You are one of the fastest swimmers in the world, having broken the world record twice prior to the Olympic Games. You’re going to be confident and excited for the fight.
So much can happen to an athlete before the competition begins: bad news from home, illness, an injury. But rarely do you arrive at the venue of the Olympic Games, prep for the competitions, only to be told to go home. It happened to the Indonesians and North Koreans at the 1964 Tokyo Games, and surprisingly to me, the Dutch in the 1956 Melbourne Games.
When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in late October, 1956, in order to help suppress an anti-government uprising, there was an international outcry. As a result, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland decided to boycott the Summer Games in Melbourne held only a few weeks later. This came as a shock. In one case, a world-record holder and nearly sure-medalist swimmer from Rotterdam, Cornelia Maria (Cocky) Gastelaars, was asked to retreat at a time of possible victory.
Dawn Fraser, legendary Olympic champion swimmer from Australia , told this story in her autobiography, Below the Surface – The Confessions of an Olympic Champion.
My first disappointment after moving into the Olympic Village came when the Dutch government ordered the Netherlands team to withdraw from competition. The international situation was tense then, first with Suez and then with the Hungarian revolution, and the Dutch felt that it was no time for running, jumping, swimming and other frivolous pastimes. This meant that Lorraine and I would be deprived of our main opposition from overseas – Cockie Gasterlaars. You may think that we should have welcomed the news that a big danger was out of the reckoning: all I know is that we were bitterly disappointed, the more so because Cockie was actually in Melbourne and living at the Village when the news of Holland’s withdrawal arrived.
Cockie spoke excellent English, and we talked often during the first weeks in the Village. She had held the world 100-meter record twice during the year, and she wept once when she told me how much she wanted to compete. Another time she checked through the list of entries with me and told me that an American girl, Shelley Mann, and a Canadian girl called Grant had been swimming good times; but I think we both knew that the real struggle would have been between Cockie, Lorraine and me.
Fraser went on to win the 100-meter freestyle championship in Melbourne in world record time. But she is not sure that would have been the result had the Dutch team not boycotted the Games.
The day the Dutch team moved out, I saw Cockie Gastelaars. “You were wonderful,” she said. And I told her it might have been a different result if she’d been swimming. She was a sweet, shy girl and very brave; it must have been awful to have been deprived of the chance to compete just when she was at the peak of her career. We swapped badges, pins and finally addresses. We said we’d write, and we told each other that we’d be bound to meet in the water sometime, somewhere.
POSTSCRIPT: October 29, 2016. I had the honor of interviewing Cocky Gastelaars on October 10. I learned that, in fact, she never was in Australia when the Dutch government announced the boycott. She was still at home. And of course, she was very disappointed. But she did not meet Dawn Fraser until a year after the Melbourne Olympics when she took a trip to Australia.
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