09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
OLYMPIC SWIMMER RON KARNAUGH IS SITTING AT A PICNIC table behind the family house in Maplewood, N.J., rolling a cucumber between his fingers and staring distractedly into the overgrown garden. It clearly makes him think of his father. "Next to my swimming," says Karnaugh, fighting back tears, "the garden was my dad's pride and joy."
As the whole world knows, Peter Karnaugh died at the Barcelona Olympics. In what became the most poignant story of the Summer Games, Peter, 61, the retired owner of a trucking business, suffered a fatal heart attack during the opening ceremonies. Buoyed by the support of his mother, Jane, his two sisters and his brother—as well as the township of Maplewood. which had collected $27,800 to send the Karnaughs to Spain—Ron summoned the strength to compete in the 200-meter individual medley six days later.
He finished sixth, but that seemed beside the point. Since coming home to Maplewood—and a parade in his honor—Ron, 26, has been greeted as a symbol of courage. Publicly, the first-year medical student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey has played his part, that of a hero. Yet in private moments, he still must deal with his loss.
"My dad was my best friend," says Ron. "We did a lot of things together throughout my life—outdoor things. We hunted and we did a lot of trout fishing. When he died, it was like a part of me died."
In the garage is the 14-foot aluminum boat from which the senior Karnaugh would conduct his own personal swimming tutorials. "We would go over to the lake at Round Valley," says Ron, smiling at the memory, "and my dad would say, 'I've got a little extra training for you to do.' Then he would have me swim across the lake while he sat in the boat with the motor going, drinking a beer and cheering me on. Of course I'd dive right in, because I'd do anything my dad told me to."
A former high school swimmer, Peter taught Ron the crawl when he was 7—just as he had Peter Jr., 27, Debra, 30, and Patricia, 32. "The next year I began competing," says Ron, "and right from the 'start, I won every race at the Maplewood Community Pool. My dad was always there, telling me, 'Try your best. Get in there and go 100 percent all the time.' Just his presence—he was physically a big man—made an impact on me. His values, hard work and perseverance never quit became my values."
A swimming sensation at nearby Seton Hall Preparatory School and then at the University of California at Berkeley, Karnaugh had his first setback at the 1988 Olympic Trials. "I missed making the team by seven tenths of a second," says Ron. "Dad came up after the race and said. 'We still love you, and we're proud of you, and maybe this was for the best.' "
Maybe it was, for both Jane and Peter had been in precarious health. In April 1987, Jane had had a cancerous tumor removed from her larynx, and just months before the trials, Peter had suffered his second heart attack. "After the first one," says Ron, "the doctors said he probably wouldn't sun another. But my dad was a very strong man."
Following his graduation in 1989, Ron returned home to help care for his parents, which intensified his interest in medicine and prompted him to apply to medical school. But he kept up his swimming, look a gold medal in the '91 Pan American Games and made the 92 Olympic team. "I remember the night of the opening ceremonies so well," says Ron. "I saw my dad in the stands, taking photos as I passed by in the procession. I looked over and he had the biggest smile. I think he was having the thrill of his life."
Ron was informed of Peter's death at 4 o'clock the next morning. He was speechless. His mind could not take it in. "A few hours later, I went into the shower, and that's when it hit me," he says. "I just couldn't understand why this had happened to me. I was crying and really struggling."
Hard work and perseverance. Never quit. There was no question about whether Ron would swim. But try as he would, Ron couldn't focus on swimming. Just before the race, he put on his father's old sweat-stained straw hat. "I felt with the hat a part of him was going to be with me," says Ron. But he knew he was flat when he hit the water.
Initially, Karnaugh was devastated by his sixth-place finish. A creature of will, he had not taken into account the emotional cost of his father's death. "A lot of people build up Olympians as superhumans," he says, "but when we are faced with adversity, we are humans."
He also learned another valuable lesson about the human species—about its reservoirs of compassion. For weeks, Ron received about 50 letters a day from people who were touched by his story. "As much as I wanted to win the gold medal," he says, "this unique experience I had, with everyone reaching out to help me, especially my hometown, is what sticks with me."
He hasn't quit swimming. True to his dad's ideals, Ron quickly got back in the pool, placing first two weeks ago in the National Swimming Championships in Mission Viejo, Calif. With an eye on the 1996 Olympics, he plans hour-a-day swimming breaks from his med-school studies. Does he think he can win in '96?
"Only time will tell," says Ron, who no longer dwells on medals. "This is a personal thing. I am doing it for myself and my dad."
SAM MEAD and BRYAN ALEXANDER in Maplewood