Kokichi Tsuburaya and his bronze medal
Kokichi Tsuburaya and his bronze medal

Kokichi Tsuburaya was a national hero. He raced his heart out in front of an entire nation, which saw an exhausted Tsuburaya get out-sprinted at the  very end of a 42-kilometer marathon, and collectively groaned when their new hero dropped from silver to bronze.

But as related in this post, Tsuburaya was a man of commitment, and he promised he would work hard to ensure he was ready to compete and do better at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Not only did Tsuburaya feel that added weight to make up for the “loss” of silver, so too did his seniors at Tsuburaya’s place of employment, Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces.

Tsuburaya did indeed train hard. And yet, somehow, he also found time for courtship, as explained in Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Lone Runner – The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story. He had a met a girl named Eiko before the Tokyo Olympics, and he wanted to marry her after the Tokyo Games. His coach at the Self Defense Forces athletics school, Hiro Hatano, was supportive of the proposed marriage. Tsuburaya’s parents too approved of their son’s plans to marry Eiko.

One would assume that further approval would be unnecessary, but in 1966, coach Hatano’s boss expressed his dissatisfaction with the union. Perhaps Hatano’s boss thought that Tsuburaya needed to keep his focus 100% on his training – I’m not clear yet on the specifics. But in a country where hierarchy determines status and power, and in the context of a military culture where the norms of hierarchy are amplified even more, Hatano’s boss had the power to overrule a personal decision of someone in his organization.

Perhaps, in an exercise of power that feels cruel, Hatano’s boss brought Hatano, Eiko and Eiko’s mother together to inform them that the marriage to Tsuburaya would have to wait until after the Games in Mexico City so that Tsuburaya could focus solely on his training. Tsuburaya was not present in that meeting.

Eiko was devoted to Tsuburaya and wanted to wait until they could get married. But Eiko’s mother was no longer supportive, worried that marriage to a famous man like the marathon bronze medalist who had the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulder would only lay unknown burdens on the shoulders of the wife. Perhaps more of a concern, Eiko’s mother was not confident that a marriage to Tsuburaya was a sure thing in two years, and was worried that Eiko, at the age of 22, could lose other opportunities to marry well in that period.

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Tsuburaya (left) and gold medal weighlifter Yoshinobu Miyake (right) celebrating their Tokyo Olympic medals.

In the end, the proposed marriage of Kokichi and Eiko was broken off. Tsuburaya’s coach and manager, Hatano, was left with the unfortunate task of informing Tsuburaya. Hatano protested these decisions to his own boss to the point where he ended up being demoted and removed as Tsuburaya’s coach. Tsuburaya thus had to train on his own, likely feeling quite alone. Very quickly, injuries began to plague Tsuburaya – first the return of the intense pain of the slipped disc, and then an injury to an achilles tendon, which required surgery in 1967.

At the end of 1967, Tsuburaya returned to his hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima for the long holiday break that bridges the old year with the new. Tsuburaya’s father was pained with news that he wasn’t sure he should share with his son. But he thought it best to tell his son before he found out on his own – that his former fiancé, Eiko, had gotten married. Kokichi replied “Oh, Eiko-san is married. That’s good for her.” The son pretended that he was OK with the news, but his father could tell that his son was shocked and saddened.

Tsuburaya returned to his Self Defense Forces base after his time with family during the New Year’s break. And on January 8th, 1968, he slit his wrist and died in his dorm room.

 

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.

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Mel Pender starting strong in 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics_from the collection of Mel Pender

I cannot explain why I came in sixth place in the 1968 Olympics when the 100 meters was my best event. I could have won that race, and thought I should have. My start was great! I was out in front, but it was like I lost all my momentum and fell way behind.

So wrote Mel Pender in regards to his 100-meter finals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as described in his autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story. In fact, 1968 was in one respect a repeat of 1964 – a sixth place finish in the 100-meter finals. As Pender is painfully aware, there is no acclaim for the Sixth Fastest Man in the World.

But one significant difference between 1968 and 1964 was that at the Tokyo Olympics, Pender was running with a torn muscle in his ribcage, and was hospitalized after the individual 100 meters. In 1968, Pender had one more chance for a medal, as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team. And yet, while he was officially penciled in as the runner of the second leg, there was talk not only of replacing the injured lead-off man, Charlie Greene, but also Pender because of his age and his sixth-place finish in the individual finals.

Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines
Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines

And then there was the tension of race on Team USA. On October 16, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took first and third place in the 200-meter finals, and more famously, bowed their heads and lifted their fists in protest on the medal stand as the American anthem played. Their silent plea for equality and justice for Blacks in America created in an uproar in Mexico City and around the world. The IOC president, Avery Brundage, banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village, and thus the Games.

As Pender recalled in his autobiography, Brundage “referred to black male athletes as boys. ‘If those boys act up, I’m going to send them home…’ was what he said publicly and privately. When the black athletes heard about this, it was more than we could stand. Remember, in April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Tennessee.”

Members of the US track team, particularly black athletes, with the support of their head coach, Stan Wright, protested Brundage’s decision. But Pender, and other members of the US military had an extra burden, told in no uncertain terms that they “could not be part of the demonstrations based on the oath of service we took.”

Ronnie Ray Smith, Mel Pender, Charlie Greene, Jimmy Hines_2

So, for Pender, Mexico City was not just a sports event, and the 4×100 meter relay was not just a race. It was to Pender, perhaps, an expression of hope, an opportunity to shine a spotlight of achievement for black Americans, and a shot at redemption for the five-foot-five man from Lynnwood Park. The 4×100 relay, an event of immense speed that requires split-second precision in the baton hand offs, was America’s to win or lose.

I took my position on the oval track, awaiting the baton from leadoff man Charlie Greene. Charley ran the first leg, and when he handed the baton to me, we were trailing a bit. Passing the baton was clean. I was in a good Lane; I think was the third lane. It was without those curves that you made you feel like you’re running sideways. I ran the second leg, which proved to be the fastest of the four, and gave our team the lead. When I pass the baton to Ronnie Ray, he did his job, and we maintained the lead. When Ronnie Ray handed off the baton, Jim Hines brought it home.

Greene, Pender, Ray and Hines set a new world record of 38.24 seconds.

 

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Mel Pender_Olympic Trials 1968

When Mel Pender passed the baton to Ronnie Ray Smith, Pender had done his job. He was a captain in the US Army, and a reliable leader. And that’s what he did. He put his team in the lead, and his teammates did the rest. Pender, with Charlie Greene, Ray and Jim Hines, won the gold medal in the 4×100 meter relay at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. With a time of 38.24 seconds, the Americans set a world record.

Pender’s close friend, Greene, was 23 years old. Ray was the kid at 19. Hines was 22. But Pender was nearly 31 when he finally won his gold medal, an old man by sprinter’s standards. While many athletes in the United States who approach world-class speeds got their start in track in high school or earlier, Pender never got those opportunities, growing up economically disadvantaged in Lynnwood Park, a community in Decatur, Georgia.

The first time Pender ever ran competitively was at the age of 25, in Okinawa of all places. It was 1960, and Pender had been sent to the American army base in the western-most islands of the Japanese archipelago. When officers noticed the speedy halfback on the Army Ranger football team, one of them ordered Pender to participate in a friendly competition between the American military and Japanese athletes training for the Olympics.

As Pender explained in his recently released autobiography, Expression of Hope – The Mel Pender Story, he hadn’t a clue. “Coach, what are you talking about? Run track? I asked. I never ran track in my life! I wouldn’t know the first thing to do? I continued.” Pender writes that when he first saw track shoes for the first time, with the long spikes and the flapping tongue, he thought they were “ugly, ugly, ugly.”

Mel Pender_Winning his first race
Mel Pender winning his first race in Okinawa_from the personal collection of Mel Pender

 

But that was the beginning of a new life for then Sgt Pender, who would go on to compete at both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games.

According to Mexico City teammate and 200-meter bronze medalist John Carlos, what Pender accomplished was “phenomenal”.

For him to do what he did at his age was exceptional! Mel was twenty-seven years old in 1964 and thirty-one in 1968. The competition we faced then was beyond world class, and everything he received is very much deserving. I was twenty, I think. We ran against each other in meets, and with each other in meets, all over the world. I don’t know of many, or anyone, who accomplished what he did in that day and time in history.

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The fruits of Pender’s first race victory in Okinawa_from the personal collection of Mel Pender.

 

 

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From the book The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad Tokoy 1964 Volume 16

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.

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Don_Schollander,_Gary_Ilman,_Mike_Austin,_Steve_Clark
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.

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Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall in Mexico City

One thousand Russians are known to have benefited from doping and the cover-up of doping in the state-sponsored program to provide illicit advantage to Russian athletes, particularly during the 2012 London Olympics, the 2013 track and field world championships in Beijing, and the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The first major report on Russia from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in July, 2016 included a recommendation to the IOC to ban the entire Russian team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. As a result, over a hundred Russians were eventually forbidden from competing in Brazil.

WADA released a follow-up report on December 9, 2016 – a far more comprehensive review of the state-sponsored doping program in Russia, and it was damning. And there will likely be another round of medal shuffling – at least 15 Russian medalists at the Sochi Winter Games had urine samples that had been tampered with.

It’s a grim time for international sports – the insidious plague of doping and the lengths individuals and countries will go. It makes me pine for those halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s (yes, written with ironical intent), when our views on doping were less sophisticated.

The first person ever disqualified for “doping”, as it were, was when Swede Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall was discovered to have ingested an illegal substance prior to competing in the modern pentathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics – beer.

It’s said that he had a couple of beers and that traces of alcohol were found in urine. Unlucky for Liljenvall, 1968 was the first year that the IOC included urine testing, as well as alcohol on the list of banned substances. Unfortunately, Liljenwall took his two other teammates down with him, as they lost their bronze medals as well.

Why beer? After all, alcohol is a depressant, not a simulant. This article supposes, probably correctly, that in certain hand-eye coordination events, like pistol shooting in the pentathlon, you need to calm yourself, as opposed to gear yourself up. That’s the same reasoning why anti-psychotics are sometimes illegally injected into horses in equestrian events – to calm down the excitable horses.

Today, getting disqualified for beer sounds silly. Getting banned for caffeine too, but I suppose only to the non-athlete. My mind wonders how many cups of coffee or cans of red bull would it take to get you to world record levels…but I suppose that is not what WADA is looking for.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and until 2004, it was a banned substance. In fact, the second person ever banned for “doping” was a Mongolian judoka named Bakhaavaa Buidaa, who lost his silver medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics after over 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter was found in his urine. At least that’s how a lot of sources explain this incident.

But there are also references to Buidaa taking Dianabol, an anabolic steroid that provides a low-cost way of building muscle quickly. Since combining caffeine and Dianabol is a popular routine for athletes who need muscle mass to compete, it’s possible that both were in the judoka’s system.

Caffeine was taken off the banned substance list, but it is still on the IOC monitoring list.

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Ollan Cassell signing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster in Rio; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

The doomsayers had their say – the Rio Olympics, under the crushing weight of the poor economy, scandals, environmental and health scares, worries of security, would fail.

Ollan Cassell has seen it all. As a member of the 4X400 US men’s track relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as in his role as the executive director of the Amateur Athletic Union, the American governing body for 17 sports in his time, Cassell has been to every Olympics since 1964, excepting the Athens Olympics in 2004.

So when he arrived in Rio, he read all the stories about the problems. He certainly noticed the empty stands. And he put up with the traffic snarls that paralyzed the city during the Games. But Cassell knew that once the Games started, the problems would fade to the background.

The org committee was broke, the country is in a mess. They threw their president out. They didn’t have the finances to get things done. But like all the other Olympics, for the athletes with medals on the line, they‘re ready to compete. Regardless of what the situation is, once the Olympics roll around the athletes are ready. The athletes are focused on competing and wining regardless of what’s going on. When the lights go on, and the gun goes off, the press writes about how great the games are.

And what was the most amazing event Cassell witnessed? “The most spectacular event I saw in Brazil was that 400 meter world record (set by Wayde van Niekerk). I couldn’t imagine anyone could go 43.3 seconds. It’s like going 21.5 for two 200s!”

There were of course fears of security. Cassell was in Mexico City when hundreds were killed as government troops thwarted an anti-government protest prior to the start of the 1968 Olympics. Cassell was in Munich when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians and coaches in 1972. But Cassell felt safe in Rio de Janeiro. Accompanied by his daughter, Cassell played tourist and was comforted by the presence of security.

 

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Ollan Cassell at Christ the Redeemer; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

 

As was true with the world cup in Brazil, there were about 75000 to 80000 soldiers. I felt safe. No one in my group had been robbed or held up. The military was patrolling all the time. When you went out into the streets, sightseeing, you would see the military trucks with open beds and machines guns driving through the area. It was like an armed camp, but you felt safe. They had barriers in the sightseeing areas, big steel barriers the kind police use when they want to direct car and foot traffic into certain area. They were imposing. But that’s been true at all the Games. In London, they had barriers to make sure you went where they wanted you to go.

As for the environmental or health issues, to Cassell, it wasn’t an issue. “I didn’t hear of anyone getting sick because of the water. And I saw only one mosquito, which my granddaughter killed.”

But perhaps, one of the most satisfying parts of an Olympian’s life is to re-connect with the Olympian fraternity.

It’s a special feeling – being an Olympian. There are so few of us compared to the population of the world. In Olympic Villages there are about 10,000 Olympians, which is a select group. In the United States, there are about 5,000 living Olympians, with quite a few in their 90s. So it’s wonderful to see old friends and Olympians at these events.

To read about Ollan Cassell and the history of international sports from the 1960s to the 1990s, read his absorbing book, Inside the Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports and the Modern Olympics.

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Vera Casalavska, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

It was 2011, at the gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, and a special luncheon was held at the Olympic Stadium. Abie Grossfeld, an assistant coach of the US men’s gymnastics team in 1964, was at that luncheon, and remembers when Vera Caslavska entered the room. “All stood up and gave her a standing ovation,” he wrote. “That’s the respect we all gave her.”

Caslavska was the Queen of gymnastics in the 1960s, taking the reins from legendary Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina. After Latynina won consecutive golds in the All-Arounds in Melbourne in 1956 and in Rome in 1960, Caslavska did the same in Tokyo in 1964 and then in Mexico City in 1968. In addition to a team silver medal in Rome, Caslavska (pronounced cha-SLAF-ska), won a total of 11 medals in her Olympic career, including 7 gold medals. She is the most decorated Olympian from Czechoslovakia, before or after her country broke apart.

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Takashi Ono, Vera Caslavska, Abie Grossfeld, and Yuri Titov at the World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, 2011; from Abie Grossfeld

She was also immensely popular due to her beauty queen looks. As a former coach described her, she was “like someone you’d take to the high school prom. She had a big bouffant hairstyle and a very womanly body.” Right after the Olympic Games in Mexico City, she married fellow Czech Josef Odlozil in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Mexico City, an event that “was mobbed by thousands of supporters,” cementing her hold on the public imagination.

On August 30, 2016, Vera Caslavska of Prague, passed away. She was 74 years old.

In the 1960s, as gymnasts began blending athleticism and balleticism, Caslavska seemed to find the right balance. Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the US women’s gymnastics team, and she told me that in the 1960s, judges were trying to find the right standard to judge gymnasts. “Until we got the new scoring system, scoring was like a pendulum. One time the more artistic gymnast won, but maybe the next time the more athletic gymnast won. I think Caslavaska blended both very well.”

Why was she so good? As Muriel Grossfeld told me, “she worked hard. She was a perfectionist. Her work ethic was enormous. I remember her working on routine after routine on the beam. 40 times a day!” Makoto Sakamoto was also a member of the US men’s gymnastics team in the 1960s and agreed with Muriel Grossfeld’s assessment. Sakamoto was at a dual US-Czech gymnastics meet in the winter of 1964 where he saw Caslavska compete. He told me he admired the professionalism and preparation of Caslavska.

“I was sixteen and she was about 21 years old.  We both won the all-around  title, but what I remember most about her was the way she prepared for her performances.  Instead of having her coach carry the heavy vaulting board, she did it by herself. When the uneven bar snapped in half  during one of her performances, she just waited patiently until a replacement bar could be installed.  Then she performed her routine without any mistakes.”

Sakamoto also remembers when Caslavska dominated at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He had been training in Tokyo and was actually in the hospital recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon when he “witnessed on black and white television one of the most moving artistic performances” he had ever experienced: Caslavska’s floor exercise routine at the Mexico City Games, performed to the “magic rhythm of the Mexican Hat Dance.” Muriel Grossfeld, who was in Mexico City agreed, telling me “that was a very smart song selection, was fun and built a lot of enthusiasm in the arena.”

She was so dominant in the 1960s that Caslavska is still the only gymnast, male or female to have won gold in every individual artistic gymnastic discipline. As 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Bart Connor, recently said about Caslavska, “She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles.”

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Gymnast Gabby Douglas in Rio.

The Twitterverse can be very petty.

After the US women’s team dominated the team gymnastics competition and won gold at the Rio Olympics, gymnast Gabby Douglas got hit by a social media storm. Why? Because she did not have her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony.

One of the uglier images that made the rounds was an image of two photos placed in contrast to each other: one of the US women’s gymnastics team and the other of the US 4×100 men’s freestyle swim team. The top caption was “Understand the difference”. Under a picture of the swim team, in which Ryan Held is wiping tears from his eyes, are the words “took hand off of heart momentarily to hide tears of pride, joy, and accomplishment.” Underneath the picture of the US women’s gymnastics team, which shows Gabby Douglas with her hands at her side, are the words “blatant disrespect”.

Douglas is an American star of the 2012 London Olympics, a member of arguably the hardest working gymnastics team in history, who has spent countless days and hours in practice and pain to help bring golden glory to the US again in Rio. Here she was, being ripped apart online because she did not have her hand on heart.

The onslaught was so swift and vicious, Douglas felt compelled to apologize:

In response to a few tweets I saw tonight, I always stand at attention out of respect for our country whenever the national anthem is played. I never meant any disrespect and apologize if I offended anyone. I’m so overwhelmed at what our team accomplished today and overjoyed that we were able to bring home another gold for our country!

Douglas had no reason to apologize. Fortunately, the better angels of the Twitterverse nature agreed, and came to Douglas’ defense.

David Wottle on Winners Podium
David Wottle at the Muinch Games in 1972, Munich, Germany  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

But we’ve seen this movie before.

  • In 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Games after their respective first and third-place finishes in the 200-meter finals because they lowered their heads and raised their fists in protest of the state of Blacks in America.
  • In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, Dave Wottle won the 800-meter finals in dramatic fashion. At the awards ceremony, he stood at attention, his hand on heart and his trademark white golf cap on head during the playing of the American national anthem. Well, tongues wagged, and the press kept asking Wottle if he was protesting something. Wottle replied very sheepishly that he simply forgot he was wearing it. Wottle is lucky that the Internet was not a factor our lives yet.
  • And for decades, the simple act of carrying the flag in the opening ceremony was a matter of consternation for Americans. Perhaps it’s the fact that America was born out of war of independence from a King in Europe. But it became customary for the flag bearer leading the American team in an Olympic opening ceremony would not dip their flag to the host country’s leader as sign of respect. While Americans dipped and not dipped over the decades, the USOC then decided in 1936 after the Berlin Games to make it policy for the US flag bearer not to dip.

In 1964, during the Tokyo Olympic Games, then head of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, went as far as to recommend that the medal ceremony be dropped from the Olympics. According to a AP report, Brundage said at a press conference that “he doesn’t want national flags raised and anthems played after medal performances in the various sports because they only help to generate extreme nationalism.”

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October 24, 1964 AP

Americans can have thin skins. Raw interpretations of what acts, what behaviors, what words are viewed as patriotic are openly voiced at the water cooler, in the press, and of course in the 21st century, most flamboyantly on the internet. This is true in sports competitions between nations as it is true in the political discourse of the US presidential campaign.

Perhaps it’s fruitless to say that calmer heads should prevail, other cheeks should be turned. But for what it’s worth, President Abraham Lincoln said it best. America’s 16th president presided over one of the most politically tumultuous periods in American history, and in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, he addressed a country on the verge of civil war. The quote below are the most famous from that address, and resonate today:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln

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US swimmer Katie Ledecky poses on the podium after winning gold in the women’s 800m freestyle final during the swimming event at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 3, 2012 in London. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GettyImages)

Katie Ledecky is as close to a sure thing there is. The 19-year-old already has a gold medal from her 800-meter freestyle victory at the 2012 London Games. Gold in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle at the Rio Olympics are considered a near lock.

Owner of the fastest times in 400- and 800-meter women’s swimming this year, Ledecky, the world record holder in both events owns eight of the ten fastest 400-meter times and nine of the top ten fastest 800-meter times…ever.

More incredibly, Ledecky has blossomed into a rare swimming competitor that has excelled at both mid and short distances. She also owns the fastest time in the world in the 200-meter freestyle, showing a diversity of performance that hasn’t been seen since the 1968 Mexico City Games. Back then, it was American teenager from Annapolis, Maryland, Debbie Meyer, who achieved an incredible swimming trifecta, winning gold in the 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyle events.

Katie Ledecky and Debbie Meyer
Katie Ledecky and Debbie Meyer

As Meyer reflected in this New York Times article, “When I watch her swim, it brings back so many memories.”

The Stanford University enrollee is primed for golden success in the 400 and 800 meters. Additionally, she has qualified for both the 200- and 100-meters. The Freestyle Queen will reign in Rio. The question is not how. It’s how many.