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WITH ROUGH SEAS BEHIND, CHARLIE THE TUNA RESURFACES

He walks through the Buffalo Athletic Club and no heads turn. Amid the sweaty bodies abusing stationary machines on a recent evening, he appears unexceptional. No shirt-straining biceps or V-shaped torso of the workout-aholic. Just a middle-aged black man with the beginnings of a gut. No sleeker in gray suit and collarless shirt than the multitude of freshly showered lawyers and department heads around him.

Of course, there is no outward sign indicating his status as a man redeemed. No mark or symbol denoting his fall from grace and subsequent rebirth.

And none of the Stairmaster pumpers had seen him 20 minutes earlier, in the ancient tiled pool, surging out of the water like a thing from another world. Had they been there, they would have turned to marvel, asked someone for his name. They would have seen how the long arms -- held straight out from the shoulders, classic butterfly stroke -- and thick trunk provide a vital combination of power and leverage. Seen, with each stroke, his body lift out of the water to midwaist, then drop down, submerge and regenerate for the next thrust.

Rise, fall and rise. The stroke itself a metaphor for the man's life.

Last month, Charles "The Tuna" Chapman swam twice around Alcatraz Island. Two weeks earlier, he prepped by swimming from the Peace Bridge to the Erie Basin Marina.

The Fort Erie swim was more than a preliminary; it was a coming out. An announcement to the world -- or, at least, this corner of it -- that he was officially back.

Having atoned -- in prison and in his own heart -- for past sins, he was ready to resume his calling.

Chapman does not go end to end in a 50-meter pool. He swims from England to France. San Francisco to Alcatraz. Around Manhattan Island. On the wings of the butterfly. Rise, fall, rise.

It is what made him a hero in the black community, a familiar name on the other side of Main Street and not much anywhere else. The problem, so to speak, was Buffalo. Out-of-the-Way, USA. Not the place from which to catapult into the national consciousness; to become what he aspired to be, the "Jackie Robinson of swimming."

He had -- and has -- that potential, to some degree. He is a black man excelling in a sport -- albeit a peculiar facet of it -- more suited to whites from warm climes and prosperous means. Given his age, stereotype-shattering talent and the sheer gee-whizness of what he does, Chapman could conceivably be a cult figure.

Had he nested in, say, New York or L.A. -- in the maw of the pop-media culture -- it might have been guest shots on Letterman and milk mustache ads.

Instead, he was a local hero. A man respected as much for his manner -- soft-spoken, resolutely polite -- as for his marathons.

And then, in 1991, he was arrested. And, two years later, went to jail. And his small kingdom crumbled.

The charge was conspiring to distribute $7,500 worth of cocaine. All involved -- including Paul Campana, the federal prosecutor who tried the case -- agree that Chapman's old neighborhood buddy, Lenny Sutton, was the big fish. Evidence suggested that Chapman tagged along for the cocaine parties with sociable ladies. But Sutton copped a plea and testified against his old friend. Tuna was hooked.

Chapman turned down a plea deal in return for information. He didn't have many names to give, and he has only one life to live.

"I knew when it was over I'd come back to the community," Chapman said. "And I didn't want to be walking around looking behind my back the rest of my life."

Instead, he served a yearlong stretch (he's on probation until 2000) and swallowed a bitter dose of humility.

When a hero falls, the faith of many fall with him.

Willie Burnett grew up on the same tree-lined, well-kept East Side street as Chapman. Burnett, a fitness instructor at the BAC and a former National Football League player, is a few years younger than the swimmer. He remembers watching in awe as Chapman took all-city swim honors at Lafayette High, got a full ride to Sacramento City College, took a shot at the '76 Olympic team and then, in 1981, became the first black to swim the English Channel.

"In the neighborhood, he taught all of us to swim," said Burnett. "He's our hero, all of our lives."

Troy Bronner is the pastor of Chapman's church, Calvary Baptist. He remembers the reaction when, two years ago, Chapman -- fresh out of prison -- joined the congregation.

"I'd just come here from Philadelphia," said Pastor Bronner. "I hadn't heard of him. But everyone was excited. It was, 'There's Charlie Tuna.' "

After the fall, no little kid came up to him and, in a variation of the Shoeless Joe Jackson story, pleaded, "Say it ain't so, Charlie." It wasn't like that.

"You'd see the look in people's eyes," he recalled. "Or they'd stop talking to you. But you knew they were saying something to somebody else."

He is 43, still a friendly, quiet, unassuming man. There is no hardness or menace to him. Even when he complains about the credibility given to Sutton, his voice stays soft.

"Yes, it all hurt," he said. "My parents didn't raise me that way. A lot of people believed in me and what I was doing."

A man not well-grounded is easily influenced. Many people thought him naive, too willing to go along.

Chapman's lawyer, Phil Abromowitz, said during the trial, "Although Charles is in his 30s, he kind of reminds me of a teen-ager, in terms of responsibility."

Indeed, Chapman lived with his parents and had no career out of the water. He was making $7,500 working part time in a youth detention center when he was busted.

"After all those years of swimming, and not much happening for him, I think he kind of burned out," said Burnett. "He wanted to sow some oats, he partied with the wrong guys, and got deeper and deeper in the hole."

To Burnett and others, Chapman's fall wasn't a total shock.

"I knew he had a little wildness in him. He dabbled now and then," said Burnett. "I was surprised it kept going on as long as it did. He should've known everything he did was magnified, everybody knew who he was."

Even some who didn't know him well sensed that a vein of deceit ran through the heart of gold. One acquaintance recalled the day, shortly before the bust, he spotted Chapman on an East Side street. About to yell a greeting, the words froze as he watched the swimmer glad-hand a couple of street toughs.

"It was my fault I was hanging around the wrong people," Chapman says now.

He is sitting in Gigi's, the East Side rib place, on a recent rainy afternoon.

"I was a role model to some people, whether I wanted to be or not. You have to be responsible to the public when you're in the public eye."

There is one thing he knows. You have to separate the mistake from the man.

"I might've done some of the things they said I did," he said. "But I never was who they said I was."

A lean, middle-aged man comes up, interrupts with a handshake and a warm "How are you doing?"

It's nice to bask in the regard of strangers. But there are limits to people's ability to forgive.

"People will give you the benefit of the doubt once," said Chapman. "But there's no excuse if you keep making the same mistake over and over."

He has found a refuge among those of similar experience. Two years ago, he joined Calvary Baptist Church on Genesee Street.

It's a congregation liberally sprinkled with second-chancers: reformed drug users, drug sellers, thieves, embezzlers. Pastor Bronner calls it the Church of Misfits. Tuna is the unofficial patron saint, the symbol of all who have fallen from and returned to grace.

Sundays, the church is stuffed to overflowing. From the pulpit, Pastor Bronner calls Chapman's name, and the chapel fills with applause.

"I use him as an illustration," said Pastor Bronner, "in sermons about endurance, tenacity."

The congregation put its money where its faith was. It raised more than $1,000 to pay for last month's Alcatraz trip.

Burnett, too, believes.

"I think he's out of those cold waters," said Chapman's longtime friend. "The man carries his Bible around with him. I really don't think he'll blow his second chance at life."

As a non-violent first offender, Chapman served most of his year in exile at McKean Federal Prison Camp, in Pennsylvania. It is a minimum-security facility where the living is easy. Steaks are grilled on holidays; inmates pass the time with boccie and cable TV. Club Fed.

The problem for Chapman, other than that he couldn't leave, was water.

The small lake on the grounds was for decorative purposes. For the first time since he haunted the Humboldt YMCA as a boy, the Tuna was a fish out of water. Denied the element that defines and sustains him.

"I'd just look at that water, that little pond," he said. "Water is like a second home to me. My little getaway."

There are times, during the long hours in the ocean, when a man forgets his thumping heart and the salt water stinging his lips and the jellyfish threatening his hide. When he finds a peace that doesn't come on dry land.

"Sometimes," he said, "you just drift away."

The tide has turned.

He's taking classes at the University at Buffalo, and is 30 credits shy of a degree. While on the West Coast, Chapman hooked up with Sinbad; the comedian might back Chapman's next venture, a swim off the coast of Senegal through the treacherous Door of No Return, where numerous slave ships were lost.

A woman named Gloria Wilson is writing his biography, aptly titled "The Splash That Wasn't Heard." Independently published, it will launch Chapman on a speaking tour of black colleges. Maybe, just maybe, his world is about to expand.

There's a new audience waiting.

A boatload of kids from broken homes, hundreds of them, watched his Alcatraz swim with Willie Brown, San Francisco's mayor. He teaches swimming at the Buffalo Christian Center on Pearl Street.

"There's another generation of kids out there who didn't know him from before," said Burnett. "He can be a hero to them."

Many men achieve. Only some fall to the depths and climb back.

He officially returned on a gray day more suited to autumn than to summer. As he swam into Buffalo Harbor the night of Aug. 24, they were watching. More than 150 of them, mostly fellow second-chancers from Calvary Baptist. The kids shimmied up light poles at the Erie Basin Marina for a better look. They saw Chapman's body, rising high above the choppy gray water, disappearing, then surging into view again.

"Each time he went down," said one spectator, "I'd wonder if he was coming back up."

With the final strokes, the congregation broke into the hymn "I Can Dance Like David Can," only substituting the name Charlie.

As he came out of the water, the kids stared with wide eyes and moved in around him and reached to touch his hand and waited for his words.

And it was then that Charles Chapman knew, gloriously understood, that a man who has fallen can rise again.