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Theo Ted Mittet, Dick Lyon, Geoff Picard, Ted Nash at Toda Rowing Center; from the collection of Theo Ted Mittet.

Catch. Drive. Release. Recovery. The four phases of the rowing stroke are simple. The ability for more than two people at a time to execute them in synch is not.

When the straight four crew from the Lake Washington Rowing Club arrived in Tokyo for the 1964 Summer Olympics, they were in synch and they were ready. “We believed we had a great chance to win gold,” reflected Theo (Ted) Mittet), who sat in the bow.

As Dick Lyon, who sat in the number two seat in front of Mittet in the shell, told me, after winning the US Trials, the team of Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Lyon and Mittet were running very fast times – doing 500-meter sprints in 1 minute 27 or 28 seconds, which was better than the times Nash’s gold medal winning team at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Olympic Village dining hall
Left, Geoff Picard and Bob Schwartz of the Harvard crew and Theo with back to picture, in the Tokyo Olympic dining hall; from the collection of Theo Ted Mittet.

When the crew from America lined up against Great Britain, the Netherlands, Argentina and Italy, they were raring to go. The stroke, Nash, got Team USA off to a flying start, and at the halfway mark of 1,000 meters, Nash and his team were “open water,” (more than a length) up on second place Britain. The Americans had, what they call, swing. Until disaster struck.

As Nash recalled in Peter Mallory’s book, The Sport of Rowing, with the US shell comfortably ahead, the rower behind him, Durbrow, suddenly coughed up blood on and over Nash’s right shoulder. Lyon told me that at the 1,200-meter mark, the boat suddenly turned sideways, and he could see that Durbrow was having trouble breathing. “He was swinging in his seat and he had no power in his arms,” said Lyon. Here’s how the situation was described in Mallory’s account:

Nash: The boat slowed and we stopped. We came to a complete stop. Then Phil said, “I’m okay. Let’s go.” We were screaming by everybody once again, but Phil had a second episode of blood loss, and the guys in the bow, who could see his condition, yelled down to me, “Phil’s really hurting. Please paddle.”

Mittet: I remember the absolute disbelief of watching Phil’s blade falter. How could this be? What was wrong? Our feelings and concerns shifted totally to Phil in an instant – we knew that this was serious.

This was a disaster. The coxless four from the USA still managed to cross the finish line. In fact, they completed their heat with a time of 6:56.40, over 5 seconds ahead of the Netherlands. Britain finished first and advanced to the finals, but because Nash’s team recovered enough to finish, they were still eligible for the repechage, a second chance for all the crews that did not finish first in their heat.

And yet, Durbrow was in the hospital. The team that only magically came together after trying countless variations of 17 different people, was now forced to re-make the team with an alternate, Geoff Picard, who was in Tokyo for just such a scenario. With the finals only two days away, Nash’s straight four were no longer expecting to win gold, and were feeling that a medal of any color would be wishful thinking at best.

And yet, expectation and reality, as they saw, and would eventually see, are often at odds. In the case of the LWRC coxless four, recovery followed quickly upon release.

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Nash, Picard, Lyon and Mittet in Tokyo; from the collection of Dick Lyon.
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Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Dick Lyon and Ted Mittet in Seattle; from the collection of Dick Lyon.

It didn’t bode well in New York.

Four men from the Lake Washington Rowing Club (LWRC) in temperate Seattle came to hot and muggy New York to compete in the US rowing trials on August 29, 1964.

Ted Nash was the veteran and star of the crew of the straight four without coxswain. He had won gold for the United States in the straight four rowing competition at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the only American team to win gold. Dick Lyon, Phil Durbrow and Theo (Ted) Mittet filled out the boat, coming together in a very short time to compete in Tokyo for the 1964 US Olympic rowing squad.

But first they had to win the trials, held at Orchard Beach Lagoon in New York.

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At the US rowing trials at Orchard Park, New York, kneeling in front of teammates: Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Dick Lyon and Theo (Ted) Mittet; from the collection of Dick Lyon.

According to Stanford University rower, Lyon, the crew from LWRC got in a practice start with a team from the Detroit Boat Club, just before the heats were to begin. Ted Nash broke the edge of his oar blade on one of the maple flagpoles floating on Styrofoam that formed the lane lines. “We barely made it back to the line in time after sprinting back to the NYAC boathouse to get another oar,” Lyon was quoted in the book, The Sport of Rowing, by Peter Mallory.

After winning their heat, Lyon told me that as the team was preparing for the final, Mittet said quite urgently that he had to pee, which meant that he had to sprint 100 yards to the boathouse, and then another 100 yards back. Mittet made it back to the line in time for the start, and they got in a couple of hard sprints in just before engaging in one of the toughest physical activities one can do – 2,000 meters of rowing to absolute exhaustion.

Rowing as a team is very difficult. It’s not a matter of getting the best rowers together in a shell and expecting them to perform. It’s more a matter of finding a group of rowers that feels a rhythm, that leads to a seemingly effortless flow, and results in unchained speed.

Durbrow was in Laos with the US Army when he got his orders to report to Stan Pocock in Seattle. Pocock was the coach of the Lake Washington Rowing Club and Durbrow’s coach at Menlo College and Melbourne Olympian, Duvall Hecht, had strongly recommended Durbrow. When Durbrow arrived in Seattle, he felt like the odd man out. Pocock was looking for the men who would build a powerful crew of eight, as the eights are the heavyweight class of rowing, and thus the glamour event in rowing competitions. Durbrow joined 16 others who were already competing in two squads of eights, wondering where a 17th would fit in.

And yet, try as he might, Pocock could not find the right mix of eight, his teams losing to squads that were not Olympic quality. So in early July, Pocock agreed to disband the crews of eight so that the rowers could find the right combinations of pairs and fours. Nash quickly grouped with Lyon, and when Durbrow got on the scene, they found a natural to sit behind Nash, the powerful stroke. So Nash, Durbrow and Lyon would try any and every combination of the remaining 14 rowers at Lake Washington, and met mainly with disappointment.

Mittet, who grew up on the shores of Lake Washington, and had rowed from the age of 16, was late to the LWRC trials. By the time the eights were disbanded, most of the small boat team decisions had already been made, except for the straight four. But when Mittet jumped into the shell with Nash, Durbrow and Lyon, “from the first stroke, I was awakened to a level of rowing that I had never imagined possible,” as Mallory quoted Mittet as saying. Mallory also quoted Durbrow as saying, “we were trying every conceivable combination of oarsmen in a number of fours that went out every day. Boats that I expected to be super fast felt heavy or ungainly, but one time, Ted Nash, Ted Mittet, Dick Lyon and I went out together with Nash stroking, it felt light and quick.”

The three would continue to experiment with other rowers to sit at the back of the scull, but whenever they rotated to Mittet, they found their rhythm and speed again. After countless combinations, Nash made the decision at the end of July to add Mittet to complete the team of four, and commit to getting ready for the Olympic trials to be held 6 weeks later.

When Nash and his three teammates got to New York for the Olympic trials, they felt confident. Lyon told me that the game plan was to explode off the start with a powerful 40-plus stroke per minute rhythm, and then to ease down to 35 or 36 after a minute, which is about 350 meters of the 2,000-meter race. But Nash, who sat at the stern of the boat as the stroke, the rower who sets the pace, decided to maintain a high pace. Lyon said that for the first 1,000 meters, the crew kept the pace around 39 strokes. “We had never practiced for that long,” Lyon told me. “I don’t remember that we talked about this, but Ted is an extraordinarily enthusiastic person, so we just kept it up for the first 1,000 meters.”

The crew of Nash, Durbrow, Lyon and Mittet won handily, beating the Harvard crew by nearly 3 seconds with a time of 6 minutes and 23.1 seconds.

 

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From the collection of Dick Lyon.

 

“We were extremely fit,” Lyon said. “We were doing two or three workouts a day, including work outs with weights, running stairs. There were naps in between those thousands of miles of rowing.”

The team was confident. The rowed together exquisitely. The handily won the US trials. They believed they had a great chance for gold in Tokyo. And yet, they heard some great times coming out of Europe – 6 minutes and 19 seconds in one case.

And of course, there is always the unexpected. A shocking turn of events awaited the straight four team in Tokyo.

Odaiba Beach

We were shocked when we read about the levels of water pollution in Guanabara Bay that sailors and rowers competed in, and saw the waters of the diving pool turn a sickly green during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

And yet, here we are a year later, and we learn of the significantly polluted waters of Tokyo Bay, the intended site for triathletes and open-water swimmers.

According to Inside the Games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government conducted a water quality test in Tokyo Bay over a 21-day period, which is a sample size as long as the actual Games themselves. The results, which were shared at an October gathering of the IOC Coordination Commission in Tokyo, showed “levels of E. Coli up to 20 times above the accepted limit and faecal coliform bacteria seven times higher than the permitted levels.

This Asahi News article quoted organizers as saying that “an inflow of raw sewage caused below-standard water quality in more than half of tests conducted.” Officials explained that “heavy rain caused overcapacity at sewage processing plants, and some of the untreated sewage flowed into Tokyo Bay,” and that “they are considering such measures as installing triple layers of a screen that can block the flow of coli bacillus.

 

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Sign at Tokyo Bay’s Odaiba Marine Park listing prohibitions, including one against swimming.

 

Is there any consideration to move the venue for the triathlon and the open-water swimming events?

Sports Director of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, Koji Murofushi, shut that idea down, stating that “measures will be taken so that we can provide an excellent environment for the sports.”

The truth of the matter is, there have been signs in the area planned for the Olympic events for years warning people not to swim in the bay. Will the organizers figure out to clean up this act? We’re a little more than a thousand days away. Tick tock.

PyeongChang gold medal
The gold medal
At 586 grams (nearly 1.3 pounds), the gold medal to be awarded at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics will be the heaviest medal ever created for an Olympic Games.

The previous heavyweight champion of Olympic medals was the Vancouver medal of 2010 that tipped the scales at 576 grams, according to this article.

But more importantly, at least to me, the simplicity of the Korean medal design is striking. There is very little to disturb the surface, much of the text blends inconspicuously in the design, including use of native Korean alphabet letters that in its entirety spell out the words “PyeongChang Winter Olympics.”

PyeongChang Olympic medals held by hands

Textured like the bark of a tree, the surface of the medal complements the actual weight to give the athlete a sense of solidity. This may be top of mind for Olympians who have heard about the flimsiness of the medals awarded at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The intent, of course, is to make the association of the medal design with Korean society, according to the Korea Herald.

“Hangeul is the foundation and the soul of Korean culture,” PyeongChang’s organizing committee said. “Hangeul is considered the seed that eventually blossoms and bears fruit, which symbolize Korean culture. The trunk is the process of that development.”

Additionally, the ribbon that will allow the medal to hang from the neck of an Olympian will be made from a traditional Korean textile called “gapsa,” and the round wooden case for the medal is said to be inspired by traditional Korean architecture.

“I tried some new techniques and went through a lot of trials and errors,” medal designer Lee Suk-woo said. “I wanted the medals to represent the hard work and dedication of the athletes. And the finished products came out a lot better than I’d expected.”

PyeongChang Olympic gold medal and case

Hideko Maehata after winning gold in Berlin
Hideko Maehata waving to the crowd after winning gold in Berlin

It was a slight, perhaps. The first and most famous of films about the Olympics – Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, entitled Olympia, did not include the winner of the women’s 200-meter breast stroke. That’s because the winner was a Japanese, Hideko Maehata, who beat out a German named Martha Genenger.

But that’s OK. When Maehata returned to Japan after her gold-medal winning performance in Berlin, she was a national celebrity. Eight other Japanese won gold medals at the Berlin Games, but they may not have gotten the media attention that Maehata did. As Robin Kietlinski explains in her seminal book, Japanese Women and Sport, national radio was bringing the world to all of Japan, led by Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or NHK. Established in 1924, Maehata’s race was one of the first events to be covered live, broadcasted to Japan via satellite.

And according to Kietlinski, they had the man who brought the excitement of the moment alive for Japanese listeners – Kasai Sansei – whose shrieks of excitement and shouts of “Maehata ganbare” brought the swimming stadium of the Imperial Sports Field in Berlin to the homes of people all across Japan. In this NHK documentary, Maehata’s cousin, Tomizo Hase, was asked about his recollections of listening to that famous radio broadcast:

We were all nervous, out palms sweating. We said to each other, we really hope she wins. There were about 10 people inside and many more outside. What a heavenly feeling it was. Some of us cried in joy, saying she’s done great.

In her book, Kietlinski provides a transcript in English of that broadcast. To listen in Japanese and get the sense of excitement Japanese felt in 1936, go to the 25 second mark of the video below.

Maehata and Genenger are side by side. Ah, Maehata pulls ahead! She’s in the lead! She’s a little bit ahead. Fifty meters down. 100 meters down. Fifty meters left to go. Maehata is a little bit ahead! Ah, Genenger is coming. Come on, come on! Maehata is in danger, she’s in danger! Go for it! Maehata go for it!

They turned, the swimmers just now turned and Maehata holds onto a slight lead. C’mon Maehata. Go for it! (Repeated four more times) Forty meters left to go. (Repeated four times) Maehata is ahead! Maehata is ahead! Genenger is coming. It’s just a very small lead by Maehata. Go for it Maehata! (Repeated four times) Twenty-five meters left to go! Maehata’s lead is small, it’s very small! Maehata! Go for it Maehata! (Repeated eleven times)

Maehata is in the lead! (Repeated six times) Five meters left to go! Four meters left! Three meters, two meters. Maehata is ahead! Maehata has won! (Repeated eighteen times) By a small margin Maehata is the champion! Thank you Ms Maehata, the Japanese flag will fly today. Thank you! For the first time in the history of women’s swimming the Japanese flag will fly.

Hideko Maehata on the Podium with Martha Genenger
Hideko Maehata (center) on the Podium with Martha Genenger (right) and Inge Sorensen of Denmark (left)

Hideko Maehata swam 10,000 meters a day. So taking the two-week boat trip from Japan to the West Coast of the United States was a piece of cake for the native of Wakayama, Japan. It was the last 200 meters, in the pool, that were going to be painful.

After winning her heat in the 200-meter breaststroke by nearly 3 seconds, she lined up for the finals. And in a tough-fought nail biter, a 16-year old Australian named Clare Dennis set an Olympic record and edged out Maehata by a tenth of a second.

According to Robin Japanese Women and Sport, in her book Japanese Women and Sport, Maehata was welcomed back home in Japan as a hero, but the 18-year-old, while proud was disappointed. Was it worth training so hard again, and trying again for gold in 1936, or should she put an end to the long hours in the water and get married as society at the time required. Kietlinski explained that Maehata received letters from her fans making both sides of the argument.

According to this NHK mini-documentary of Maehata’s life, it was the Mayor of Tokyo at that time, Hidejiro Nagata. Nagata, proud of Japan’s incredible accomplishments at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was putting together his plan for Tokyo to host the 1940 Olympics, met the returning Maehata and insisted that she go for it again in Berlin.

If only you had won that gold medal. It’s so frustrating. Don’t forget the bitter taste of defeat. Let it drive you to do better four years from now at the Berlin Olympics.

And so, Maehata decided to aim for gold and glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She doubled her regimen, swimming 20 kilometers a day, the water hiding the tears of pain. She noted that her victory in LA was denied by such a tiny margin that perfecting her start was essential. She worked on her launch from the starting block by practicing 100 starts a day, her toes bleeding from the wear and tear.

The training was so grueling I cried as I swam. But at those times, I reminded myself that if I failed to overcome the pain, and fall short in Berlin, I would be the laughing stock of Japan.

And so, despite being cheered on by thousands as she boarded the ship for Europe and ultimately Berlin in 1936, she did so with considerable anxiety. In fact, as the NHK video explains, based I believe on what she described in her own autobiography, she found herself alone on the deck of the ship, looking over the waves, thinking that if she did not win, she would jump into the ocean on the return trip and kill herself.

This was the first Olympics in Berlin, otherwise known as the Nazi Olympics as it was presided over by der Führer, Adolph Hitler. The home field advantage for the German athletes was significant, and Maehata’s biggest competitor in the 200-meter breast stroke was a 20-year-old from Krefeld, Germany, Martha Genenger.

Genenger sent the first warning shot, winning her first round heat in 3:02.9 seconds, setting an Olympic record. Maehata fired back in her first round heat with a time one second better, re-setting the Olympic record. In the semi-finals, no records were set, but no other competitor came anywhere close to Genenger’s or Maehata’s times. The finals were to be a showdown between the German and the Japanese.

Hideko Maehata in high schoolIt was 4pm on August 11, 1936. Maehata was in lane 6. Genenger was in lane 7. Even in the early part of the race, Maehata pulled ahead. And for the remainder of the 150 meters, Maehata clung to the lead. When her hand touched the wall, she was not sure who had won.

When I reached the finish line I l gasped for breath and looked across at the next lane and saw that Genenger was already there. And I thought I had lost.

In fact, Maehata had persevered by a mere sixth tenths of a second. She had fulfilled the command of the Mayor of Tokyo. She had realized the dreams of an entire nation.

And she could get on with her life. In 1937, Maehata married a doctor, retiring from swimming. She raised two children, and when she greater flexibility after her children grew up, she started a swimming school in 1967. She saw that after the war, the Japanese were weak in swimming. She felt that she could contribute by focusing on mothers, teaching them the joys of swimming. If mothers understand and enjoy swimming, she believed, so will their children.

Maehata suffered a stroke while teaching, at 68. She was told she would never walk again, which was fuel for her competitive fire. So she pushed herself. “I still have the drive inside,” she said in the NHK documentary. “When I have a tough day, I recall my days as a competitive swimmer, and it’s like someone is yelling at me that I have to be stronger. The fact that I am still alive and active today is thanks to that inner strength.” Amazingly, a year later, Maehata returned to the pool and resumed her coaching duties.

In 1995, at the age of 80, Maehata, one of the most famous sports figures of the early 20th century in Japan, passed away.

Hideko Maehata getting married
Hideko Maehata getting married
Sammy Lee and Vicki Manalo Draves
Sammy Lee and Vicki Manalo Draves

Before there was Pat McCormick, Ingrid Engel-Kramer or Fu Mingxia, there was Vicki Manalo Draves.

At the 1948 London Olympics, the first summer games held since 1936, an abeyance caused by the Second World War, Manalo Draves became the first American woman to win two gold medals in an Olympic Games, as well as the first American woman to win both the springboard and platform diving finals at the Olympics.

Manalo Draves was also the first Asian American woman to win a medal in the Olympics. Born to a mother from England and a father from the Philippines, Manalo Draves grew up in the South-of-Market district of San Francisco. Her mother was a maid at a hotel and he father was a chef and musician on ships and a houseboy for an army colonel in the Presidio, doing all they could just to make ends meet. Certainly there was no money left over for swimming or diving lessons.

But somehow, Manalo Draves was spotted, and asked if she wanted to learn how to dive. And fortunately, she was in California, rich in swimming and diving coaches at the time. So learn she did, from one coach after another. Although not her coach, one of America’s best divers in 1944, Sammy Lee, saw Manalo Draves’ form, and introduced himself. Lee then introduced the young diver to a friend and diving coach, Lyle Draves. Not only did Lyle become Vicki’s coach, he became her life partner, married for over 60 years.

But wife or not, the husband worked the wife hard in training. As explained in this Central City article, she worked during the day as a secretary in San Francisco, and took a train across the bay to the Athens Athletic Club in Oakland where she trained every evening from 7pm to 10pm, making 50 to 100 dives a night. With victories at the US National Championships from 1946 – 48 in platform, as well as a championship in 1948 in springboard, Manalo Draves was building up to be a favorite for a medal in the 1948 London Olympics.

In 1948, Manalo Draves was battling teammate, Zoe Ann Olsen, in the springboard. Going into her last dive, having fallen behind Olsen, Manalo Draves could not talk to her coach, as coaches were forbidden to enter the competition space. Feeling she was unable to perform to her best, and worried that she was not going to nail her last dive – a back one-and-a-half layout – she went up to the only friendly face on the deck – teammate, Sammy Lee. As she wrote in the book, “Tales of Gold,” Lee told her what she needed to hear:

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Newlyweds Victoria and Lyle Draves, 1946, from the book Tales of Gold

I was very worried about the last dive, which was a back one-and-a-half layout, because I had not been hitting it at all in practice. I said to him, “Oh Sam, what am I going to do? This is the dive I have to get.” He told me, “Come on. You didn’t come all this way just to say, “I can’t do it.’ You’ve got to get up there and hit it.”

Hit it she did. And as Manalo Draves won the platform competition going away, she earned two gold medals in London. As for Sammy Lee, he won gold in the platform and bronze in the springboard competition. The first Asian Americans to medal in the Olympics dominated the diving competition at the 1948 London Games. Lee, who would become Dr Sammy Lee, serving in the US Army Medical Corps in South Korea during the Korean War, would be a coach and a friend to some of the greatest divers of the 20th century.

In the case of Manalo Draves, Lee not only introduced Manalo Draves to her husband, he was the one who gave Manalo Draves away at her wedding, as her father had already passed away.

Manalo Draves went on to a career as a swimming entertainer, performing with Buster Crabbe and Esther Williams. And then she stopped, disappearing from the American consciousness for decades.