roger jackson own the podium
Roger Jackson, CEO of Own the Podium

To be the best athlete in the world often means overcoming overwhelming fatigue, excruciating pain, and suffocating fear and anxiety. As described by Olympic swimming champion Dick Roth, pain not only must be tolerated, it must be befriended.

I often thought, world-class athletes – they aren’t like you and me. Defying pain, building up super-human endurance, reaching world-class levels – is that trainable?

I posed that question to Roger Jackson, three-time Olympian, and gold medal rower in the coxless pairs at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Jackson was the CEO of Own the Podium, an NPO tasked with enabling Canada’s athletes to develop into Olympic champions. The only two times Canada had ever hosted the Olympics – 1976 in Montreal and 1988 in Calgary – no one from Canada won a gold medal. Own the Podium had a mission – help Canada achieve the highest medal haul in the 2010 Winter Games, to be held on home turf in Vancouver, Canada. While Team Canada did not come out on top in the medal count, Canada did win the highest number of gold medals, 14, which also happened to be the most total gold medals ever won by a country in a Winter Games.

“We had always been fifth in the world,” Jackson told me. “I was asked by the Canadian government and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to build a program to win the most medals in Vancouver. I had five years. I hired strong leadership. And I insisted on 100% commitment from our athletes. If you were willing to be disciplined and committed to the world-class training regimen we created, we would fund you. We worked with the athletes on plans, assessed the performance of the plan three times a year, identifying issues and upgrading the plans as we needed.”

Jackson emphasized that Olympians who want to be champions have to have this attitude – no compromise. “Family, school, wife – they cannot compromise your training. You need to sleep, rest and work your ass off. That’s the tone of the very best.”

Jackson said that’s why the Canadian rowing teams were traditionally strong, and why all Canadian teams had a chance, even the unknown Roger Jackson / George Hungerford coxless pair team. Canadian rowers trained hard and did not compromise.

Jackson, Roger | Hungerford, George
Canada’s Roger Jackson and George Hungerford celebrate their gold medal win in the rowing event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (CP Photo/COC) Roger Jackson and George Hungerford du Canada célèbrent leur médaille d’or au deux d’aviron aux Jeux olympique de Tokyo de 1964. (Photo PC/AOC)

“In the University of British Columbia Rowing program, we were told to do something, and we had to do it,” said Jackson. “Maybe we couldn’t believe we could do it, but we’d have to try. We would row three or four miles every morning and again every evening. And because there were so few teams to compete with us as other competitive teams were so far away from us, the coach had all the different teams compete against each other. At the end of each morning workout, we would row a 2000 m race against our other crews. The slowest boats would start, being the pairs and seconds later the fours would start and later the eights would start, all converging on the finish line at about the same time. And to win, you would never give up.”

“We would get to the finish line totally exhausted, dry retching, heaving. And, on occasion, the coach would say, ‘not good enough. Do it again.’ And so we raced 2000 m again. And if it wasn’t good enough, he’d tell us to do it again. I was eating 8,000 calories a day and still losing weight, but I knew that no one else had this incredible work ethic. That was the attitude that made us do things we didn’t think we could do. So when we got to the starting line in Tokyo, I knew we had done everything we could do to prepare ourselves to win.”

Do it again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Sound familiar?

Here is a famous scene from the film, Miracle, about the 1980 USA Ice Hockey Team that won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics. Coach Herb Brooks has taken his team to play the Norwegian national team and the game ends in a tie. Brooks isn’t happy with the team’s dedication and commitment, and makes them skate sprints over and over and over….until finally, the team’s captain, exhausted beyond reason, has an epiphany.

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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,”

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.

From
From “THE GAMES OF THE XVIII OLYMPIAD TOKYO 1964: The Official Report of the Organizing Committee.”

All we see is the pomp and circumstance. But waiting for the start of the opening ceremony of an Olympics Games can be a dull and tiring affair.

As 400-meter individual medley swimmer, Dick Roth, wrote, after getting bussed to a large staging area on a beautiful Autumn day on October 10, 1964, all they did was wait. “We milled around for hours in our new uniforms, awaiting our turn to march in, not daring to sit down in our white pants or skirts. That part really wasn’t fun.”

The American, Roth, won gold in his event, so the wait was worth it. But if an Olympian’s event is in the day’s following the opening ceremony, they are often encouraged not to participate in the team march into the stadium. That’s what American diver, Frank Gorman, was advised.

“The diving events began the day after,” the silver medalist in the 3-meter springboard told me. “So we were cautioned by our coaches to not go. We stayed in the Village dormitories. By that time, we were so pleased that the coaches advised us to stay. You had to go five hours in advance and stand outside waiting for things to get organized. They spent 8 or 12 hours participating in the ceremonies. We would have been worn out.”

And yet, for many Olympians, it’s an experience of a life time. Wrote Roth, “It was overwhelming really – bright blue sky, the entire stadium filled with 75,000 applauding, cheering people, all of us athletes standing in formation on the field. The track was ringed with Japanese, dancing in colorful costumes. The Emperor was standing and waving. Flags and more flags. Did you ever wonder what’s going through an athlete’s mind during the Opening Ceremonies? In my case, nothing besides a bucketful of awe!”