother around the house and lacerated his left calf, an injury that required 87 stitches. Part of Perkins's therapy was to splash around in a pool using a kickboard. ''They used to carry him to me,'' says his coach, John Carew, who has worked with Perkins for eight years.

Perkins still trains in the little 20-metre pool in the Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly that he used during his recuperation. At 16, he became only the third man to break 15 minutes for the 1,500. And at the world championships in Perth last January, he swam a 14:50.58, smashing Salnikov's 1,500 record but finishing a quarter of a metre behind Germany's Jorg Hoffman. ''My best moment and my worst all at once,'' says Perkins.

Despite Perkins's performance, American swimmers easily outpaced the Australians (and everyone else) in Edmonton, winning 26 gold medals. Summer Sanders, 18, of Roseville, Calif., won three events (the two individual medleys and the 200-metre butterfly), but paid a price. She needed ice packs on her shoulders each night to relieve tendinitis. ''I think we've squeezed the orange too many times this year,'' said U.S. women's coach Mark Schubert.

Sanders's Stanford schoolmate, senior Jeff Rouse, was the meet's only other record breaker. Twenty minutes after Perkins set his mark, Rouse swam the backstroke leg of the 4x100-metre medley relay in 53.93 to become the first person to crack 54 seconds for the 100-metre back. Because Rouse swam the leadoff leg of the relay, his time will count as a world record.

Truth be told, the Pan Pacific meet wasn't very exciting until those last races. But Perkins and Rouse made up for all the dull moments.