Barrowman lives in the Cayman Islands, so the interview was done via email. The transcription is below.
On his fondest Olympic moments:
Barrowman: For me, breaking my first world record was the ultimate event in my career. I had just come off my first Olympics, where I had been disappointed in a fourth-place finish and spent the next year training as hard as I could to get back to No.1, to prove that I could do it. I ended up breaking that record six more times, but the first one was by far the best experience. To finally stand up and show the world that I was the best was a great feeling. I remember grabbing my coach and pushing him into the water along with me in celebration. Even though the eventual World Championship and Olympic Championship were wonderful, it was that first breakout moment where I was able to truly “prove it,” that was the best. A very close second was the culminating moment standing on the podium with the gold medal for America. They were like bookends to my career.
On his biggest challenges:
Barrowman: I had broken the American record in 1988 and was the first person from the D.C. area in a very long time to have a shot at a gold medal. The community was fantastic, even helping with donations to get my coach to Korea and with thousands of well-wishes. I felt like I had let them down when I finished fourth in that first Olympics. I was green. It was my first international competition, and I didn’t perform as well as I could have. I remember my coach telling me afterward, “You can go home and give up, or we can try again, but there are many people who would love to see you fight as we all know you can.” There was never any decision. I knew what I had to do, but coming back home and trying to get over that hurdle was an enormous challenge. I went on to win every major national or international race over the next four years — including the illusive Olympic Gold — but restarting on that path was rough.
On how swimming and the breaststroke have changed since he competed:
Barrowman: Swimming is incredibly different now. A lot of energy went to finding creative ways to survive financially back then, finding ways to be able to keep training and keep eating, especially if you wanted to compete after college. That challenge is largely gone now, allowing the top athletes to focus on just swimming, just training. There is fantastic support out there now for athletes to actually make a career out of the sport, and that changes the dynamic completely. In terms of breaststroke, there have been a lot of rule changes that have allowed for faster swimming, such as extra kicks under the water, more efficient suits, faster starting blocks, etc. But the stroke itself is still a beautiful thing to watch.
On four athletes from Montgomery County competing at the Olympics:
Barrowman: Four Olympians from Montgomery County?? That’s absolutely fantastic! I’m thrilled for them, and for the people back home. I shouldn’t be surprised though. The area is a wonderful place to grow up, with some of the best facilities and coaches anywhere in the world. I was (and they are) so fortunate to have the opportunity to come up in such a supportive environment. I think I had probably six or seven coaches from the time I was eight onward, and every single one of them was world-class excellent. Not many other places offer so much. I’m both proud and thankful to see others from the same area (and same clubs!) joining the Olympic Team!
On Conger, Ledecky and his expectations for this year’s Olympics
Barrowman: I can’t really answer anything further. I’ve lived in a foreign country for 20 years and haven’t followed international swimming in that time. I was never much for watching… I loved to compete, and thus find it hard to follow along without wanting to grab a swimsuit (modern version!) and get in and start training again. Not exactly a good idea! So even though I won’t be watching the Olympics this summer, I do wish our Olympians the very best and will look forward to hearing how they do.