Dale Kephart_2_Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs.jpg
Team USA 1964: Janie Speaks, Marie Walther, Muriel Grossfeld, Linda Metheny, Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan, Doris Fuchs, from the personal collection of Dale McClements Kephart

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.

Dale Kephart_3
Dale McClements Kephart, from her own collection

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.

 

Abie Grossfeld
Abie Grossfeld

 

 

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. 

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Yukio Endo_Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Service
Yukio Endo, from the book Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency

By the time the 1964 Tokyo Olympics rolled around, gymnast Boris Shakhlin of the Soviet Union had won nine Olympic medals in Melbourne and Rome, including four gold medals in 1960. Until 1980, his total Olympic medal haul of 13 was the most by any male athlete until 1980.

Shakhlin certainly had an opportunity to continue his championship ways in Tokyo. Except that Yukio Endo, and perhaps all of Japan, stood in his way.

Boris Shakhlin_XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun
Boris Shakhlin, from the book XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964_Asahi Shimbun

Endo won the men’s individual all-around gymnastics competition, which includes compulsory and optional events in six events: the vault, floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and horizontal bar. After all was said and done, Endo had a total score of 115.95 out of a total 120 points, edging out three competitors who tied for second with scores of 115.40.

In other words, 0.55 separated gold from silver. The problem is, Endo had what could be described as an awful effort on the pommel horse optional. As American gymnast Dale McClements described in her diary at the time, “Endo sat on the horse 2 times and dismounted with bent legs.”

According to the Japan Times, Endo had a considerable lead over his teammate Shuji Tsurumi and Shakhlin before the pommel horse optionals. “Japanese spectators were biting their nails fearing that the last moment error would cost Endo the gold medal. The event was halted 10 minutes as Japanese team manager Takashi Kondo made a strong appeal to the judges that the faults should not be counted too much. While the Russians glowered, spectators burst into cheers when the judges finally raised their scoring flags. All four were unanimous giving Endo 9.1 scores which assured him of the gold medal.”

 

Yukio Endo
Yukio Endo, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad_Kyodo News Agency

Another American gymnast who witnessed Endo’s performance, Makoto Sakamoto, told me that the pommel horse is arguably the hardest of the six disciplines. “It’s the most difficult event to stay on. There are so many opportunities to fall and slip off. You can hit a slick spot, or you sit down. He missed! I remember saying, ‘Darn it, the best gymnast in the world is crumbling.’ Then he got a 9.15, and I thought, ‘what a gift!’ Anyone else would have gotten an 8.2 or 8.4. He got a 9.15.”

In other words, the 0.55 edge would have disappeared if Endo had not

Roy_summer vacation_1967 maybe
Roy, sometime between the Tokyo and Mexico City Olympic Games.

On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.

  1. A Helicopter View of US-USSR Relations, Olympic Style
  2. American Gymnast Makoto Sakamoto and Memories of Home: Post-War Shinjuku
  3. Arnold Gordon (Part 1): Befriending Judy Garland at Manos in Shinjuku
  4. The Banning of Headgear in Boxing: The Convoluted World of Protecting Our Athletes
  5. Clumsy Handoff, Beautiful Result: A World Record Finish for the American 4X400 Relay Team in Tokyo
  6. Coach Hank Iba: The Iron Duke of Defense Who Led the Men’s Basketball Team to Gold in 1964
  7. Creativity by Committee: The 2020 Olympic Emblem and the Rio Olympic Mascots?
  8. Crowded, Noisy, Dirty, Impersonal: Tokyo in the 1960s
  9. The Dale McClements’ Diary: From Athlete to Activist
  10. Doug Rogers, Star of the Short Film “Judoka”: A Fascinating Look at Japan, and the Foreigner Studying Judo in the 1960s
  11. Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story
  12. Escape from Manchuria: How the Father of an Olympian Left a Legacy Beyond Olympic Proportions
  13. Fame: Cover Girl and Canadian Figure Skater Sandra Bezic
  14. Frank Gorman: Harvard Star, Tokyo Olympian, and Now Inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame
  15. The Geesink Eclipse – The Day International Judo Grew Up
  16. India Beats Pakistan in Field Hockey: After the Partition, the Sporting Equivalent of War
  17. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  18. On Being Grateful: Bob Schul
  19. Protesting Via Political Cartoons: Indonesia Boycotts the Tokyo Olympics
  20. The Sexist Sixties: A Sports Writers Version of “Mad Men” Would Make the Ad Men Blush
  21. “Swing” – The Danish Coxless Fours Found It, and Gold, in Tokyo
  22. Toby Gibson: Boxer, Lawyer, Convict
  23. Vesper Victorious Under Rockets Red Glare – A Dramatic Finish to One of America’s Greatest Rowing Accomplishments
  24. What it Means to Be an Olympian: Bill Cleary Remembers
  25. Who is that Bald-Headed Beauty: The Mystery of the Soviet Javelin Champion