Michael Nicholas, the coowner of Tucson's Gekas-Nicholas Gallery, tells of meeting Rick DeMont for the first time a few weeks ago: "He came by with his portfolio and I felt that he had potential as an artist, so I agreed to show his paintings. Then I asked him about himself. He told me he'd been an Olympic swimmer, but he didn't go into details."
DeMont picks up the narrative: "I told Michael I'd swum in the Olympics and he said, 'Well, that's not going to sell any paintings.' That was fine with me. Swimming and painting are separate parts of my life."
Several of DeMont's paintings now hang in Nicholas' gallery, including watercolors depicting Arizona's big-sky country and a large landscape in oils in which the hills look like canned peaches and the clouds like mounds of Reddi-Wip. Although DeMont's signature is prominently displayed in the lower right-hand corner of each painting, few visitors to the gallery have recognized the name. Nicholas was right: the fact that DeMont swam at the Olympics is not going to sell any paintings.
But then, what good has DeMont's Olympic experience ever done him? Olympic buffs, unlike art fanciers, will have little difficulty identifying DeMont as the distance swimmer who was stripped of one gold medal and deprived of a shot at winning another at the 1972 Olympics. He had taken an asthma medication that had been prescribed by his personal physician, and he had duly listed it on a medical history he had filled out for the U.S. team doctors. DeMont was 16, the youngest member of the U.S. men's swim team at Munich, but swimming achievements are so ephemeral that within 18 months he no longer dominated his specialties, the 400-and 1,500-meter freestyles. After that he continued to show up at meets but was lucky to get into the consolation finals. He had become a melancholy figure who kept to himself and went all but unnoticed. He failed to make the 1976 Olympic team and his swimming career appeared to be over. Indeed, his life as a distance swimmer was over.
August 19, 1979
What happened next might best be told to the accompaniment of a trumpet fanfare. As they get older, stronger and inclined to take life a bit easier, distance swimmers frequently gravitate to shorter distances, but when DeMont reemerged as a sprinter in 1977, it seemed too late for him to be exercising this particular option. Nevertheless, by the end of that summer he had established himself as one of the world's top performers—perhaps the top—in the 200-meter freestyle. After this stunning comeback, his luck turned sour, illness slowing his progress during his final season at the University of Arizona. Then last summer he decided not to compete. But now, at 23, a ripe old age by swimming standards, DeMont is training with Tucson's Conquistador Aquatic Team and will compete in this week's AAU championships in Fort Lauderdale. And he says that come next summer he may shoot for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. DeMont's best chances figure to come in the 200 free and the 800 free relay; he may also take a shot at the 100 free.
Don Swartz, who coached DeMont for six years at Northern California's Marin Aquatic Club, says, "I believe that Rick has a chance of making the team, and if he does, he can win." His present coach, the Conquistadores' Dick Jochums, says, "Rick's got the talent, that's for sure, and after what he did in '77, I'd have to say he's got a shot." Peter Daland, coach of the U.S. Olympic men's team in 1972, disagrees. "There are a lot of young swimmers coming up and it's going to be difficult for a '76 Olympian to make our team, much less a '72 Olympian." Then he adds, "But I'd like to see Rick do well. The world owes him one."
That sentiment is widespread. Discussing DeMont's disqualification at Munich, one indignant American official told reporters, "It's spelled with a capital 'd' and a small 'm' and it's pronounced robbed." He erred—the "m" is capitalized, too—but the conviction that DeMont was severely wronged in Munich is shared by Dr. Claude A. Frazier, an allergist in Asheville, N.C., who has never met DeMont but has written nearly 600 letters to newspapers, Olympic officials and medical groups in hopes of getting DeMont's gold medal returned. However, the International Olympic Committee says that the case is forever closed and U.S. team doctors at Munich, who have been generally blamed for DeMont's woes in 1972, say he will have to bear most of the responsibility himself. Choose up sides, please; the case of Rick DeMont, the only American besides Jim Thorpe to be stripped of an Olympic gold medal (Thorpe won two golds in track and field in 1912 but had to surrender them when it was discovered he had played professional baseball), is still capable of arousing passion.
DeMont himself generally manages to steer clear of the controversy, just as he has succeeded in paddling out of his sport's mainstream. Now a strapping 6'2" and 185 pounds, three inches taller and 35 pounds heavier than he was in Munich, DeMont has set himself apart from the sport's well-scrubbed golden boys by training in a full beard, an adornment he planned to shave off for this week's AAU meet. He also eschews the pampered country-club existence led by many swimmers in favor of what he calls a "cruisy life-style," one more suited to, well, a track man. He sleeps on a waterbed in a friend's house in Tucson, periodically forswears eating red meat and likes nothing better than to join friends for a pitcher of beer and a game of pool at a local haunt called The Shanty. The parents of his girl friend, an ex-swimmer who lives in Phoenix, consider him an unreconstructed hippie, and his father, a dentist in San Rafael, Calif., who sends him $100 a month pocket money, mildly complains that Rick lacks "direction."
But DeMont feels that swimming and painting give him direction enough. He spends two hours a day in the water and at least twice as long with brush in hand. He completed his final credits toward a degree in art at Arizona this summer. Bruce McGrew, a professor of art at Arizona who has taken DeMont under his wing, says, "Rick is in a formative stage but there's something definitely there. You hear about boxers and other athletes who paint and they're usually awful. Rick isn't any Sunday-afternoon painter. His talent is at a high level."
DeMont credits his absorption in art with helping him come to grips with his 1972 disqualification, a trauma he spoke of one sweltering morning while driving toward the cool mountains northeast of Tucson, where he intended to do some painting. A sharp-featured but sleepy-eyed figure, he spoke of his past troubles calmly and somewhat distantly, almost as if they had happened to somebody else.
"After Munich I felt like a total loser," he said, his eyes fixed on the long, straight road ahead. "I was afraid to face my friends, and all I could think of was, why did this happen to me? I was afraid that every time I got on the starting block people were thinking of me as some kind of speed freak, and I'm sure that's one reason my swimming went bad. I was just sort of going through the motions in swimming; my heart wasn't in it. I was praying that God would bless me with a gold medal at Montreal to make up for the one I lost at Munich."
DeMont swerved to avoid hitting a squirrel. He looked back and saw with relief that he had missed it, and continued. "The fact that I went through a lot of heavy stuff may be why I'm still swimming. It made me get my thoughts organized, even if it took seven years to do it. Now I realize I don't want to lead a swimmer's life, where you live at home and have your mother cook for you and sleep all day. I'm swimming for myself for the first time and not for coaches, team or parents, and I'm actually enjoying swimming. But that's also because it's become just part of my life, not the whole thing. My art is much more important to me now."
Soon DeMont was sitting among the towering pines near the summit of 9,180-foot Mount Lemmon, facing a gurgling stream that he had chosen as a subject. His watercolors neatly laid out beside him, he painted in silence, oblivious to the ants crawling across his bare back. Pausing at one point to stretch, he said, "This is how I want to lead my life. I just want to be outside all day and paint."
During the drive home, DeMont said, "For a long time I had trouble talking about Munich because I get angry about how I got burned. I still don't dwell on it and that's why I didn't go into it with Michael at the gallery. But now I can handle it. I realize it's going to stick with me and that even if I win a gold medal at Moscow, it won't change anything. I'll still be the guy who lost his gold medal. It would give me great satisfaction to win in '80, but I couldn't swim with vengeance in mind."
Was DeMont burned in '72? Seven years later, that question remains difficult to answer dispassionately. Yet even if the case is closed, a review seems worthwhile. For one thing, it provides a useful reminder that doping rules exist in the Olympics and that it is shockingly easy for athletes to run afoul of them. Also, it shows that the IOC has yet to abandon some of the muddled procedures—and thinking—that led to De-Mont's disqualification.
Growing up in San Rafael across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, DeMont enjoyed going into the woods to hike and train falcons, but, because he suffered from hay fever, he often returned with puffy eyes and welts. He also suffered from asthma and was allergic both to wheat—he ate rice and soybean bread—and to fur, which obliged him to remain at the door when visiting friends with cats. The asthma did not, however, prevent him from swimming. DeMont was an age-group hotshot and he emerged as a world-class performer on a perfect Olympic timetable. In April 1972, two weeks before his 16th birthday, he came out of nowhere to place third in the 1,650-yard freestyle at the AAU short-course championships in Dallas and establish himself as a contender for the Munich Games.
Although nobody knew it at the time, he was also on a collision course with the IOC's new doping rules. For many years athletes had been turning increasingly to drugs in hopes of enhancing their performances; as a consequence, the IOC introduced urine tests in a limited way to detect doping at the 1968 Olympics. However, not until 1972 did such testing become routine. For the Munich Games, the IOC issued a long list of banned substances, mostly stimulants and painkillers, but only by generic names. It took some doing to find out that such commonplace over-the-counter preparations as Visine eyedrops, Coricidin D cold tablets and Vicks lozenges contained forbidden substances. Because of this, the ordinary athlete could only make sense of the list with the aid of a doctor.
However, like many other doctors at the time, DeMont's allergist was unaware that a dope list even existed. Dr. Patricia M. Clark had begun treating Rick at the age of four and had prescribed weekly allergy shots. But Rick continued to suffer attacks of wheezing, at least two of which required emergency adrenaline injections. For milder attacks, Dr. Clark prescribed medication containing ephedrine, a decongestant then commonly prescribed for asthmatics. Among the drugs DeMont took containing ephedrine or related compounds were Tedral, Actifed and Sudafed. In 1971, at the AAU championships in Houston, he suffered a severe asthma attack that the meet doctor successfully treated with Marax, another medication containing ephedrine. On DeMont's return to San Rafael, Dr. Clark prescribed 50 tablets of Marax to be taken singly "every six hours as necessary, for asthma," a prescription that was filled on Aug. 31 at Rutherford's Pharmacy in nearby Mill Valley. During the next year DeMont apparently used most or all of these tablets, because on July 27, 1972 the prescription was renewed. When he left for the Olympic Trials in Chicago a few days later, Dr. Clark decided to temporarily discontinue the allergy shots. But DeMont took along Marax, Actifed, Sudafed, salt pills (to relieve cramps) and vitamins.
As Clark, DeMont and a lot of other people would soon learn, ephedrine, one of the components of Marax, was on the IOC's banned list. It is a stimulant that, while milder than amphetamines, can in sufficient quantities cause heart palpitations and insomnia.
Powered by a slow but efficient stroke and a deep kick that enabled him to accelerate late in a race, DeMont overtook Mike Burton and John Kinsella, the one-two finishers at the 1968 Olympics, to win the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Olympic Trials in a world-record 15:52.91. He also qualified for Munich in the 400 free as runner-up to Tom McBreen. After the Trials he and his new Olympic teammates were taken to the Twin Bridges Marriott in Arlington, Va., where they received uniforms and underwent physical exams conducted by the U.S. medical staff headed by Dr. Winston P. (Pete) Riehl of New Orleans.
The athletes had to fill out medical histories, and DeMont wrote that he suffered from asthma—which he misspelled "athsma"—as well as a variety of allergies. On a line asking for "all medications which the candidate now takes," he itemized Marax and each of his other medications. DeMont was then processed by one of Riehl's assistants, Dr. Harvey O'Phelan, the team doctor for the Minnesota Twins and University of Minnesota. Immediately after the Games, Riehl claimed that O'Phelan had expressly warned the swimmer that some of his listed medications contained banned substances but O'Phelan himself says that he issued the athletes he processed no more than "a general warning" about banned drugs.
"I don't specifically remember DeMont, but I told all the people I examined not to take any drugs unless they checked with us," O'Phelan, an orthopedic surgeon, says. "It's safer that way. If you start singling out drugs they can't take, they might assume ones you don't mention are O.K." O'Phelan also acknowledges that he made no effort to discuss with DeMont control of his asthma, again preferring a general plea—in this case, that in the event of problems in Munich, all athletes should come to the U.S. medical clinic in the Olympic Village. Nor did O'Phelan or anybody else on the U.S. medical staff consult the IOC to arrange acceptable substitutes for the ephedrine-containing drugs on DeMont's form, which they might have done. Then what purpose did the form serve? "It was just a routine history," O'Phelan says.
But if the form was not taken seriously by the U.S. doctors, it was by DeMont, who says, plaintively, "Our coaches kept telling us in Munich not to take any medicine unless it had been cleared by the doctors. I figured that since I listed Marax on the form, it was cleared."
The contretemps involving DeMont occurred because of the Marax he took to alleviate a wheezing attack he says he suffered after going to bed Thursday, Aug. 31, the night before the 400 freestyle. The next evening he won the gold medal in that event in 4:00.26, just one one-hundredth of a second ahead of Australia's Brad Cooper. Under the procedure followed at the swimming competition, the three medalists and other swimmers chosen at random left urine samples at doping control. That seemingly routine matter over, the ecstatic DeMont returned to the Olympic Village with his gold medal.
On Saturday the IOC Medical Commission learned that DeMont's sample had tested positive for ephedrine. He faced the loss of his gold medal in the 400 and there was the further question of whether he would be allowed to swim the 1,500, which was coming up on Monday. Illogically, the IOC proceeded to approach those questions in reverse order, its medical commission scheduling a hearing for Monday on whether he could swim the 1,500.
U.S. doctors were suddenly and belatedly very interested in DeMont's medical history, and one of them phoned Rutherford's Pharmacy in California. "I was shocked to death to have a doctor calling from Munich," recalls owner George Hoyle. "The doctor asked me who had written the prescription, what the dosage was and what Marax contained." That last inquiry would raise the question of whether any or all of the U.S. doctors were familiar enough with Marax to have warned DeMont about it.
DeMont's first intimation of trouble came on Sunday when a swim-team manager confiscated his medicine, which was on his dresser. Before the day was over DeMont swam a heat in the 1,500 to qualify for the finals. He also was questioned about his medication by USOC officials, one of whom, Patrick H. Sullivan, recalls that DeMont said he had taken one Marax tablet. Eventually, however, DeMont signed a letter declaring that in light of "new information," he now realized he had taken two Marax tablets—one between 1 and 2 a.m., another at 8 a.m.
DeMont was on the spot, but so were the U.S. doctors. It was their task to help defend DeMont at the Monday hearing, yet almost anything they might say in his behalf would implicate themselves. And they were understandably troubled by word from the IOC that, based on the amount of ephedrine detected in DeMont's system, he must have taken more than one or two tablets—or at least taken them closer to the time of his race. By this time they viewed DeMont as "a 16-year-old who had problems following instructions," as Riehl now puts it. During the 45 minutes that they waited in a lounge for the hearing to begin, Riehl did not talk to DeMont.
DeMont remembers that when the hearing began, the Soviet member of the IOC medical commission, Dr. Nina Grayewskaya. "questioned me over and over, doubting what I said." The U.S. member, Dr. Daniel F. Hanley, was scarcely any friendlier. Hanley also was chairman of the USOC committee that had chosen the American doctors—which put him in an awkward position, too. And as he now relates, he had been deeply troubled by conflict in DeMont's testimony on the question of dosage.
The same question also troubled the commission chairman, Prince Alexandre de Merode of Belgium, who says today, "If there had been just a trace of ephedrine, there could have been room for discussion. But it was such a high concentration." But de Merode, a layman, also felt that DeMont had been ill-served by U.S. team doctors. He says he specifically asked the American doctors why they hadn't notified the IOC that DeMont was asthmatic, and one of them replied that this had been "a small mistake." The prince also tells of being quite put off when one of the team doctors testified that if the American swimmer hadn't taken Marax on the eve of his race, he would have died—a truly extravagant claim.
Without waiting for the commission to take a vote on whether he would be allowed to swim the race, DeMont left the meeting and went to the pool to warm up for the 1,500. It was the final night of swimming, and De-Mont's father, unaware of the trouble, was getting ready to take movies. When word of the commission's decision reached the pool, it fell to Don Gambril, an assistant U.S. coach, to convey the bad news to DeMont. In a choked-up voice, he said, "Sorry, no go." DeMont then watched in a daze as 25-year-old Mike Burton, the winner at Mexico City four years earlier, won in 15:52.58, shaving DeMont's world record by .35. DeMont tearfully congratulated him.
Mark Spitz won his seventh gold medal a little later, but DeMont's disqualification still was big news. Besieged by reporters, de Merode said, "A 16-year-old boy was made to pay for the sins of people who should know better." He also said, "The persons accompanying the athlete should be punished since they were clearly co-responsible."
At dawn the next day Arab terrorists scaled the fence in the Olympic Village and stormed the Israeli quarters, launching a 20-hour reign of terror that would end with 11 Israelis slain. But the Olympics continued and, with the siege still going on, Avery Brundage and the rest of the IOC executive board met later that day in the Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel with Hanley, Riehl and de Merode to rule on the gold medal in the 400. DeMont was not present. There were rumors that the medical commission had recommended that DeMont be allowed to keep the medal and de Merode had sounded conciliatory enough when he acknowledged that being barred from the 1,500 had been a "rather severe" penalty.
But to a certain extent, the IOC had maneuvered itself into a corner: if DeMont were now allowed to keep his gold medal in the 400, the race in which he had tested positive for ephedrine, how could the IOC justify having already banned him from the 1,500, an event in which he presumably would have been clean? It also happened that there were six other disqualifications for doping at Munich and the athletes involved might have cried foul had DeMont been spared. Nor did U.S. doctors help matters. Asked why the staff had taken no action after DeMont listed Marax on his form, Hanley lamely replied that he hadn't seen the form, neatly sidestepping the fact that O'Phelan, while processing DeMont, had seen it. Hanley also was asked whether he would accept full responsibility for DeMont's troubles. His unhesitant answer: no.
The impression in the room was that had Hanley given a positive answer, DeMont would have kept his gold medal, but Hanley today reiterates, "I said no because I wasn't responsible." Why the IOC couldn't simply rely on its own conclusions is a mystery. Brundage certainly betrayed no doubts when, commenting on the decision to strip DeMont of his gold medal, he told USOC officials that "responsibility for this disqualification rests on your team medical authorities, who are severely reprimanded." But only DeMont was punished. At the end of the Olympics, by which time DeMont had flown home—with his gold medal still in his possession—another gold medal was presented to Cooper, the runner-up.
Editorial writers in the U.S. expressed outrage over DeMont's fate and President Nixon wrote him a personal note in which he said, "Your fellow citizens still believe you fairly deserve the gold medal." And so they did—76% of them, according to a Harris poll. Under fire for general all-round bungling in Munich, the USOC board of directors echoed Brundage and held the medical staff officially to blame for DeMont's disqualification. Riehl tried to defend himself in American Medical News, declaring that "if we went over the contraindicated medications taken by every athlete, we would have a list as long as your arm." Several doctors wrote and assailed him, one accusing him and his assistants of having been "derelict."
Riehl, a pleasant, crew-cut man, holds others responsible. Discussing the case recently in his office at the Tulane University Health Service, which he heads, he charged, for example, that Dr. Clark, DeMont's personal physician, "wasn't as sharp" in anticipating trouble as the allergist who treated DeMont's fellow Olympian, Jim Ryun, also an asthma sufferer. Reaching into an airline bag in which he keeps records pertaining to the DeMont case, Riehl fished out a letter in which Dr. Jay Keystone of Santa Barbara, Calif, asked USOC doctors before Munich to determine whether Ryun's medications contained any banned substances. Riehl next attacked the swim coaches, saying, "We asked them time and again to check and double-check what drugs their athletes were taking."
However, Riehl reserved his heaviest criticism for DeMont. Claiming that De-Mont was not a "chronic" asthmatic, Riehl said the swimmer had previously taken Marax only at the Olympic Trials in Chicago, which, if true, would suggest that he was using it only at moments of athletic stress. "I'm in a difficult position because it appears that I'm trying to make a 16-year-old boy look bad," Riehl said. "But there's always been a question in my mind of how much asthma DeMont had to begin with, and whether he knowingly or unknowingly took the medicine in the belief he was getting a high out of it."
It would be a dramatic development if. after seven years, Riehl turned out to be right and his many detractors wrong. But many of his arguments are flawed. Dr. Keystone, who treated Ryun, says that he contacted the USOC about the question of medication only after being alerted by the runner's coach, Bob Timmons. "Until Timmons talked to me, I didn't know there was a banned list and I doubt that very many other doctors did, either," Keystone says. "I think it's unfair to suggest that somebody should have known." For her part, Dr. Clark accused U.S. doctors immediately after the Munich Games of "careless and inadequate treatment," adding that, "Even more appalling was the unprofessional, unmanly attempt to cover up these errors." Today she says, firmly, "Rick was given Marax because it was the right drug for his asthma and not to improve his performance." Riehl's charge that coaches should have checked DeMont's medication brings a similarly emphatic response from Daland, who says, "That was their job. Rick lost his gold medal because of their ineptitude."
Riehl may be clouding the issue in declaring that DeMont's asthma was not "chronic." Allergists point out that asthma is usually controllable and that even severe sufferers are often able to function normally in sports. Also, even if De-Mont had taken Marax only before big races, it would not necessarily be damning; excitement or emotional stress may trigger wheezing. In any event, DeMont insists that, contrary to what Riehl says, he didn't take Marax in Chicago but had taken it on perhaps a dozen previous occasions. This would seem to be borne out by the fact that he renewed his original 50-tablet prescription before leaving for Chicago.
But why the high concentration of ephedrine in DeMont's system at Munich? Because de Merode and other IOC officials seem reluctant to say exactly how much ephedrine was found—press reports from Munich put the amount at 12 parts per million—there remains at least a faint doubt that it was high. All the same, DeMont apparently did equivocate on his story at Munich and he remains vague today, allowing that besides the Marax he ingested in the early hours of Sept. 1, he "possibly" could have taken more later in the day. Might a frightened 16-year-old have understated his intake in the mistaken belief that this would help him?
"I was scared to death but I really don't know exactly how much I took," DeMont replies. "When I took my medicine, I just followed the prescription and didn't think any more about it, and that's what I tried to tell everybody. I know I wasn't exceeding the normal dosage or freaking out. My race is coming up and I'm thinking, 'Wow, I don't want to be wheezing now.' I sure didn't feel stimulated. Those doctors were just playing with my head."
In all the talk about dosage, crucial points have been overlooked. Even if DeMont had been inclined to use Marax in the belief that it would help him swim faster, as Riehl at times seems to imply, it is almost unthinkable that he would have taken those pills on the day of his race had he realized that the medicine contained a banned substance, that even the slightest trace of that substance is grounds for disqualification and that all medalists were to be tested. Certainly he wouldn't have listed Marax on his form or displayed the bottle prominently on his dresser. Plainly, he didn't realize Marax contained a banned substance, a fact that can be laid to the less than thorough handling of his medical history by the U.S. medical staff.
To prevent any recurrence of what happened to DeMont, alarmed U.S. swim officials arranged to have a doctor and a pharmacologist monitor the medications used by 1976 Olympic swimmers. Consulting with the 51 swimmers at their Olympic training camps, they found them to be taking an average of 3.7 medications and nutritional supplements. Astonishingly, 16 of the swimmers were unknowingly taking substances on the banned list. In the face of such pharmaceutical overkill, U.S. doctors at Montreal did what Riehl and his associates didn't do in Munich. They carefully analyzed all medication listed on the forms, warned athletes of those containing banned substances and worked out suitable substitutions. They also required all athletes to sign statements saying they had listed all medication.
For its part, the IOC refuses to this day to acknowledge that, with the possible exception of steroids, which build muscle bulk, there is real doubt whether drugs can improve performance.
In the DeMont case, it further failed to consider that Marax also contained an antihistamine that might have all but canceled out whatever stimulating effect the ephedrine would have had. Most important, it failed to recognize that far from being a normal person trying to become supernormal, an asthmatic taking Marax might more properly be thought of as a handicapped person trying to be normal. For these oversights, the American Academy of Allergy in 1973 unanimously condemned the IOC's action against DeMont and defended the use of ephedrine by asthmatics.
After the '72 Games Dr. Clark switched DeMont to Quibron, a medication acceptable to the IOC. Meanwhile, under threat that his son might be banned from swimming, Will DeMont mailed the gold medal to the USOC. He paid the postage himself. At the 1973 world championships in Belgrade, an unwheezing, unmedicated DeMont beat Brad Cooper in the 400 free as they became the first swimmers to cover the distance in under four minutes, DeMont touching in 3:58.18, Cooper in 3:58.70. But new Australian sensation Steve Holland won the 1,500 in a world-record 15:31.85. DeMont was runner-up in 15:35.44, 16 seconds under his personal best, but he says, "Holland hurt me in a way I didn't ever want to hurt again."
In 1974 Tim Shaw eclipsed DeMont in the 400, just as Holland had done in the 1,500. After dropping out of the University of Washington, where he competed for two seasons, DeMont had the unwelcome distinction of swimming in the only men's event, the 200 freestyle, in which the U.S. failed to win the gold medal during the 1975 Pan-American Games—a meet for which he qualified only because half a dozen faster swimmers passed it up. At the 1976 Olympic Trials DeMont placed no higher than seventh in any event.
Some observers, pouncing eagerly on rumors that DeMont was using drugs, took the position that what supposedly made him swim fast in Munich was now making him swim slow. The fact that he wore his hair longer than most other swimmers and was into painting made it easier for some people to believe these rumors, as did De-Mont's subsequent transfer to Arizona, whose swim team had acquired a reputation for partying that rival recruiters were only too happy to embellish. At obvious risk to himself, DeMont today faces the subject squarely.
"Because of what happened in '72 you could probably hammer me for this but, sure, I've used pot and other stuff," he says. "In eighth grade guys got high and drank whiskey from paper cups and did a lot of other raunchy things, and I was into all that, too. But I cleaned up my act long before Munich. Since Munich, well, I think there's use and abuse of drugs and I've never let it get in my way. At Arizona I doubt there were any more drugs than at any other school, but we had a guy who thought it was cool to talk about it, and that's where the bad reputation came from." At least credit DeMont for his earnestness: he says the primary reason he generally refrains from eating red meat is his belief that it contains too many "bogus" chemicals.
When DeMont began to struggle, it might have helped had he become a sprinter right away. However, except for the 200 he swam at the Pan-Am Games, he didn't have much experience in shorter events.
He became a full-fledged sprinter only after he began to experiment with his kick in his parents' backyard pool late in 1976. As a distance man he had kicked four beats to every arm stroke but now stepped that up to a sprinter's classic six beats and, to his delight, found, "I was moving." He enrolled at Arizona in early 1977, did well in the 100 and 200 and that summer people in swimming suddenly began asking, "Is that Rick DeMont?" They asked it first at the AAU championships in Mission Viejo, Calif. after DeMont placed eighth in the 100-meter free and was runner-up in the 200 to triple Olympic gold medalist Jim Montgomery. They asked it again when he beat Montgomery and two East Germans in the 200 in a big dual meet in Berlin in 1:51.62—the world's third-fastest time that year—and also swam a leg on a 400-free relay that broke the world record. And they asked it once more when he beat Montgomery and two Soviet swimmers in a dual meet the following week in Leningrad. Rick DeMont had won the 200 in the year's two biggest meets and had a world record to his credit for the first time in four years. Excitedly he said, "Sometimes you have to go all the way down to go back up."
About the only irritant for DeMont during that heady summer was a new AAU code of conduct requiring swimmers on national teams to sign pledges ' that they would obey curfews and refrain from drinking, smoking and sex. DeMont, who obviously had had enough in the way of inflexible rules at Munich, signed under protest—"I kind of wrote a line"—but says that the code is one reason he dropped out of swimming last year. "There are a lot of 14-year-old girls in swimming and that's who the code is supposed to protect," he says. "But why treat older guys in their 20s like babies? I'm 23 and they're telling me I can't have a beer and when I have to go to bed? Can you imagine anything like that in track? We could have a lot more older guys in swimming, but the coaches don't want that. We're developing a bunch of swimming clones who have a psychological dependence on the coach."
DeMont was enticed back into full training this spring mainly by the presence in Tucson of Jochums, who holds a Ph.D. in education from the University of California. Jochums had come to Arizona a few months earlier from Long Beach State and the powerful Beach Swim Club. By coincidence, DeMont had swum for him at Beach during his '77 comeback, and Jochums has since worked to improve his new team's image, to the extent of prohibiting swimmers from saying "mellow," a word he felt was too closely associated with drugs. But Jochums also is one of the few major coaches who openly oppose the AAU code, which he considers laughably unrealistic. Partly for this reason, the ranks of the Conquistadores include Tim Shaw, Robin Backhaus, Casey Converse, Steve Gregg and Doug Northway, all of whom are Olympians in their 20s.
Jochums fondly calls his team "The Over-the-Hill Gang" but admits that older swimmers tend to be lippy and often try to take shortcuts during workouts; one of his old-timers once hid underwater in a corner of the pool, breathing through a snorkel. As a sprinter, DeMont swims only 6,000 meters a day, barely half of what he logged as a distance man. "I've got natural stamina and I'm probably best suited for the 400, but I don't want to put in the time," he says.
"But I'm way stronger than I used to be and I try to make the most of what I do. At workouts I try to put in something fast every day, but if I feel it's not there, I don't go to the pool that day. Dick's really adaptable and we try to work it out. Away from the pool, he doesn't get into your life."
DeMont seldom joins in horseplay at the pool, choosing instead to watch the antics of others with what a friend calls "his laid-back smile." Jochums says, "Rick is disciplined but it's his own discipline. If you want him to do something, you've got to give him reasons. He knows his own body and doesn't really need me. All I do is try to get him to do a little more work than he wants." At the end of a Thursday afternoon workout, after DeMont had attended several twice-daily sessions without a miss, Jochums told him, "Rick, be here tomorrow. You've got the week almost knocked." DeMont, who had been planning to sleep late the next morning, sighed. He was at the pool early the next day.
Last April DeMont was 10th in the 200-yard freestyle at the AAU short-course championships in Los Angeles, an encouraging showing considering that he was still out of shape. In June he finished eighth in the 200-meter free at the Seventeen Meet at Mission Viejo and two weeks ago placed third in the 100 free in the Santa Clara Invitational. However, he slipped to 22nd in the 200 free, failing to qualify for that event in Fort Lauderdale. But he will swim the 200 on the Conquistadores' 800 relay team and is heartened by his improvement in the 100.
'I'm going to give it an honest shot at the nationals and I think it'll be there," he says. "Then I'll decide whether to shoot for Moscow. The problem is I might go crazy and paint for a month and forget it. But if I go for it, I know I've got to work." Something DeMont apparently need not worry about is his asthma; he says he now wheezes only once or twice a year.
Despite his desire to keep them separate, DeMont's painting and swimming sometimes blur. Discussing why he continues to swim, he emphasizes the esthetic: "I enjoy being with the old guys—they're my friends—but I also like the Zen of swimming, the feeling of me and the water. You have to work with the water, not against it. You're floating, you feel cool and there are bubbles all around you. It's almost spiritual."
At the same time, DeMont seems to wish that one's merits as an artist could, as in swimming, be assayed with stopwatch precision. "The painting getting any comments?" he asked, referring to his landscape, as he breezed into Gekas-Nicholas Gallery the other day.
Between bites of a sandwich, Michael Nicholas replied, "Lots of comments."
Another bite. "Good and bad."
DeMont winced. Leaving the gallery a moment later, he paused to gaze at the painting. With only a little effort, it was possible to imagine that one of the mountains that looked like canned peaches also bore a faint resemblance to another object. It was possible to persuade oneself that Rick DeMont had used brush and paint to create his own gold medal, one that nobody could take away from him.