That also explains why Berkoff, as a senior at Penn Charter in 1984, turned down full scholarship offers from some of America's most prestigious swimming powers to pay his own way to Harvard.
"I didn't want to go somewhere and get caught up in the rat race or the manufacturing of Olympians," Berkoff said. "I think I've shown that you can go to an elite university like Harvard and also find success as an athlete, and have fun doing it."
Berkoff is the reigning NCAA champion in the 100-meter backstroke, Harvard's first swimming champion in 25 years.
"A lot of people told me I was wasting my athletic talent by going there," he said. "One person was a little more blatant. He told me I was wasting my life. I hope he knows what I'm up to these days."
What Berkoff is up to in 1987 is No. 4 in the world in the 100-meter backstroke, No. 5 in the 200-meter back. Last Friday in Fresno, Calif., he joined a swelling contingent of Philadelphia-area athletes to qualify for the 10th Pan American Games, which get under way Saturday (opening ceremonies Friday evening) in Indianapolis.
Other recent tri-state area Pan Am qualifiers include freestyle wrestler Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympian and three-time NCAA champion, now an assistant coach at Villanova University; Flourtown's David McMichael in men's field hockey; Philadelphia road cyclist David Farmer; and rower Don Tower, of Media, who will compete in the four-with-coxswain competition.
Also, Newtown Square's Mary Ellen Clark, a 1986 graduate of Penn State, clinched her first national championship Saturday in 10-meter diving, and will head up the U.S. team at Indy. The Philly area will even be represented on the U.S. roller skating team, with two pairs competing in the dance event - Scott Myers, of Wilmington, Del., and Anna Marie Danks, of Cherry Hill, and Rob Galambos and Jeannine Parks, of Phoenixville.
And Berkoff recently was joined on the U.S. swim team by Eagleville's Peter Boden in the 100-meter breaststroke, and Philadelphia's Jeff Prior in the 200- meter individual medley.
The Daily News earlier spotlighted local Pan Am Games stars Jim Poole, a relief pitcher from La Salle High; women's field hockey star Christy Morgan, of Norristown; UCLA's Pooh Richardson, a product of Ben Franklin High; fencer David Littell, a Center city pension attorney; and Willingboro's Carl Lewis, a 1984 quadruple gold medalist at the Summer Games.
A number of other area Olympic swimming hopefuls are presently en route to Brisbane, Australia, to compete in the Pan-Pacific Games Aug. 13-15. Included among them are Warminster's Dave Wharton, the American record-holder and national champion in the 400-meter individual medley and national champ in the 200-meter IM; 15-year-old sensation Grace Cornelius, of Haverford, a third- place finisher in the 100 freestyle, and Cherry Hill's Sean Killion, U.S. record-holder and national champ in the 800 freestyle and national runner-up in the 400 free.
David Berkoff hopes to use the Pan Am Games as a springboard to re- establishing himself as America's premier backstroker, a distinction he lost at last week's U.S. Long Course National Championships in Fresno.
Berkoff's meet began unraveling the instant he touched the wall of Clovis (Calif.) High School's 50-meter pool last Thursday afternoon.
He had looked left, then right, then to the electronic scoreboard on the far end of the natatorium for official confirmation that he had just finished second in the 200-meter backstroke.
The second-place finish made him an instant member of the U.S. team that will compete in the Pan-Pacific Games. (The U.S. is contractually obligated to send its top two finishers in each event to Australia instead of the Pan Am Games.) Seconds later, Berkoff was headed nowhere. A "DQ" had replaced Berkoff's time on the scoreboard. Berkoff, remember, is the guy who goes to Harvard, so he knew that DQ had nothing to do with Dairy Queen.
He had been disqualified for failing to touch the wall with his hand on the first turn, or so it was ruled.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "You don't swim back (backstroke) for as long as I have and not touch. I know they were wrong, I know I touched, but what could I do? I just had to regroup."
Less than 24 hours later, Berkoff came back to qualify for the U.S. Pan Am team with a fourth in the 100 backstroke - one of the U.S. team's strongest events - in the closest finish of the weeklong national championship meet. The final results on the scoreboard looked like this: 1. Jay Mortenson, 56.58 seconds; 2. Rick Carey, 56.75; 3. Scot Johnson, 56.76; 4. David Berkoff, 56.77.
Berkoff has beaten all of them at least once. He will be just one of many American Pan Am competitors comparing stopwatches with the results posted in Australia later this month.
Berkoff already has decided to postpone graduation this year in order to prepare for the 1988 Olympic trials in December.
"I'm not much of a goal-setter," he said. "When I went out to the nationals I didn't go out with the Pan-Pacifics or Pan Ams as a goal. I just wanted to swim my best and go from there. But not winning has me determined to make it back to the top in '88. The hardest part in this country, it seems, is getting through the trials. The competition there is sometimes so intense, you think it's for the gold medal.
"But I can definitely see myself making it. It's a realisic goal, definitely. But it's not like the Olympics have been a goal of mine since I was 10 or anything. Swimming's never been a life-or-death thing to me.
"I'm not one of those swimmers whose one single goal since they were 12 was to win a gold medal. I've got a lot more going for me than just swimming. It would be a great achievement to make it, but if I don't, life goes on. I can't let it ruin my life.
"What some people fail to realize is that only .05 percent of all the athletes in the world are going to the Pan Am Games and the Olympics. I don't need to be the best. As long as I can walk away knowing I gave my best, whatever the results, I'll be just as happy in defeat as in victory. If I make it, great. If not, I'll just head back to Harvard, get my degree and go from there.
"And I'll be just as happy when I return as when I left."