Where Are They Now?: Mel Stewart
The Charlotte Observer photographed Stewart on Tryon Street in 1995.
ARCHIVE: The Charlotte Observer
We asked him to re-create the shot for us.
The Mel Stewart story — the one about the Charlotte swimming prodigy who breaks the world record in the 200-meter butterfly and then wins three medals, two golds and a bronze, at the 1992 Olympics -starts with a little kid clinging to the side of a pool, scared as hell.
His mom wanted him water safe and to follow in the footsteps of his older sister, who was a good swimmer. Soon being in the pool was just a normal part of life. "It seems like I woke up and I was eight years old, and I'd been in the water for years," Stewart says. "It was almost religious. We were indoctrinated into swimming."
Stewart, who was born in Gastonia and grew up in Fort Mill, started at the Johnston Memorial YMCA, where he won four youth titles. At fourteen he moved to SwimMAC and trained under Jeff Gackle, a central figure in transforming the club into the USA Swimming behemoth it is today. He made the Olympics at age twenty, in 1988, placing fifth in the 200 fly. He won the world title in 1991.
Then David Marsh convinced him to dramatically alter his stroke. Marsh, who now runs SwimMAC, was just an up-and-coming coach at the time, and Stewart initially balked at the idea. "I was like, ‘Whatever.' I was number one in the world. What's he gonna teach me that I don't know already?" he says.
By the end of the summer, he'd broken the American record. He set the world mark six months after that, and a year later he was standing atop the podium in Barcelona. Stewart didn't really know what to do next.
"Winning, for me, took a lot of the hunger away," he says. "I was a professional. I was good at doing it. I knew how to go through the motions, so I could always race and win. But in terms of just being an animal? No, it just wasn't quite there."
Stewart "played Olympian" for a while, making appearances, giving speeches, and even doing two episodes of Baywatch. By 1994 that was starting to get old.
"I did an appearance at a hardware store in Iowa, and I think ten people showed up," he says. "I said, ‘OK, this is over,' and I went back and started training."
Stewart says he was feeling good by the time the Olympic trials came around in 1996 — overconfident, even, and expecting to peak just in time for the games. He missed the cut by three-hundredths of a second and went to Atlanta as an ABC analyst instead. He figured he was done with competitive swimming.
Stewart next spent a season hosting an ESPN show called American Outback. He was also writing screenplays, a passion since college. His first six went nowhere, but the seventh sold for a big bundle of cash. Stewart turned down an extension for his show and moved his family to Los Angeles.
"All of a sudden I felt like I was Steven Spielberg," he says.
The film was never made, though, and for the next ten years Stewart found himself holed up in offices as he endlessly wrote, pitched, and took meetings for contract work. Several times he came painfully close to the green light, but each project died in typical Hollywood style. Stewart describes the feeling with his own version of the Ricky Bobby mantra:
"It's like the Olympics; it's all or nothing. If you're first, you're first, and if you're second, you're last."
By 2007 he'd had enough of second place. Sensing that big things could be in store for the 2008 Olympics, he went to USA Swimming and asked what he could do to help.
Stewart's new job as ambassador for USA Swimming is sort of like the Olympian circuit. He does interviews and appearances, raises money for charity initiatives, and generally tries to promote the sport and its athletes. But now the main push is new media. Stewart, who lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and ten-year-old daughter, does everything from blogging to hosting an interview show on Swimnetwork.com. He has more than 3,500 fans on his Facebook page and more than 13,000 followers on Twitter. How can you find him?
Watch a behind-the-scenes video of the Speedo photoshoot: