Roth Saari Hetz on the Podium_Asahi Graf_30October1964
Left to Right: Roy Saari, Dick Roth, Gerhard Hetz, silver, gold and bronze medalists of the 400 meter individual medley at the 1964 Tokyo Games

“I can withstand pain. In fact, I love pain.”

Olympic champion, Dick Roth, referred to pain as his advantage. The 1964 gold medalist in the 400-meter individual swimming medley believed he could tolerate more pain than almost any of his competitors. And when you’re an Olympic-level swimmer, a combination of holding your breath and stretching your body to its physical limits creates oxygen debt.

Oxygen is vital to breaking down glucose to provide your body with energy. But when the body can’t get enough oxygen to create energy, it releases lactic acid, a substance that can create energy without oxygen. When there is more lactic acid in your blood than can be burned off, you get pain. And the more intense your physical activity, the more intense the pain can be.

Dick Roth with medal

And Roth’s pain was intense. As described briefly in an earlier post, Roth was one of the young American swimmers favored to do well in his swimming event. But literally hours after the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Summer Games, Roth was tossing and turning in discomfort and then tremendous pain.

Roth got himself out of bed at 6 am, got to the Olympic Village infirmary. The nurse poked and probed. The swim team doctor did blood tests and then left him alone in his bed. He was 24 hours from competing in the Olympic Games. “This was not the way to calm me down,” thought Roth. Then finally, they told him. He was going to be transported to a US Army Hospital in Western Tokyo and have his appendix removed.

“I was so blown away they had to bring in a counselor to calm me down,” wrote Roth. “The ambulance ride to Tachikawa is a blur. The only thing I remember is pulling up to the hospital entrance and thinking I was going to die.”

The doctors told Roth that they would have to take out his appendix ASAP. He said no. They somehow prepped Roth for the operation and asked a member of the US Olympic Committee to sign off on the operation since Roth was still a minor at 17, but the USOC didn’t want to take responsibility. They eventually tracked down Roth’s parents who of course wanted to OK the operation. But their son was adamant. “My parents came in to see me before they signed, thank god. I begged them not to let the doctors take it out. I really wanted to swim. What if they were wrong? So began hours of debate back and forth with phone calls to the States for third and fourth opinions. In the end, my parents made a deal to take all responsibility, an unbelievably tough decision.”

The Roths and the doctors agreed that Roth would not exercise except to swim in the heats and that he would have blood tests every four hours. Roth was back in the Olympic Village that evening and went to sleep. The next day, he swam relatively poorly in the heats, 15 seconds slower than his personal best, but still made it into the finals.

“Everyone is on the same level physically,” Roth told me. “So it is all mental. On any given day anyone can win. We all knew about pain. You had to swim through the pain. I would get myself into oxygen debt and when I couldn’t add 2 and 3, when I thought I couldn’t go any further, I knew I was in the right place.”

And as he was resting in bed waiting for the finals to begin, he wrote that pain was a part of his mental preparation. “All that day I swam the race in my mind and felt the pain over and over and over. I was obsessive. But I got to watch my confidence build back up. I remember it very clearly.”

What Roth didn’t remember clearly was the 400 meter finals race, which is 100 meter sprints in four different styles: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. “I really don’t remember the race very well,”

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Soren Svejstrup, greeted in Tokyo upon arrival (from the collection of Soren Svejstrup)
Soren Svejstrup, greeted in Tokyo upon arrival (from the collection of Soren Svejstrup)

Diver, Søren Svejstrup of Denmark, was performing well after the first round of the ten-meter dive competition in 1964. In the second round, Svejstrup was in fourth place and closing in on a medal opportunity. But in the end, despite error-free dives, he could not make it to the finals.

Without the pressure of the competition, the next day, Svejstrup took a ride in a car around Tokyo with friends, enjoying life as a tourist for a change. The following day, however, the 19-year old woke up in a world of pain. First the Danish team doctor told him to rest, before being taken to a hospital, where the doctors could not figure out the issue. Finally, Svejstrup was taken to a university hospital where they told the diver that his appendix was rotten, and had to be removed right away.

“At the theatre they gave me an injection in my spine, and a mirror so I could watch the whole operation. The doctor was very nice, and said ‘we will give you the smallest mark on your stomach possible, so you can look nice when you dive from the 10 meter back in Denmark’.”

It was as if his body told him, “I was patient with you. Now you need to listen to me.” As Svejstrup explained to me, “my appendix knew what to do, and what not to do.”

DickRoth_display_imageOn the other hand, swimmer, Dick Roth, simply did not listen to his body.

Roth had had a long day after the opening ceremony at the National Stadium. He went to bed around 9pm but couldn’t fall asleep, feeling pain in his stomach. He threw up several times during the night, and finally at 6am he woke up and was taken to the infirmary.

They probed and tested the 17-year old, and then sent him to a hospital at a US military base a couple of hours away. They told him they had to cut out his appendix. The surgical team was ready to operate. All he had to do was sign a paper allowing the surgery.

Roth said “No”. Several hours later, Roth’s parents were located and brought in. They were ready to sign the form – they did not even want to imagine the possibility of their son’s appendix bursting in the middle of a competition, lifetime opportunity or not.

Roth insisted on delaying the surgery, somehow convinced his parents not to authorize the surgery.

And that was it. Roth went on to set world record in the 400-meter individual medley, and take gold for the US.