The Dale McClements’ Diary: From Athlete to Activist

Team USA getting read to compete at the 1964 Olympics, from Dale McClements Kephart's personal collection
Team USA getting read to compete at the 1964 Olympics, from Dale McClements Kephart’s personal collection

She was 19, and at 5 feet (1.5 meters) and only 98 pounds (44 kgs), said to be the smallest Olympian at the 1964 Olympics. Gymnast, Dale McClements, competed in a tough competition with much stronger teams from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, ending up the highest ranked American at the Tokyo Games.

And she kept a journal of her time.

She told me that she was very excited to go to Japan, and experience a different way of life. Below are excerpts from her diary, and how her teenage eyes saw the world, one particularly different from her life in Seattle.

Oct. 4th:  Food here is very good although for some reason I haven’t been eating that much for lack of hunger and quest for drinks.  They have all kinds of food which could suit all nations.  Oh-yoyo and Sayonara!  Good morning and goodbye.

Oct. 5th:  We had a flag raising ceremony today.  When all the members of a country are all in the village, we have to march as a team to the Olympic circle of flags with other countries doing the same thing.  So we marched, if you want to call it that.  After seeing how well and in step all the other teams are, it is kind of embarrassing to march with our team.  We have bikes we can ride all over the village. We spend most of our time training or in the village. You just pick one bike up and leave it when you get off of it.  Sometimes we end up racing for bikes though.  We also get free ice cream here. It’s fun.  

Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan and Linda Matheny in the Olympic Village, Olympics, from Dale McClemments Kephart's personal collection
Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan and Linda Matheny in the Olympic Village, Olympics, from Dale McClemments Kephart’s personal collection

Oct. 8th:  We went into town yesterday.  This is where I noticed that there are so many people here.  The streets are loaded with people.  I love the Japanese people and thought – they are so quiet, yet so friendly and humble.  I think they are great and this has been the best country I’ve been to so far.  Traffic drives me crazy here so I just don’t look at where we’re going anymore.  It’s a miracle that we haven’t had a wreck yet.

Oct. 10th:

Today was opening ceremonies. It was a great one too. The standing around for 3 hours was worth the one hour ceremony. First we marched halfway around the stadium and onto the field. Some speeches were made, then the Olympic flag was raised. Next, balloons were let loose, the torch bearer ran the track, climbed the carpeted steps to light the torch at the top of the stadium, the pigeons were let loose, then – most impressive of all – 5 planes described a circle in the air which formed the linking Olympic circles in their correct colors. Then we marched off.

But as time approached the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics, there was considerable uncertainty around the make-up of the US women’s gymnastics team. Surprisingly, the team had not been finalized. Who would round out the six members of the team? Who would end up being the alternate? McClements expressed the frustration she and likely other members of her team had during the Games.

Oct. 13th:

Things are a very big mess right now. Everything has been leading up to this, but today everything blew sky high and we haven’t even reached the worst part of it yet. It’s nice to be on the team, etc, but they sure shouldn’t put us through the mental strain they are when it is so close to the meet. Actually, I have nothing to be upset about because I’m in a good position. The number 1 problem is who is going to be the alternate? That’s a good question – no one of us can even take a wild guess. The past few days our routines have been judged by our own staff. I have ignored this and concentrated completely on my training. It is bothering a lot of the team however. What bothers me is that we are not getting enough training in because of so much formal preparations to be judged. 3 people on the team do not have a secure position.

Team USA: Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs, from the personal collection of Dale McClements Kephart
Team USA: Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs, from the personal collection of Dale McClements Kephart

When McClements returned home to Seattle after competing in the Summer Games, and then exhibitions in other parts of Japan, she met with the press. She said that US Women’s Gymnastics will never improve until the politics are removed from the selection process. For a long time, there had been complaints by gymnasts regarding the head of the AAU gymnastics body who, apparently, made all decisions regarding selection at that time.

“The problem could be called one of personalities,” McClements was quoted as saying in The Seattle Times. “A few persons control the sport nationally. These few insist upon using the same small number of judges and refuse to allow new blood in. there are several other qualified to judge, one of them a former Olympics competitor, but these are ignored. One result of this ‘control’ has been poor planning, to the detriment of those competing and to the standing of United States teams internationally.”

For example, she cited that the team was together only for two weeks to train and that the team wasn’t finalized until very late. She said they didn’t have time to develop a team feeling and approach. “This is important in Olympics competition, even though much of the competition is individual. The lack of a unified approach by the entire team influences the judges.”

A movement to remove the AAU as a governing body of gymnastics in the US had been advancing in the early 1960s, and was gaining momentum after the Tokyo Olympics. An alternative body called the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF) had already been established, complete with their own national championships. But the AAU was still the national governing body and gymnasts could only participate in the Olympics via the rules and the blessings of the AAU…until the tide turned at the end of the decade, and the USGF became the national governing body.