Before Katie Ledecky, Before Michael Phelps, Before Mark Spitz, There Was…

Don Schollander.

Schollander was the first swimmer to win four Gold Medals in one Olympics, doing so in Tokyo in 1964 at the young age of 18.  Schollander also won the 1964 James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, and the AP Athlete of the Year, easily defeating runner-up Johnny Unitas. Schollander followed up his feat with a gold and a silver medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

The following is a review of the insightful book, Deep Water, Schollander wrote, along with Duke Savage, in 1971.

Deep Water has always held a special place for me since I was just getting involved with swimming when it was published. I found the book at the time both inspirational, as well as eye-opening. Upon my most recent reading of the book, I was once again impressed with the insights Schollander provided into the world of amateur sports and the Olympic Games. Many of the problems he identified are still with us today, and in many cases, much worse.

Schollander begins the book by highlighting some of the early successes he had in swimming, setting a national record in backstroke for boys 10 and under. As a freshman in high school, he had to choose between his first love, football, and swimming. While he was leaning towards football, his parents encouraged him to try swimming for a year, and he met with success once again, winning two races at the state finals. Then, early in his sophomore year, at the age of 15, his parents asked him if he wanted to leave home so that he could really focus on swimming. While he was initially reluctant to do so, he decided to move to Santa Clara, California, and swim for coach George Haines.

It was a big shock, both athletically and socially. He was used to training for an hour a day; at Santa Clara, they were training three hours a day. He had no friends at the new school, and it took a while to be accepted by the Santa Clara swimmers. He was still happy he made the move, and credits most of that to George Haines, who was not only a great coach, but became a substitute father to Schollander.

It was during the 1962 Spring Nationals that Schollander first made his mark on the swimming world, earning two third places. As a result of his success, Schollander began to believe that the 1964 Olympics were a realistic possibility. That summer, he won the 200 free at the Outdoor nationals, and in July 1963 he became the first man to swim the 200 free in less than two minutes. The newspapers compared it to Roger Bannister’s conquest of the four-minute mile.

When the summer of 1964 came around, Schollander and his coach had some tough decisions to make. There were three big meets that summer, the Outdoor Nationals in July, the Olympic Trials in August, and then the Olympics in October. The key was being in peak condition for the Olympics, but the problem was that first, you had to make the Olympic team.

Schollander discusses the way Olympic athletes are chosen in the US, using the results of the US Olympic Trials as the sole basis for selection. Thus, someone could be the greatest swimmer in the world, and have one bad day at the Trials, and not make the Olympic Team. This is not the approach used in most other countries, where the Olympic athletes are chosen well in advance of the Olympics based on several criteria, and then go through a rigorous training schedule.

Since the swimming trials are held just six weeks before the Olympics, it is difficult for an athlete to peak for both; there is not enough time between the two events to do so. Schollander and Haines took a gamble and decided to have Schollander peak for the Outdoor Nationals, and not for the Trials, and hope that he would do just good enough (finish in the top three) to qualify for the Olympics. This would then enable him to peak for the Olympics.

The strategy obviously paid off. While Schollander did not win any individual events at the trials, he did take two seconds. Others were concerned however about the drop in his performance from the Outdoor nationals, where he won three events. Schollander and his coach were not concerned since it was part of their strategy.

The next part is well known, Schollander won two individual events and was on two winning relays a the Tokyo Olympics. There was some controversy, however. Typically, the US swimmer with the fastest time in the 100 free at the Olympics would swim as the anchorman for the 400 medley relay team. Thus, after his victory in the 100 free, Schollander thought he was the obvious choice for the medley relay team. However, the team coaches decided that if Steve Clark, who had not even finished in the top three at the Trials, could turn in a faster time than Schollander while leading off the 400 free relay, then he would be the anchorman for the medley relay. This is how events turned out, and it likely denied Schollander a chance at five gold medals.

After the Olympics, the book discusses what life is like as a celebrity and the demands on your time. Schollander was on the cover of Life magazine, and there was even a movie made about him, The Boy Who Swims Like a Fish”.

His schedule was nonstop, including accepting awards all over the country, and many foreign trips. He also began college at Yale, a semester late. His first semester at Yale was a difficult one, he found it difficult to fit in and felt like everyone was staring at him and talking about him (Spotlight Effect?). I found a couple of the college stories interesting because of how much things have changed. There was one excerpt from a story written in the Boston Globe by Bud Collins (yes, the same Bud Collins who became famous for his broadcasting at Wimbledon!) where it starts as follows: “The name on the door at Welsh 98 is Schollander…”. I can’t imagine being allowed to publish such information today about a college athlete, or any student.

Savage, the co-author, tells the story of how the students at Yale were trying to see how they matched up against Schollander, and since they knew they could not do so in the pool, they would try to beat him in the classroom. When grades were posted from an exam, students would check their own grade, and then quickly scan the names to see how Schollander did. Once again, this is something that would not be permitted at a college today, the posting of student names and grades.

It was during his freshman year that his attitude towards swimming started to change as well, and Schollander notes that he started to swim not with the goal of winning, but with the goal of not losing. He also felt that his training at Yale was not up to what he had gotten at Santa Clara, and this was starting to affect his performance. As a result of an illness, he also had to take the summer of 1965 off from swimming. He went back to Yale excited about taking a bigger part in college life, and he did, going to football games, parties, and joined a fraternity. (Interesting side note – by the time he graduated, Schollander was inducted into the exclusive Skull and Bones Society; one of his fellow members was George W. Bush!)

At the Spring Indoor Nationals that year (1966), Schollander did not make the finals of the 500 free, and many people said that at the age of 19, he had already peaked, and was on the decline. However, the next day he won the 200 free, and that restored some of his confidence. At the Outdoor Nationals that summer, he set two world records, and won five gold medals, and he felt like he was on top again.

After a great year socially at Yale, and just an OK year as a swimmer, Schollander was looking forward to the summer of 1967 to get back into peak condition. When he went back to Santa Clara he felt things were different, he felt like an outsider. In addition, he was no longer the star at Santa Clara, people were talking about the next great swimmer, Mark Spitz. At the 1967 Outdoor Nationals, Schollander was back in top shape; he won the 200 free in world record time and won the 100 free as well. He was also on two winning relays and finished the meet with 4 golds and fifth place in the 400 free. However, Spitz had four golds and a third and won the high-point total.

His senior year at Yale was uneventful from a swimming perspective, but he realized that by the time Spring 1968 rolled around he would need a lot of work to get ready for the Olympics. Back training at Santa Clara, Schollander felt that Coach Haines had changed, that perhaps he was getting a bit tired of coaching. In addition, Schollander felt that Spitz had become “the man” and Haines was more interested in perhaps seeing if Spitz could win five, maybe six, gold medals in Mexico City. As a result, he thought that Coach no longer had the same confidence in him. At the Olympic Trials that summer, Schollander set a world record in the 200 free and felt that he had proved that he was not over the hill. However, despite a great time in the trial heats of the 100 free, Schollander finished a controversial fifth in the finals, leaving him off the 400 free relay.

From a swimming perspective, there really is not much in the book about Schollander’s performance at the 1968 Olympics. He won a gold medal in the 800 free relay, and took second in the 200 free. His main thoughts were that he was glad it was over.

While swimming is obviously a central focus of the book, Schollander also spends a good deal of time talking about the current state of amateur sports at the time, and his belief that it is an archaic concept. Most other countries make no distinction between amateurs and professionals, while in the US they tried to make the difference clear. An amateur could not earn any money from his sport. Schollander felt this was wrong since it created an unfair playing field. In addition, Schollander talks about the power struggles between the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and the NCAA. I am sure Schollander would have been pleased when Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, removing the AAU from any governance role, and now just serving as an organization that promotes youth sports. However, the NCAA has become even more powerful, and more frightening in the eyes of many.

Schollander also talks a good deal about the Olympic movement, and how in its current state (1968), it no longer concerns itself with the original ideals set forth by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. Instead, the Olympics were (circa)1968 just as much about making political statements as they are about the athletic competitions. He bases this on some of the key political issues that took place in 1968; the banning of South Africa from the games, the potential boycott of the games by Russia and Africa, and the US Black Power movement that culminated in two athletes raised black-gloved hands during their medal ceremony. Schollander notes that most members of the International Olympic Committee are too far removed from what is actually happening in the world of sports to effectively lead the Olympic movement.

Unfortunately, things did not get better. The 1972 Munich Olympics are perhaps more well known for the killing of nine Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists than for Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted by the United States and other countries because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. This led to the 1984 boycott by the Russians of the Los Angeles Olympics. As Schollander noted a long time ago, the Olympics were being used as a way to make political statements.

I am sure Schollander would also be concerned about the commercialization of the Olympics, and sports in general, that have taken place since his book was published. Even though he wrote the book over 40 years ago, at a very young age, it is obvious that Schollander was not only a gifted athlete, but an insightful, and deep thinking person. It is a shame that there are not more people like him today in the world of sports who are not only willing to speak out about the problems they see but offer solutions to those problems as well.

It was great reading this book 40 years later to not only refresh my memory of what an amazing swimmer Don was but to get me thinking about some of the sports-related issues that he raised 40 years ago. To me, it is obvious that the Olympics have moved further away from its original goals, which is a sad thing to see, particularly if it involves issues that were brought to the surface four decades ago.

this is a repost of my July 21, 2012 entry from my first blog, Sportsograhies,

update: I don’t know why I didn’t mention this when I first wrote this post, but one of the highlights of my swimming career was when I got to swim at Yale’s pool at a young age. Seeing Schollander’s name on the record board was inspiring, and to think that I was swimming in the same pool that he did seemed pretty cool.

6 thoughts on “Before Katie Ledecky, Before Michael Phelps, Before Mark Spitz, There Was…

  1. “It is a shame that there are not more people like him today in the world of sports who are not only willing to speak out about the problems they see but offer solutions to those problems as well.”

    I was thoroughly engrossed in this article…and then the passage I just quoted made me smile. Big.

    It’s so true. I mean, 1968, wow! I think Schollander was the quintessential Golden Boy, but refreshingly modest, yeah? Unlike his successor, Spitz, in my opinion. Even though he’d won the four golds in ‘64 (more than his predecessors), he lost out on the coveted five, and I think he got robbed. It would be interesting to hear his thoughts, today, on the development of swimming and the Olympics because he can provide us with an expert deconstruction of people like Biondi and Phelps (whom I consider a freak of nature, haha!)

    How cool that you got to swim where he did, too! You can do worse where heroes are concerned, much worse. 🙂

    1. Thank you once again for your thoughtful comments, Kara. Schollander was a golden boy but he was also willing to speak his mind, something many “golden boys” avoid. Yes, we could use more like him. Impressed that you mention Matt Biondi!

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