By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
While many of us spent our childhoods in school plays and having sleepovers, Mel Stewart lived and swam at what he calls “Christian Disneyland.”
Growing up in Charlotte, N.C., Stewart lived on the grounds of Heritage USA, a Christian theme park, water park, and residential complex in Fort Mill, S.C., started by PTL (short for "Praise The Lord") Club founders televangelist Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker Messner.
Stewart lived and grew up there because his dad was the park’s recreation director and athletic director of his on-site school, Heritage Academy. At its height, Heritage USA welcomed nearly 6 million visitors annually and employed around 2,500 people until it closed in 1989.
“It was surreal (living there),” Stewart said. “I swam my practices as a small child in the pool below the studio (they had a weekly evangelical TV show), and my family was close with the Bakkers. Tammy Sue, their daughter, was my first kiss. It’s hard to explain in a few sentences, but I lived at a Christian Disneyland, which was very much for-profit.
“When (Jim) Bakker went to prison, my dad would visit him. When my father passed away, Bakker came to the funeral. My mom did not like the Bakkers or what they were about. Our household was very tense at times growing up. Swimming was a great escape.”
While he eventually left the drama of the Bakkers and Heritage, as a youngster, Stewart found his own version of the limelight as one of the top butterfly swimmers in the United States.
He went on to set several world records (individual and relay) and won a gold medal in the 100 butterfly at the 1992 Olympics.
When he failed to make the 1996 team, he stepped away from competitive swimming. A natural entertainer, he went on to work on an ESPN adventure show, sold a screenplay and thought he was going to be the next Steven Spielberg.
“After missing the Olympic Team by a fingernail, I decided to retire,” Stewart said. “I loved swimming so much, and I missed it soon after retiring. Swimming’s my family, and that family is always there for you. I learned that very quickly.
“Bottom line was, I wasn’t getting any faster, plus, it was different in the 90s. If I were an athlete now, I would swim until my early 30s, but I retired at age 27.”
Along with his other ventures, Stewart worked as a development writer under a pen name and did many other things, sports and entertainment-related events and activities.
“I called a few races for ESPN and Fox Sports, but I wasn’t close to swimming during that time period,” Stewart said. “Chuck Wielgus was doing such great things in the sport, and I wanted to return in some capacity. Thankfully, Chuck hired me to work for the USA Swimming Foundation, and I produced some videos as well.
“My wife and I created a commercial company in the middle of all the writing assignments because I wanted to get out of the office and behind a camera. So, my wife has made all of the best decisions for us.”
His experiences in the sport, particularly the discipline associated with swimming, helped detour a young Stewart headed down a bad path influenced by people and opportunity not in his best interest.
As he looks back today, he’s convinced if it hadn’t been for swimming, he may not be with us today, let alone be an Olympic champion.
“I was trouble….always in trouble,” Stewart said. “Swimming saved my life. You can’t be a bad, or it’s hard to be a bad kid and be a swimmer. It demands so much from you. Because I was such a bad kid, my coach made me do a lot of fly as punishment. I started breathing to the side, and she liked it, supported it – and it worked. I loved her, my first coach Frankie Bell, like a second mother. First coaches are sacred.”
In the 16-plus years that have passed since he retired, Stewart said he’s witnessed a positive evolution of the sport – one that has offered professional opportunities for him to remain a part of swimming outside of the pool.
He is co-founder of an online swim news site called SwimSwam (www.SwimSwam.com), which takes up a good bit of his time and remains an active ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation. Right now, his priority is to continue to build SwimSwam, but he’s excited every day to work with the Foundation.
“Most days it’s SwimSwam, SwimSwam, SwimSwam, all day long,” said Stewart, who still gets in the water three to four times a week. “That's slowed a little now that we have a bigger staff, and thankfully, I'm still a USA Swimming Foundation Ambassador. The Foundation work breaks up the SwimSwam duties and keeps me happy. I’m very proud of the work at the USA Swimming Foundation. Debbie Hesse has built a great team. It’s rewarding working with her, and fun!
“My wife and I also produce commercials, which is how we make our daily bread. The idea for SwimSwam, the name and the news/lifestyle site, was all my wife’s idea. She kept saying ‘Swimming needs more news and entertainment.’ I resisted for nearly 3 years before taking the leap. It’s been fun.”