The Pain and Joy of Pain: Dick Roth and the Gold that Almost Wasn’t

Roth Saari Hetz on the Podium_Asahi Graf_30October1964
Left to Right: Roy Saari, Dick Roth, Gerhard Hetz, silver, gold and bronze medalists of the 400 meter individual medley at the 1964 Tokyo Games

“I can withstand pain. In fact, I love pain.”

Olympic champion, Dick Roth, referred to pain as his advantage. The 1964 gold medalist in the 400-meter individual swimming medley believed he could tolerate more pain than almost any of his competitors. And when you’re an Olympic-level swimmer, a combination of holding your breath and stretching your body to its physical limits creates oxygen debt.

Oxygen is vital to breaking down glucose to provide your body with energy. But when the body can’t get enough oxygen to create energy, it releases lactic acid, a substance that can create energy without oxygen. When there is more lactic acid in your blood than can be burned off, you get pain. And the more intense your physical activity, the more intense the pain can be.

Dick Roth with medal

And Roth’s pain was intense. As described briefly in an earlier post, Roth was one of the young American swimmers favored to do well in his swimming event. But literally hours after the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Summer Games, Roth was tossing and turning in discomfort and then tremendous pain.

Roth got himself out of bed at 6 am, got to the Olympic Village infirmary. The nurse poked and probed. The swim team doctor did blood tests and then left him alone in his bed. He was 24 hours from competing in the Olympic Games. “This was not the way to calm me down,” thought Roth. Then finally, they told him. He was going to be transported to a US Army Hospital in Western Tokyo and have his appendix removed.

“I was so blown away they had to bring in a counselor to calm me down,” wrote Roth. “The ambulance ride to Tachikawa is a blur. The only thing I remember is pulling up to the hospital entrance and thinking I was going to die.”

The doctors told Roth that they would have to take out his appendix ASAP. He said no. They somehow prepped Roth for the operation and asked a member of the US Olympic Committee to sign off on the operation since Roth was still a minor at 17, but the USOC didn’t want to take responsibility. They eventually tracked down Roth’s parents who of course wanted to OK the operation. But their son was adamant. “My parents came in to see me before they signed, thank god. I begged them not to let the doctors take it out. I really wanted to swim. What if they were wrong? So began hours of debate back and forth with phone calls to the States for third and fourth opinions. In the end, my parents made a deal to take all responsibility, an unbelievably tough decision.”

The Roths and the doctors agreed that Roth would not exercise except to swim in the heats and that he would have blood tests every four hours. Roth was back in the Olympic Village that evening and went to sleep. The next day, he swam relatively poorly in the heats, 15 seconds slower than his personal best, but still made it into the finals.

“Everyone is on the same level physically,” Roth told me. “So it is all mental. On any given day anyone can win. We all knew about pain. You had to swim through the pain. I would get myself into oxygen debt and when I couldn’t add 2 and 3, when I thought I couldn’t go any further, I knew I was in the right place.”

And as he was resting in bed waiting for the finals to begin, he wrote that pain was a part of his mental preparation. “All that day I swam the race in my mind and felt the pain over and over and over. I was obsessive. But I got to watch my confidence build back up. I remember it very clearly.”

What Roth didn’t remember clearly was the 400 meter finals race, which is 100 meter sprints in four different styles: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. “I really don’t remember the race very well,” he told me. “I remember being out of the race in the butterfly, probably back in 5th or 6th place. I do remember turning over for the back stroke because you can breathe. I then remember in the breast-stroke taking a couple of breaths, not looking around, but bearing down internally. And I remember the last half lap and the searing pain, complete bodily pain. Oxygen debt. Muscles don’t have enough oxygen. The pain of lactic acid. My advantage. I always had something in the tank.”

And then some. Roth smashed his own world record by 3 seconds, a time of 4 minutes, 45.4 seconds that lasted nearly four more years. The pain of the appendicitis, the searing burn of lactic acid – all that faded away as he received his gold medal.

And yet Roth understands that his relationship with pain is trivial compared to the other kinds of pain endured in the world. Roth had been to Japan prior to the Olympic Games. As a 13-year old, he travelled with the US swim team to Japan. He remembers being treated well, like celebrities in fact. Towards the end of his stay, the team went to the resort village of Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods of Nikko with the team, he couldn’t help but walk off to be alone, where he saw something he clearly remembers today.

“I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of 8 to 10 horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked. He said they were also on a tour. They were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget. I became a Pacifist later in life.”

Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torch bearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torch bearer came in and there was a cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”

Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only

paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”

sakai at cauldron
Yoshinori Sakai at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremonies