The US women’s gymnastics trials were done. The women’s team was set.
Doris Fuchs, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Methany, Dale McClements Kephart, Janie Speaks, and Marie Walther were selected to represent the United States in Tokyo at the XVIII Olympiad in 1964. The USSR and the Czechs were heavily favored, and the US women were not expected to medal. But you still have to play the game. You still have to believe you have a chance.
But even world-class athletes balance their emotions on the razor’s edge of confidence and collapse. Going into major competitions, many demand that they keep to their routines, and be steered clear of interruptions and distractions. And yet, the women’s gymnastics team faced the ultimate of distractions – a second trial to again determine which gymnasts would compete in the Tokyo Olympics.
According to a member of the women’s gymnastics team, Dale McClements Kephart, the head coach, Vannie Edwards, unexpectedly held an intra-squad competition on October 15, only a day prior to the start of the women’s competition. Of the 7 members of the women’s gymnastics team (including the alternate), four were asked to join the competition: Fuchs, Grossfeld, Speaks and the alternate, Kathy Corrigan.
This is how McClements Kephart described the day in her diary, through her 19-year old eyes:
October 15th: All the teams competing with us worked with us in the competitive gym and it was run like the meet. We marched in, a gong was sounded at the beginning or our workout at an event and at the end. We had 30 minutes. then we marched to the next event, etc. Our order of competition will be F.X., vaulting, Bars and Beam. As far as our team is concerned, the order is not good, but it probably won’t matter that much. Again we ended up making fools of ourselves (officials). Here all the other teams made good use of the time by going through approximately 2 compulsories and an optional. Instead three of us had a meet and all we worked was compulsories. Doris, Muriel and Kathy competed compulsory and optional and Janie in only 2 events.
A big strain was put on all of them and Linda, Marie and I didn’t get to hardly get up on the equipment because they had to all warm up and go through compulsories and optionals. Then we had our little meeting and Doris was named the alternate. This wasn’t really a shock, but it still hurt to know they were making such a big mistake. Doris did crack during the competition. Many of the Japanese, the Czechs and Russians feel it is all wrong and cannot understand it. I do know the officials dislike her as a person and I’ve decided that this is what really happened.
When McClements Kephart wrote the word “officials”, she was referring to George Gulack, the head of the chair of AAU Gymnastics, and his wife, Fay Gulack, who was the women’s team manager in Tokyo. McClements Kephart felt that the Gulacks, for some reason, did not like Doris Fuchs personally.
At the end of that impromptu competition, the alternate on the team, Corrigan, was added to the starting team, while Doris Fuchs was unceremoniously switched from starter to alternate.
Abie Grossfeld, who was the assistant coach of the men’s team, and who observed this intra-squad competition, watched as Fay Gulack judged Speaks, and watched as Speaks fell off the balance beam twice. Muriel Grossfeld told me that Fay Gulack claimed Fuchs’ performance in the trial’s uneven bar competition was flawed, that her split – a leap off of the beam with legs spread – wasn’t high enough. But Fay Gulack didn’t buy that explanation because she also saw Speaks fall off the beam in the compulsory twice.
To the Grossfelds, Speaks performed poorly, and Fuchs was the third best member of the team as well as a superior performer in the uneven bars, so the change in team roster was seemingly inexplicable.
A day away from the biggest competition of their lives, the team was in turmoil, and the issue was escalated to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). In a hastily arranged “trial”, Abie and Muriel Grossfeld argued the defense of Fuchs, explaining that Fuchs had already made the team in the trials and should be one of the final six members of the team. The Grossfeld’s explained that she wasn’t the seventh best on the team, she was actually the third best overall performer.
But the passionate appeal fell on deaf ears. When all was said and done, the USOC official said that it was the head coach’s decision. The head coach of the women’s gymnastics team was Vannie Edwards, who refused to change his mind. According to Abie Grossfeld, after the gymnastics teams arrived in Tokyo, Edwards told him that George Gulack, wanted Doris Fuchs to be the alternate. Grossfeld said that Edwards went along with the decision because “he was afraid that GG (Gulack) would hurt his future gymnasts in competition.”
In the end, Speaks finished worst on the American team in the all-around individuals, 62nd of 83 competitors. But to be fair, Marie Walther and Muriel Grossfeld finished 60th and 58th respectively. The team overall finished an underwhelming ninth, as the powerful Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Japan teams took gold, silver and bronze.
Then again, was the team given a chance, prepped to be their best on the biggest stage in their sport? Probably not.