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Backstroker Carey is in class by himself

Fortunately for backstroke gold medalist Rick Carey, the billiard-ball look has passed in men's swimming. ''If Rick ever had to shave his head he'd probably be too embarrassed to appear on the deck,'' says US Olympic swimming Coach Don Gambril.

Because of the acceptance of men's bathing caps, however, Carey has been able to keep his luxurious crop of jet black hair and still eliminate the drag it might cause in competition.

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Of course, making Carey swim capless might be the best way to even things up. Rick is head, shoulders, and often a body length or two ahead of virtually every other backstroker in the world.

Last summer he broke the long-standing world records in the 100- and 200 -meter backstroke set by American John Naber at the 1976 Olympics.

Now competing at Naber's old splashing grounds, the University of Southern California campus, Rick broke John's Olympic standard in the heats of the 200 backstroke, then won the final.

Today Rick is after another gold medal - and perhaps more records - as the 100 backstroke is contested in the new outdoor pool built here for these Games.

Outdoor pools present a special challenge to backstrokers, because they make it more difficult to gauge one's speed.

''Indoors you can look up at the ceiling and get a relative sense of pace, just the way a freestyler does looking at the bottom of the pool,'' Rick says. ''But outdoors you're looking up at the sky. That means I have to look at the lane marker.''

Correctly evaluating speed is critical in the flip turns, where Carey excels.

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''Any kind of looking or hesitation detracts from the turn,'' says John Collins, Carey's coach for many years. ''With Rick, I could turn all the lights out in the pool and he'd still be able to make the turns without slowing down.''

Rick's precise turns are a product of his dedication in and out of the pool. Eddie Reese, his college coach at Texas, cites his ''great ability to do repeats in practice at an unheard of speed for backstrokers.''

''I can't think of many areas where he can improve his efficiency,'' says the 6 ft. 6 in. Naber, whose height made him a prototype backstroker. At just under 6 ft. and 185 lbs., Carey lacks such reach, but he has a powerful upper body that rides high in the water, almost hydroplaning along.

Given swimming's California beach-boy stereotypes, Carey is a rare breed - a raven-haired resident of Mt. Kisco, N.Y., who represents the Badger Swim Club of Larchmont, N.Y., some 25 miles north of New York City.

Rick's was 10 when his parents started him swimming with the idea that he needed a lesson in losing graciously. But the youngster quickly became quite good - and hasn't lost too often since. Last January, East Germany's Dirk Richter handed him his only defeat in nearly two years - so at the US Olympic trials in Indianapolis, Rick made sure he bettered the year's top 100-meter time , which Richter happened to own.

Carey is a quiet 21-year-old who doesn't take all that easily to the limelight. Signing autographs still seems odd to him, and he can't imagine anyone comparing him to a Mark Spitz, who won a record seven golds at the 1972 Olympics. ''I'm not on the same level,'' he says.

Carey may be a bright junior aerospace engineering student with a 3.15 grade-point average, but in Collins's eyes he is still an ''unsophisticated, unspoiled country kid.'' He devours sci-fi books, loves playing with computers, and, like his school teacher parents Jack and Jean, is a motorcycle aficionado. Mom and dad hit the road for L.A. right after the trials.

Since arriving, they've watched their son plunge into the fast lane, forgetful he ever needed to learn about losing.

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