Moorhouse and Parrack

Around a large oak table in the kitchen of a turn-of-the-century terrace on the outskirts of Leeds sit two young men. Both over 6ft, broadly built and casually dressed, they eat baked beans on toast and discuss their drinking plans for the evening.

It’s a familiar student scene, but there are no exams on these boys’ minds. Adrian Moorhouse and James Parrack are taking a rare break from training: the first and third fastest 100 metres breaststroke swimmers in the world this year rest up after competing in Rome over the summer. They know that the next few autumn days will offer the last chance of self-indulgence until the world championships in Australia are over in January.

For Moorhouse it is a routine he has observed for nearly a decade. The second son of a Leeds wool merchant, he entered serious competition at 15 and at 26 is both Olympic and Commonwealth champion and holder of the current world record at 61.49 seconds.

Parrack, now 23, was slower off the blocks. Despite Gloucester County wins from the age of 10 and encouragement to race nationally, he stuck to an accountancy course at Leeds Polytechnic. Then, in the 1988 Nationals, he amazed the UK swimming world by beating Moorhouse and all other Seoul hopefuls to claim a place in the Olympic team.

The two men had swum together at the Leeds club for a couple of years but this new surge in Parrack’s performance led Moorhouse to suggest sharing a house. Eighteen months later and Parrack has claimed a Commonwealth silver and touched just half a second behind his friend and team-mate’s world record time in Crystal Palace this year.

The relationship, so long based on a young apprentice following in the wake of an older master, has fizzled into a rivalry at the pinnacle of international sport. It’s amicable rivalry, at least on the surface.

“I knew James had it in him,” Moorhouse says. “There are people who are great swimmers, but they won’t necessarily benefit from living with me.”

“Well, nobody benefits from living with your record collection,” says Parrack. In music, as in so many other aspects of their shared lives, their tastes are startlingly different. Parrack’s student days were dizzy with the sounds of Courtney Pine and Nina Simone, influences from his older brother Charles, who founded a London jazz club in 1985. Moorhouse sticks to the harder rhythms of Northern rock: The Stone Roses, The Smiths, Inspiral Carpets. As a compromise, we listen to the latest Pixies CD.

The three-storey house belongs to the Olympic champion and some clues point to Parrack’s more domestic role. He cooked the evening meal on the day I was there and was washing up another time when I rang. Moorhouse pays for the on-going renovation with Parrack providing the elbow grease.

Nevertheless, the basis of the bond is ordinary friendship. They regularly holiday together after international competitions and will tour Australia until late February after the world championships in Perth. Both put a high value on each other’s company between shifts in the water. Parrack still learns from the self-discipline and energy of the master and Moorhouse keeps himself alert through the companionship of a younger, improving rival.

At home, the focus of their spacious living room is the battle arena of the backgammon board and a coffee table laden with sports biographies, art books and psychology manuals. Black and white posters line the walls and contentious CDs spill out from a cupboard. In the study next door, their medals hang like bunches of gold grapes from the mantelpiece. Moorhouse’s MBE certificate (1989) is framed, cups and statuettes cram the shelves.

So here are the two sides of the men: the cheerful bickering over backgammon, music and girls, with each playing complementary and different roles. (In backgammon, Moorhouse describes the balance: “James is a bad loser and a good winner, whereas I’m a good loser and a gloating winner.”) And then sport, where seriousness intrudes and they steel themselves for the haul of training.

A normal day begins at 5am. They drive to central Leeds in Moorhouse’s Porsche 944 or Parrack’s Maestro for two hours’ swim, one hour’s weights, then home for a high-carbohydrate lunch and sleep. A further evening session adds up to nine miles swum a day, six days a week, rising to 12 miles a day, seven days a week in the run-up to major events. Then, in the days immediately before race, physical training is “tapered” and psychological training takes over. An important part of this is the ritual shave-down. Each swimmer will razor his entire exposed body (assisted by a team -mate for the unreachable parts). Scientific studies in the US have measured lactic acid levels in swimmers’ blood-streams following unshaved, then shaved swims, and have found it to be effective.

“It can knock a few tenths of a second off your time,” says the Leeds and British head coach and UK team manager, Terry Dennison. And nobody doubts its value as a mental conditioner. “You’re lighter in the water, fresher, and it’s a big commitment to make,” says Moorhouse.

International team members observe strict schedules of sleep (lights out at 10pm, a mandatory rest each afternoon) and daily meetings at which Dennison drives home his themes of competitive dedication, self-belief and team support. Swimmers are obliged to attend all races, chanting as each British competitor mounts the blocks, cheering them down the lanes. He also emphasises the pain and sacrifice which top-level sport entails: “I always ask whether people can pay the price to bring their skills to fruition. Some wear T-shirts proclaiming PAIN IS TEMPORARY. PRIDE IS FOREVER.

Tempers flare in international swimming over the wisdom of long-term, intensive regimes. Some argue that swimmers burn out too young and that over-stressing cam be counter-productive. Guided by Dennison, the regime followed by Moorhouse and Parrack is relatively gentle. It was Dennison who first spotted the swimmer in Moorhouse, then persuaded Parrack to plunge into full-time training.

“In 1987 James was like a five-year-old compared to Adrian,” he says. “He just wasn’t ready to compete at international level. But I had a word with his tutors and from there he really committed himself.”

How does a coach cope with two top swimmers in the same club and in the same event? “The pressures are bound to increase,” he admits. “They used to room together, for example, at international meets, but now we’ve put them apart so they can prepare separately.”

It’s a delicate balancing act, particularly since Moorhouse’s reign in the sport has meant almost monopolising Dennison’s attention. As the coach himself recognises this may have to change.

The contrast in the two swimmers extends even to their appearance. Moorhouse has thinning black hair, a thick bull-neck, almost a rugby player’s physique and the wide grin of a prankster schoolboy. Parrack is thinner than Moorhouse, two stones lighter, with willowy legs, an impossibly wide chest and a slightly startled expression in his light blue eyes. Spiky blond hair sits above pale, sleek features. His head, with its beaky nose, seems too thin for the undulating yoke of his neck, and his pectorals, though well-formed, are flat as hub-caps, virtually covering his entire rib-cage.

Leg propulsion is crucial to a 200 metre breaststroker: it is known as ‘leg stroke’, and Moorhouse, with his solid, heavy thighs, has excelled in it. He still ranks among the world’s top 10, but concentrates on 100 metres in order to protect his No. 1 status. The arms take more stress in the shorter race, but still a balance must be found between the two potentially conflicting motions.

Coach Dennison describes the swimmers’ physiques: “Adrian is simply more powerful. More muscular. But James has a great feel for water and a tremendous sprint capacity. Today’s international swimmers tend to be more Parrack-than-Moorhouse-shaped, he believes. “As a generalisation, they are tall and very lean, with high muscle-to-fat ratios.”

Parrack’s care to finish his degree after the Seoul Olympics is telling. Taking a year out from a course was a long-shot, but as his mother Ann recalls: “He couldn’t face growing old without knowing how good he could have been. It was something he had to go through with. He had said since he was ten that he would swim in the Olympics, but you never really believe it could happen.” To return afterwards and get his degree while continuing to maintain an international sporting profile, took great depth of character.

At Crystal Palace this year Parrack stood limbering up on the blocks, and then, as the starting official raised his arms, inhaled sharply several times, his eyes flashing and his chest rippling. He went on to swim a new personal best, just when it mattered, blowing all international competition, apart from Moorhouse, out of the water. At last, like a mountaineering party where people fall behind in twos and threes, the pair now find themselves staring at each other across one of the peaks of human endeavour. In the long term, only one can remain.

For Moorhouse, the pattern of life as one long swimming gala has left him with some growing up to do. “I’ve missed out on a lot,” he says. “In some ways James is much more mature than I am.” Their attitude to girls is a good example. For Parrack, an intense relationship with a shimmeringly beautiful teenager in his home town of Cheltenham ended when she won a modelling contract and left for the London catwalk. He still smarts from the affair and is wary of brief encounters. By contrast, Moorhouse’s address book fairly swims with Swedish, American and Australian women’s numbers.

“We’re lucky that we like different sorts of women,” says Parrack. “There are certainly enough of them to go round, although Adrian has been round most of them already.”

“James is lucky enough to be able to talk to women as friends,” says Moorhouse.

The difference was very evident in Rome this summer. Barely seconds after winning his event, Moorhouse could be seen reclining by the diving pool with a Canadian blonde. Later that night there were three women ranged around his small hotel room as he toyed with his medal and kept up the big-time sports patter.

Parrack meanwhile was at the backgammon table, wondering perhaps whether a major title would bring the “money, chicks and fame” which he once joked were his ambitions. So far there has been a distinct imbalance in the two men’s fortunes, at least in the first and third categories.

Moorhouse has sponsorship contracts with Speedo swimwear and Timberland clothes, equalling “what someone my age would earn from a good job in the City.” Parrack has the Maestro from his father’s employers, Eagle Star, and £250 from the Prince’s Trust. Swimmers have long had to struggle for financial and popular support. “One of our main problems is how badly swimming comes across on television,” says Parrack. “We have plans to get underwater cameras, but at the moment nobody can see the pain and exertion on our faces.”

“When you think that Greg Lemond the cyclist gets $1 million a year for what he does,” says Moorhouse, “then you realise you’re swimming for some perverse sense of enjoyment. The money golfers get makes me cringe.”

Neither man will talk of retirement, and both have plans for the ‘92 Olympics in Barcelona. But Ann Parrack reckons Moorhouse will retire within 12 months: “Once he has the world championship in Australia, there’s nothing for him to win. Being a sensible young man, I think he’ll quit unbeaten.”

Her son, meanwhile, is enjoying the benefits of highest-level encouragement and results without the burden of celebrity which Moorhouse has shouldered for so long. “He’s been fortunate to do his own thing in the shadows,” says Mrs Parrack, “but he certainly intends to take over the number one spot.” For now, Moorhouse will only let himself think about winning and winning in ever more emphatic times.

Although known as a “sprint”, the 100 metres is not swum flat out - your limbs would seize up from over-production of lactic acid - but it is a star event at any championship. This is especially true in Britain, where Olympic golden boys David Wilkie and Duncan Goodhew, in the seventies and early eighties, built up a British tradition in the event.

“Freestyle is seen as a more glamorous stroke,” says Moorhouse, “because, you know, Tarzan does it, but in British terms, breaststroke is the main attraction. It’s the strangest, with two separate movements, and your body is always covered up with water, unlike the other strokes. Breaststrokers have a reputation for being a bit weird.” He was unforthcoming about any personal weirdness, but Parrack has the odd banana in the closet. His brother Charles recalls: “For years, everything he wore had to be black and yellow, preferably split exactly down the middle. Even his room was re-decorated with the colours meeting halfway across the ceiling. And an obsession with the word ‘lush.’”

In many ways, Moorhouse is delighted to see Parrack racing up the rankings, but his personal ambitions are still unfulfilled: “I’d like to set a record which nobody could touch for a while. David Wilkie’s world time stood for eight years!”

And Parrack has plans of his own. “I want to break the 60-second mark,” he says, “I reckon it will take another two years of intensive weight-training to get me up to strength.”

So his 46 inch chest will expand still further, his legs (rather too spindly) will firm up as he works on his kick and his self-taught habit of visualising goals - imagining the atmosphere, sensations and dynamics of a race, pushing through the pain barrier, making the perfect turn, timing each arm’s lunge and rake - will be set on toppling his friend and mentor from pre-eminence.

“He’s got it up here,” said a British team-mate in Rome, tapping his head. “You can tell with some competitive swimmers that they understand the sport better than others.” Coach Terry Dennison makes the fair-minded prediction: “I’m sure there’s more to come from both James and Adrian,” while remembering a time when Moorhouse was a harder, less generous competitor.

There was no mistaking the look of determination in Parrack’s eyes, as they shone like pale planets in the Roman afternoon. Whether it is the Perth world championships in January, or in the years ahead, he knows his time will come. It’s just a question of whether the baton will be passed, like so much water under a bridge, or whether the house-mates, team-mates, friends and rivals will be fighting for supremacy over every last centimetre of the pool.