Jesse Owens was special for several reasons, but his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was an accomplishment that shone as bright as his spectacular statement of race and merit. Since that time, no one else had achieved the feat of four Olympic championships in a single Olympiad.
No one, that is, until Don Schollander swam to glory in the stunning National Gymnasium in Yoyogi in 1964. Schollander won gold in the 100-meter freestyle, 400- meter freestyle, and the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle relays.
And a fifth gold medal was definitely within his reach. One could argue it was his for the taking…until it wasn’t.
At the time, there was an unwritten rule within the US swim team that the winner of the 100-meter freestyle gets to take the freestyle leg of the 100-meter medley relay race. The 100-meter medley is a competition made up of four styles of swimming – the butterfly, the backstroke, the breaststroke and freestyle – each one swum by a different person for two lengths of the 50-meter pool.
As explained in part 1 of this series, Schollander, unexpectedly to all except Schollander, won the 100-meter freestyle race. Thus he expected the unwritten rule to be enforced, and to be told to assume his rightful place as the anchor leg of the 100-meter medley relay team.
But when he met with the coaches, Schollander’s place on the medley team appeared tenuous. According to Schollander in his book, Deep Water, the coaches thought that Steve Clark was the fastest 100-meter freestyle swimmer on the team, and if not for bursitis, he would certainly have finished better than fourth in the Olympic Trials.
The coaches decided that they would use the 4×100 freestyle relays to determine who would swim the freestyle leg. Clark, followed by Mike Austin, Gary Ilman and Schollander won the finals handily, trouncing Germany by a full four seconds and set a world record. Clark’s time in the relay was 52.9 seconds, a tenth of a second faster than Schollander. Clark joined the 4×100 meter medley team, and would go onto set another world record to win the gold.
Schollander would most certainly have met the same result if he were on the medley team. When someone said to him before the decision was made, “You’re going to win four gold medals, anyhow. What do you care whether you get one more? What’s the difference between four and five?” Schollander viewed this as a matter of “justice”. But perhaps he also viewed this as one of those rare opportunities for historic significance.
Certainly in the back of my mind I was aware that this could mean my fifth gold medal. And it wouldn’t be just one more gold medal – it would be an unprecedented fifth gold medal. No swimmer had ever won four gold medals at an Olympics, but nobody in history – in any sport – had ever won five. But this wasn’t my arguing point. I felt that I had earned the spot on the medley relay team.
Mark Spitz, a teammate of Schollander’s in Mexico City, would go on to win an incredible 7 gold medals in Munich in 1972. Michael Phelps would go onto greater heights, grabbing 8 golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But before there was Phelps and Spitz, there was Schollander – one of the brightest stars of Tokyo in 1964.