One of the most famous names in America in pediatric health, at least in the 20th Century, was a man named Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book, Baby and Child Care, was a perennial best seller and the bible on child care. The only other book to outsell his in America – the actual Bible.
What I didn’t know was that Spock was a gold medalist, a member of the American eight-man crew that was so dominant at the 1924 Paris Olympics that their time of 6 minutes and 33 seconds was almost 16 seconds faster than the second-placed Canadian crew.
A renown expert in the medical field, an Olympic champion, Spock was a name in America few did not know. And yet, despite a relatively wealthy upbringing, he was not born with confidence and expectations of greatness. As he explains in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, Spock explained that his mother was a very devoted tyrant, and his father was a self-made man who was obsessed with status, proud to have been a member of the finest and exclusive social clubs at Yale University.
When Spock entered Yale, I believe around 1921, he wrote:
I felt very unsure of myself. I felt unpopular and unable to compete with other boys. I felt like a sissy, a mother’s boy, and I was timid. I was afraid they might bully me and that I would not be able to do the things they were able to do.
Sports was an acceptable avenue of exploration, and he continued his focus on the high jump, which he trained in at his high school. But try as he could, he could not improve beyond mediocrity. One day in his freshman year, he walked by the rowers in the Yale gym. In rowing, height can be an advantage. Despite his skinny frame, Spock was tall, six feet four inches (1.9 meters), and so caught the eye of the captain of Yale’s rowing team.
“What sport do you go out for?”, said the captain.
“High jumping,” said Spock.
“Why don’t you go out for a man’s sport?” said the captain.
To Spock, who yearned to be seen as a man’s man, these were the words that struck his soul. To be seen as having potential in one of the most respected and manly of sports at the time – rowing – was a revelation. “I was elated. The captain of the crew thought that I might be crew material! That had never occurred to me.”
Granted, the Yale squad was one of the worst crew teams in the United States. As Spock described, their technique was outdated. “You’d lie way, way back to get the length of the stroke and pull the oar up almost to your chin and shove it away.” But during Spock’s freshman year, the rowing committee at Yale decided it was time to change things up, so they hired a coach out of Washington named Ed Leader, who transformed the stroke and the team.
In two years under Leader’s leadership, Yale’s rowing team went from worst to first, and Spock’s eight-man crew defeated a crew made up of US Navy officers fairly handily, earning the right to compete at the Paris Summer Olympic Games. In Paris, the American eight from Yale were considered favorites with perennial favorites, The Thames Rowing Club of Great Britain. Fortunately for the US, the Thames Rowing Club had in Paris only four members of the crew which won the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta the previous year, perhaps paving a golden path for Spock and his team.
As Spock wrote about his team’s gold-medal-winning finals, “the race itself was an anticlimax. We won by, I think, 3-and-a-half boat lengths. You’re not meant to win a race that short by as much as a boat length.”
Spock graduated from Yale, and then got his doctor of medicine at Columbia University, launching a career to become America’s most famous pediatrician. Interestingly, Spock became very critical of putting children or young adults into “excessive competition”, worrying that parents were putting too much pressure on their children. “The problem is,” he wrote in 1985 in Tales of Gold, “that Americans are meant to be the best in everything.” He even had thoughts about parenting in Japan, arguably an early hotbed for prototypical Tiger Moms.
I was visiting Japan, and if any country is worse than the U.S. for competitive youngsters, it is Japan. Their educators told me that a shocking number of elementary school children commit suicide and that the number is going up every year. They commit suicide because they don’t think they’re getting grades high enough to satisfy their parents. What kind of society is that in which children have to kill themselves because they can’t compete?