The U.S. swimmers were hungry, tough and successful beyond anyone else's fondest hopes. At first they had just one imperative: to repulse Australia and make amends for the dismal American performance at Melbourne in 1956, when we won only two swimming gold medals (plus three in diving).
The Larson affair toughened this resolve. California's Lance Larson was placed second to John Devitt of Australia in the 100-meter freestyle by two of the three judges, even though he was timed a split second faster. A U.S. protest failed, despite controversial filmed "proof" of his victory. Then came Thursday and the U.S. disappointments in track and field.
Eight medals in three nights
Profoundly aware that the U.S. looked to them for heroic performances, the swimmers lightly fed the butterflies in their stomachs, then soberly left the Olympic Village dining hall for the short bus ride across the Tiber to the swimming stadium. It turned into a glorious evening. The U.S. won three swimming gold medals, and so began an offensive that brought victories in five of the six remaining swimming and diving events—eight of nine possible gold medals, all told, in three nights' work.
September 11, 1960
Altogether, the U.S. won nine swimming and two diving gold medals to five in swimming and none in diving for Australia. The American girls beat the Aussie girls five events to one, and the U.S. split four to four with the Australian men.
The key to America's return to world pre-eminence was youth—and lots of it. This was a new wave of Yankee swimmers. None of our individual winners, with the exception of 25-year-old Gary Tobian, had ever seen Olympic competition, while all but one of Australia's 1960 winners had been in action at Melbourne.
Between them, the famous Australian Konrads kids won only one gold medal, despite their assortment of world freestyle records. Ilsa, 15, was shut out, and John, 17, had to wait until the last night for his single victory, in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
In the battle of the kids, America's Chris von Saltza was easily the champion and, indeed, the swimming star of the Olympics. At 16, she was amazingly steady under the heaviest pressure of her competitive life. Her defeat by Dawn Fraser in the 100-meter freestyle race might have' taken the heart out of a less courageous swimmer. But Chris blitzed her over 400 meters (Dawn finished fifth after boasting she would win) and then anchored the American relay teams to two world-record victories for three gold medals and individual supremacy.
It was with notable relay victories that the American swimming breakthrough opened and closed. U.S. fans, still in a mild state of shock after the decline and fall of John Thomas, began to revive Thursday evening as the remarkable convalescent, Jeff Farrell, anchored the American medley relay team to a clocking of 4:05.4, a full five seconds faster than the listed world record.
As dedicated an athlete as there was in Rome, Farrell had made the U.S. team only eight days after an emergency appendectomy. Given a big lead by Lance Larson, the medley butterfly man, Farrell churned in 10 meters ahead of the second-place Aussie. He completed a double an hour later by anchoring the 800-meter freestyle team to still another world record.
Up in the stands sat blond Bill Mulliken, the Miami (Ohio) University senior who two nights before had astonished the swimming world by winning a gold medal in, of all things, the 200-meter breaststroke—by far our weakest event. Unperturbed by the fact that his best previous times were almost five seconds off the world's best, Mulliken had blandly announced before the race that the Aussies were studying him. "And if they're thinking about you, they're worrying about you."
They didn't have to worry about Mulliken in Thursday's medley relay. He sat it out while teammate Paul Hait swam the breaststroke leg. Against the Australian world record holder, Terry Gathercole, Hait held his own in fine style.
Deep-chested Mike Troy dominated the 200-meter butterfly as expected, windmilling to a new world record of 2:12.8. Blonde Lynn Burke methodically fanned out a new world record of 1:09 on the backstroke leg of Friday's medley ("This is for you, Dad"), then won the 100-meter backstroke gold medal the next night in 1:09.3 ("This one is for Mom").
Most impressive of all, and most fitting, was the climax provided by the American women's freestyle relay team Saturday night. Carolyn Wood of Portland, Ore., who is just 14, made up for all the heartbreak of Tuesday's 100-meter butterfly (when she swallowed a pint of water on the turn, dropped out and ran from the pool in tears). Saturday night she put her little head down on the third leg of the freestyle relay and swam away from Australia's Lorraine Crapp, giving Chris von Saltza a two-foot lead for the anchor haul. Chris stretched that into two meters at the finish for the sixth U.S. world swimming record of the Olympics. The time of 4:08.9 chopped more than eight seconds from the Australian record.
On the water Americans were less persuasive than in it. On Lake Albano the U.S. was defeated, after 40 years of supremacy, in the eight-oared shells. The Navy eight was beaten not only by favored Germany (SI, Aug. 22) but also by Canada, Czechoslovakia and France—and on millpond-smooth water.
After the week's trials most American fans had conceded defeat and were ready to cheer for the Canadian eight from the University of British Columbia, just to keep the gold medal in North America. Besides, any crew that has had to dodge driftwood in Vancouver Harbor during practice, has trained together only four months and has an oarsman who is one of 13 brothers and sisters (Nelson Coon, the No. 5) deserves some applause.
Hitting 38 to 41 strokes per minute in the body of the race, the unconventional German crew led at 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters, only to fall slightly behind the equally high-stroking Canadian boat with perhaps 100 meters to go. At this point the Germans pushed the beat to 44 and swung confidently across the finish line three-quarters of a length ahead of the Canadians. The time was a very fast 5:57.18.
Tippy Goes, American Olympic rowing chairman, had hoped for three gold medals from Stan Pocock's Lake Washington Rowing Club oarsmen in the small boats, but he had to settle for one. The U.S. four-oars-without-cox won handily over Italy and Russia in 6:26.26.
"Never in my life have I seen so many fast boats," said Goes, ruefully.
At Naples, American yacht-racing skippers were seeing plenty of fast boats, too. After four days of competition the U.S. could claim only one leader—the 5.5-meter sloop sailed by Boston's George O'Day. The surprise of the yachting events was a Moscow draftsman named Timir Pinegin, who had three firsts and a second in the Star class and was virtually uncatchable in the three remaining races.
The most logical, yet somehow one of the most disappointing American defeats of the week occurred at Rome's fashionable Campo di Golf on the new Appian Way. It was on the final day of the modern pentathlon, and the last test was a 4,000-meter run over hill and dale on the golf course.
Ahead in the individual standings was a tall, nearsighted and not particularly athletic-looking young Navy j.g. named Bob Beck. He had already ridden, fenced, shot and swum his way into the lead, and now he had to excel in his weakest event to turn back a pair of fast Hungarians. As he loped away, his slim, ash-blonde wife, Roman, walked to a knoll near No. 9 green, the better to watch. Her hands trembled as she lit a cigarette, just as they had a few days before, when Beck started the riding event.
Fifteen minutes after he started running Beck lunged rubber-legged to the finish and collapsed into the arms of two Italian soldiers. They laid him out on a stretcher, and a Red Cross nurse gave him oxygen. After all the agony, Beck finished only third, beaten 43 points by Hungary's Ferenc Nemeth.
Beck will be back in 1964. And watch out for his wife, too. Roman got so excited about the Olympics that she tried out for the women's track team.