The Golden Boy Don Schollander Part 3: American Idol

don schollander_Life Magazine_30Oct1964

He had a Beatles’ moment, even before the Fab Four would land in Tokyo two years later. It was October, 1964, and Don Schollander had just landed in Haneda Airport.

The plane put down in Tokyo and for a second I had that fatalistic feeling in my stomach. Outside it was daylight and hundreds of reporters and photographers and spectators were there to greet us. We pulled ourselves together and straggled down the ramp. I hadn’t slept at all and I was one tired guy, coming down that ramp with the rest of the team. Then all of a sudden I heard it, all around me there were Japanese people and they were shouting, “Schollander! Schollander!” They remembered me! The guys laughed and kidded me about it but I felt good. I felt at home.

As five-time gold medalist, Don Schollander explained in his autobiography, Deep Water, he had a deep appreciation for Japan, even before his arrival for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Swimming competitions had brought him and his Team USA swim teammates to Japan twice before, in 1962 and 1963. He was a 16-year old his first time in Japan and Schollander felt that the Japanese loved young people, although it may be more accurate to say, they loved young, handsome blonde people in particular, as they may have represented the idealized Hollywood version of America they read about in their literature.

Perhaps more significantly, he was a winner, having never lost a race there, and so expectations were high when he landed in Japan. “Looking back on it, I guess I felt sort of like a gladiator going into the arena, wanting to get into the fight and yet nervous about going out to face it.”

By the time the XVII Olympiad in Tokyo had ended, there were very few more popular people in Japan than Don Schollander. The slim, six-foot 18-year old from Oswego, Oregon, who was to become a freshman at Yale after the Summer Games, was a star.

Here is how the San Francisco Examiner described it:

As far as the Japanese are concerned, Don Schollander is the indisputable hero of the Olympic Games. Whether it’s his almost white hair or his four gold medals or his Adonic looks, he had caught the fancy of this tight little island.

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Don Schollander signing autographs, from the book, The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics 1964

That article from October 23, 1964, went on to say that Schollander was receiving letters and packages that filled a room:

On one side were at least 500 packages. On the floor were three large baskets filled with letters and telegrams. “With few exceptions, these are all for Schollander,” (J. Lyman Bingham executive director of the USOC) said. “This is the greatest expression of goodwill for an individual I have ever seen in my life… He is so young, strong, handsome and appealing Japan has just decided he is something of a god in a land where worship is complex religion….”

Schollander could not go anywhere without being stopped for autographs or having his photo taken. “Even to touch him was considered as a rare privilege.”

Schollander wrote in his autobiography that after his last golden victory in Tokyo, he was exhausted and finally got to be at 4:30 in the morning. Three hours later, photographers from Life Magazine banged on his door to wake him, resulting in one of the iconic photos of the 1964 Olympics.

I opened my one eye. My roommates were nowhere around; I didn’t know whether they had come and gone or hadn’t come in yet. Life wanted more pictures.

“Come back later,” I mumbled.

“No,” they said. “We want to get a picture upon the roof and now the sun is right. Come on. We’ve got your medals.”

I pulled on my sweats and at 7:30 in the morning, up on the roof, they shot that picture that appeared on the cover of Life.

So many Olympians from 1964 have told me how much they loved their experience in Japan, that the Japanese people in particular made their time in Tokyo so special. Many who have been to multiple Olympiads cite the 1964 Games in Tokyo as their favorite. I wouldn’t be surprised if Schollander felt the same:

After my race they had mobbed me as though I were one of them, and someone told me that the Japanese people had sort of adopted me. I had come to japan when I was fifteen, completely unknown, and I had had my first big victories there and things had gone so well for me ever since. The Japanese people felt that I got my start there and that Japan was lucky for me. They even used my name and address in a school textbook to illustrate how to address letters in English. I think this genuine affection on the part of the Japanese people was very good for me.

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Don Schollander, winner of 4 Olympic swimming medals for US in Tokyo Olympics, is congratulated by home town high school students.