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East German: Berndt Made a 'Big Mistake'

December 08, 1985|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Tex. — It was after this meet a year ago that Jens-Peter Berndt walked away from the East German swim team during a change of planes in Oklahoma City and told airport officials that he wanted to defect.

Berndt, who is now a sophomore at the University of Alabama, did not come to the U.S. Swimming Open this weekend. Just two swimmers came from 'Bama. Alabama Coach Don Gambril (the coach of the U.S. Olympic team in '84) said that Berndt was skipping this meet to study for finals.

So there was no reunion between Berndt and his old friend Dirk Richter.

After Richter had beaten Rick Carey in the 200-meter backstroke Friday night, Richter was asked how he felt about losing his longtime best friend to America.

Richter's response was immediate, animated and intense. He talked back and forth with Jennifer Wildhaber, a native of Switzerland and a student at USC who was serving as interpreter. She then summarized his answer as he interjected several more statements.

Saturday, reporters took a tape of the interview to Ron Werth, head of the foreign languages department at the University of Texas Arlington for a word-for-word translation.

It turns out that Richter said of Berndt: "That's what he wants to do. That's his own thing."

Asked if there had been any problem with bringing the swim team back to this meet, Richter said: "Not at all. Why shouldn't we come back here? It was his decision to stay here. Really, I don't know why he did it. . . . "

Asked if the team members were being watched closely now, he said: "Not at all."

Richter added: "He made a very big mistake. Here, he is one of four (top level individual medley swimmers). Back with us, he was the big man. Personally, I don't believe he'll be able to make the big jump to be world class again."

Asked if he had been surprised when Berndt defected, Richter said: "Yes, you could say that."

Actually, Berndt has been holding his own among world class swimmers. In the last year he has met Alex Baumann, the 400-meter individual medley world record-holder, six times and has beaten him three times.

Berndt has been adopted by a family in Birmingham, and his coaches report that he is adapting very well to life as an American.

Silke Hoerner, who won the women's 100-meter breaststroke by beating her teammate, Sylvia Gerasch, is in the United States for the first time. She broke into a big smile when she was asked for her impressions of America.

"I love this country," she said. "The people are great. We hear a lot about poverty and talk of ghettos in East Germany. I don't see that at all here."

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