He rocked the swimming world in the late 1980s, breaking world records with his controversial start. But David Berkoff won Olympic gold before and after his innovation was banned.
Ivy Leaguers have a remarkable record of innovation in sport. Harvard's James Tyng invented the baseball catchers mask in 1876. In the late 1800's Yale's Walter Camp pretty much invented modern football, including the 11-man team, the quarterback position, the scrimmage line, offensive signal calling, and the requirement that a team turn over the ball after failing to gain a set yardage in a set number of downs.
Columbia played the first basketball game using a three point line in 1945. In the 1960s Charlie and Peter Gogolak created the football 'soccer-style' field goal kick -- now used exclusively in competitive football - while playing at Princeton and Cornell, respectively, before their dual NFL careers. In the 1970s Brown's Dick Dreissigacker and his brother developed the carbon-fiber oar for rowing, now standard equipment for crew.
David Berkoff is such an innovator. A Harvard swimmer who specialized in the backstroke, Berkoff invented the "Berkoff blast-off," starting each race by diving five feet into the water, locking his hands together, and propelling himself submerged with a dolphin kick, then surfacing 30-plus yards into the race to continue with the conventional backstroke. It's faster to swim underwater, using a dolphin kick, because it minimizes drag. Berkoff elaborates, "my [Harvard] roommate Jeff Peltier and I started it. I took it to a new level, and [Coach Joe] Bernal massaged it and critiqued it and got us to the [optimum] point."
Berkoff and Peltier started working on the start soon after arriving on campus in the fall of 1984. "Joe was also the kind of coach who was willing to take the time to experiment with new techniques," he remembers. He told us "try and do something to get an advantage," and Berkoff first "blasted off"in a meet against Dartmouth later that year.
While continuing to refine the underwater start Berkoff had to contend with the rigorous Harvard curriculum. Majoring in anthropology with an emphasis on archeology, "the first two years I was in academic 'survival mode,'" he says. "It took two years for me to figure out how to manage my time better and make better decisions about prioritizing."
But then "I turned a corner of sorts. My swimming improved greatly and so did my grades." And the underwater start began to make its presence known in international competition. In 1988 Soviet swimmer Igor Poliansky used the start to lower the 100m world record three times in one month, shattering American Rick Carey's record that had held since 1983. "I taught [Poliansky] the start a few months earlier in February 1988 in Bonn, West Germany after a meet there," says Berkoff.
Berkoff broke the record twice himself at the 1988 Olympic Trials, then set it again during the Olympic preliminaries. By this time his competitors were mastering his start as well, and Japan's Daichi Suzuki took the gold in the 100m backstroke final, with Berkoff taking the silver. He did win the gold medal, and set a world record, with the U.S. team in the 4x100m medley relay.
His innovation, however, displeased the Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA), the world swimming governing body. Shortly after the Olympics FINA limited the technique to the first 10 meters (later extended to 15) of a lap.
"Berkoff is the fastest backstroke swimmer in history, the man who revolutionized a stroke so well that his new method has been banned internationally," trumpeted the New York Times when the ban was announced. Berkoff was understandably upset. ''I ruffled their feathers,'' he said at the time. ''They smacked me on the head. I did something to their game. I thought of it before they did.'' Yet Berkoff nearly repeated his medal feat under the new rules in the 1992 Olympics, winning a gold medal in the team 4x100m medley and bronze in the 100m individual, before retiring from international competition.
Even with FINA's ban, backstroke competition had changed forever. "One tenth of a second had come off the 100 back record in 12 years," says Berkoff. " The underwater start dropped the record seven tenths in nine months. Now there is no swimmer in the World Top 20 that does not use all 15 meters underwater off both walls under the new rules. The record has dropped another second or so since."
Retiring temporarily after the 1988 Olympics, Berkoff was prepared after 1992 Olympics. "It's a huge letdown [not being an Olympian, because] people treat you [as] very special." So he went to graduate school in environmental science at the University of Montana, "fell in love with Montana," and settled there, becoming a lawyer. A partner in a Missoula firm specializing in employment and insurance litigation, he also runs ultra-marathons in local competitions. "I ran a great 50k race in Wyoming this past June," he says. "One of my training partners and I crossed the line together in fourth place, [after] about five hours of running. Races like this are a lot more fun than sitting silently in a 'ready room' before the finals of the Olympic Trials in a sprint event."
"Without Joe as a coach, I do not think [we] would ever have evolved the underwater start," concludes Berkoff. "When we started the underwater start we never realized it would transform the sport. We just wanted to get faster and find an advantage."
Ed. note - Joe Bernal was Harvard's head swimming coach Harvard from 1977-91. Never finishing worse than third in Ivy competition, Bernal's teams won seven Ivy titles and compiled an overall record of 126-21.
— Stephen Eschenbach