DENVER -- Mike Barrowman doesn't expect to be in Atlanta next summer for the Olympics, at least not as a participant. The goal of making the United States team -- the canoe-kayak team -- seems almost far-fetched.
But nobody expected Barrowman, a gold medalist in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain, and a former world-record holder in the 200-meter breaststroke, to come as far as he has in his new sport.
Not even Barrowman himself.
"It was a chance to climb the ladder again," Barrowman, 26, said last week in explaining his move to flat-water kayak sprinting. "For five years, I was on top of the world, and that was a great thing. But it's exciting to climb the ladder again."
Barrowman used the competition at this year's U.S. Olympic Festival, which concluded here Sunday, more as an opportunity to get experience than as a gauge of his progress.
"Every time I think I'm getting a little bit better, something happens to make me realize I have a long way to go," said Barrowman, who grew up in Potomac and now lives in Costa Mesa, Calif., to be near the U.S. Olympic Committee's new training center outside San Diego. "It really humbles me."
Barrowman certainly was humbled at the Festival. He was disqualified from the 1,000-meter singles event when his boat capsized in Wednesday's heat. In the 1,000 doubles event, Barrowman and partner Wyatt Jones finished fourth in the final.
It was Barrowman's competitive instincts more than his ego that drove him into kayaking. Looking for an athletic alternative after his swimming career ended, Barrowman said he was guided by what he saw as a vision. It wasn't a vision in whitewater, but it was close.
Barrowman tells the story of being interviewed in Barcelona after he won his gold medal. "Somebody asked, 'What are you going to do now?' " Barrowman said. "In the back of my mind, I had a picture of a kayak. I kind of forgot about it for a while."
What reminded Barrowman was a telephone call from the USOC, asking whether he would be interested in trying a new sport. When he asked where the team trained, and the answer came back Newport Beach, Calif., Barrowman began envisioning himself in a boat.
It seemed better than what Barrowman was doing at the time. Aside from some corporate swimming clinics that helped pay the bills, the former Michigan All-American wasn't doing much to satisfy his competitive appetite. Nor did he picture himself in the working world.
"I wasn't ready to go on to the next step," said Barrowman. "I still had a fire burning in me. I needed something else to get the competitive juices going. I found kayaking to be a pure sport."
Asked to compare the two sports, Barrowman joked, "There's water in both."
The biggest difference is the expectations -- or the lack of them when it comes to Barrowman. For now, he is being treated more as a spokesman for an under-publicized sport than as a threat to other, more highly skilled paddlers.
His self-deprecating humor certainly has helped ease the transition for Barrowman, and he says he has yet to feel any resentment. "I wish I could bring some of the top guys here," Barrowman said to a conference room filled with reporters last week.
The only time Barrowman spends in chlorinated water these days is to conduct some of those corporate clinics -- he might be the only kayaker to have an endorsement from Speedo -- and as a means of relieving the soreness in muscles he didn't use much before.
Barrowman said he doesn't know how long he can afford such a Spartan lifestyle in pursuit of getting to another Olympics, this time in a kayak. But it's going to take even more work than it did the first time.
"Wherever I have to go is a lot harder than where I've come from," he said. "It's not a hard life, but it's kind of a lonely life."
Asked if he will keep training for the 2000 Olympics in Australia, Barrowman smiled.
"I honestly think that if I stay in the sport, I know I feel I could make the 2000 team," he said. "Will I keep going that long? It's definitely a 50-50 thing. But right now, the athletic side is winning."
Even if Barrowman is not.