YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

New Kid From The Bloc : East German Swimmer Jens-Peter Berndt, Who Defected to West, Has Taken to Life in the United States Like a, Uh, Fish to Water

February 18, 1985|JOHN WEYLER | Times Staff Writer

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It had only been three weeks since Jens-Peter Berndt walked away from an Oklahoma City airport gate and his life as revered athlete and East German army officer, but the decadence of Western Civilization had already left its mark.

There, glistening from the lobe of his left ear, was a diamond earring.

His new teammates on the University of Alabama swim team were telling him how great it looked. Coach Don Gambril was trying to explain that Tuscaloosa is not New York and that "some of the people who were eager to help you, might not be as eager now."

And Berndt, communist role model six weeks ago and now celebrated defector and nearly All-Ameri- can college student, just kept showing that flashbulb-bright Christmas morning grin of his.

His former countrymen, the few who will ever hear of him again, will probably nod knowingly and write him off as a casualty of a contagious capitalist fever. Just another victim of MTV. But for Berndt, the earring somehow symbolically completes a transformation. It marks the ending of one life and the birth of another.

"I wanted to do it because I like it," said Berndt, who held the world record in the 400-meter individual medley briefly last summer. "That was one of the problems (in East Germany), I could not do an earring. But that is not the reason I defect.

"Now I can do what I want and that is the reason I defect."

It's almost that simple, too. He left because it was so easy and because he didn't think he had any reason to stay. On the spur of the moment, he chose personal freedom over security, which says a great deal about him. He's only 21, but there is an unmistakable aura of self-confidence oozing from his 6-6, 185-pound frame.

He speaks English amazingly well for a person who was forbidden to use it in his homeland, and seems perfectly at ease discussing any subject. He's obviously intelligent--often taking a philosophical approach to a question--and has a subtle yet universal sense of humor.

It seems odd that such a thoughtful young man would decide to step out of a decidedly comfortable life and into the unknown, but Berndt insists he had no grandiose scheme behind his defection.

He sat in the airport Jan. 7 with 13 teammates, awaiting a flight to East Germany after competing in an international meet in Fayetteville, Ark. He was playing cards when an East German official informed the team it was time to board the plane.

"I told them, 'I will follow,' " Berndt said. Then he turned his back on East Germany and walked to the airport manager's office, where he informed a secretary that he wished to stay in the United States.

"I hadn't planned it until the minute I decided to walk away from that plane," he said, "but I think it was a long, long process in the underground of my mind. I realized that the time was right, and I made the decision. But I know it was a big decision . . . a big decision."

There can be little argument over that point. Jens-Peter Berndt is more than a defector. He's a deserter from the East German army.

"I don't think they would kill me, but they would probably arrest me for life," Berndt said. "I am a criminal. In East Germany, it will be that this never happened. My name will be out of the record books. In East Germany, I exist no longer."

Those were just a few of the thoughts careening around Berndt's head as he stood in front of an obviously excited secretary in a small airport office. He was being paged over the public address system just as the secretary picked up the phone to call a superior.

"I was a little scared then, sure," Berndt said, admitting he thought she might be going to turn him over to the East German authorities. "But that was not so brave. I have known before it (defecting) is easy to do. I need much more courage to go ahead to build a new life and to live in this country.

"I am not a dreamer, I know there are many problems. There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of dangers. I must have much more courage in the times ahead."

Moments later, Jens-Peter Berndt, the quintessence of a stranger in a strange land, began a whirlwind odyssey that ended--of all places--here in the dense pine, hickory and oak forests of central Alabama.

Berndt knew of Gambril, the head coach of the U.S. Olympic swimming team last year, but after he had been interviewed by State Department, FBI and U.S. Immigration officials, he was taken to Oklahoma University for temporary housing. The Sooners' swim program is not exactly world class, so Berndt never considered staying.

Meanwhile, Gambril's assistant, Brian Gordon, got in touch with an Alabama alumnus at the State Department, who got a message through to Berndt that Gambril would like to talk to him.

"The good part is that I wasn't at Fayetteville, so there can never be a finger pointed at me that we had anything prearranged," Gambril said. "He had talked to some of our swimmers and some others and asked a few questions about U.S. colleges. I didn't even know he could speak English."

Los Angeles Times Articles