The Golden Boy Don Schollander Part 1: Guile, More than Speed, Brings Unexpected Glory in the 100-meter Sprint

Don Schollander swimming 100 meter freestyle
The 18-year old from Oswego, Oregon became the Golden Boy of the 1964 Olympics. Before there was Mark Spitz, there was Don Schollander, who won four swimming gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In fact, Schollander became the first person to win four golds in a single Olympics since 1936, when a man named Jesse Owens blazed to glory a the Berlin Olympics.

But the four gold medals was in some part hinging on a race strategy of deception, in a competition that Schollander was not commonly a participant – the 100-meter freestyle. Schollander was dominant in the middle and long-distance competitions of the 400 and 1,500 meters. And as he mentioned in his 1971 autobiography, Deep Water, only Olympic champion Johnny Weissmuller had won both the 400 and 100-meter races. “The two races are just very different and training for them is different. In the 100-meter, the emphasis is on speed, in the 400, on endurance. In the 1,500 the emphasis is also on endurance, obviously, and the 400 and the 1,500 are a fairly common double. But I had made up my mind to swim the 100.”

The press believed there was a likelihood that Schollander could win gold in the 400-meter freestyle, the 4×100-meter freestyle relay and the 4×200 meter freestyle, in addition to the 100-meter freestyle. But the 100-meter freestyle, arguably the marquee swimming event, was the first one, which put pressure on Schollander, who had little experience at this distance.

…because it was my first event, I felt that this race could make me or break me for the rest of the Games. If I won, I would be ‘up’ for the rest of my events – my confidence would be flying high. If I lost, I would be ‘down.’ That sounds temperamental, but I have seen an early race work this way on swimmers. So this 100 free took on much more importance than just another event.

Because Schollander was seen as more of an endurance swimmer, who took advantage of his extraordinarily strong kick to dominate in the latter half of a competition, it was a foregone conclusion that Schollander’s strategy would be to win in the second half of the 100 meters. And Schollander made sure everyone believed that was how he planned to swim his race, even though the conventional wisdom was to take the first 50-meters and hold on for the latter half. Schollander pointed out a couple of reasons why that was a valid strategy.

Don Schollander with his first gold medal, from the book “Deep Water”
A hundred meters is a short distance, so a quick lead can be maintained to the end. The second more important reason is that in the 100-meters, all swimmers hit the wall at the 50-meter mark at nearly the same time, which creates a tremendous amount of backwash at the wall. If you’re behind the top swimmers, the backwash can hit you hard enough to slow you down enough to cost you in a short race. As Schollander explains, “any swimmer who is even a split second behind turns right into this wash. And swimming against it is like swimming against a rip tide. This was is peculiar to the sprint.”

So Schollander knew he had to be out in front with the leaders at the mid-point to have a chance at leveraging his advantage of endurance. But he thought it would be better to let his competitors think that he was a second-half swimmer.

So I began to talk about my second lap. Whenever someone would ask me how things looked in the 100 free, I would emphasize my second lap. I would say, “well, I’m a middle-distance swimmer and I may not have much speed, but I have a good last lap.” Or, “You know, I’m a come-from-behind swimmer. I’ve always got my last lap.” Even my friends began to talk about my last lap. I wanted everyone in that race to think that if he was going to beat me, he had to do it early – because he would never do it on the second lap.

Schollander was strong and confident enough to play this ruse through the preliminary rounds. In the qualifying heats, he swam the first 50 in 25.9 seconds, while those winning the early heats were doing so in 25.1 or 25.2 seconds. And true to the script, Schollander powered to a finish strong enough to advance. So when it came to the finals, Schollander was in the final eight, along with teammates Mike Austin and Gary Ilman, Alain Gottvalles of France, Hans Klein of Germany and Bobby McGregor of Great Britain.

True to his secret plan, Schollander blasted into the pool, not in the lead, but just behind. If his plan worked, he hoped to get into the heads of his competitors.

All week I had worked to convince everyone that I was a dangerous man in the second lap. In the heads and in the semi-finals I had held back at the start and shot ahead in the second lap. Now I burned up that first lap, hoping to be right with them at the turn. I hoped that for an instant they would panic and think, “What’s wrong? Did I go out slower than I thought? If he’s right here with me now, what will do to me in the second lap?

Five swimmers hit the 50-meter wall at about the same time of 25.3 seconds, far better than the standard of 25.9 seconds Schollander wanted the others to see in the preliminary races. Ilman hit some waves off the wall and that may have thrown him off. Schollander could tell he was pulling away in the second half of the race and thought he would win, until he noticed the speedy Scotsman, McGregor, actually ahead of the Oswegan.

Going back, on the second lap, because I could breathe to the right, I could see that I was ahead of all of them and pulling away. But I couldn’t see McGregor, to my left, in lane two. Ten meters away from the wall, I actually had the thought – and I’ll never forget it – I’m going to win! I’m going to win! But at that point, although didn’t know, it McGregor was actually ahead of me. With 5 meters to go he was still ahead. He had gone out so fast that, if I had not gone out as fast as I did, there would have been no way I could have caught him. But he had gone out too fast, and during those last 10 meters he was decelerating and I was accelerating. And I just touched him out. I just touched him out – by one-tenth of a second.

It was day two of the competition and Schollander unexpectedly took gold, setting up the prospects of at least 3 more. As he told the AP after the race, “It’s the greatest feeling of my life.”