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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Team USA getting read to compete at the 1964 Olympics, from Dale McClements Kephart's personal collection
Team USA getting read to compete at the 1964 Olympics, from Dale McClements Kephart’s personal collection

She was 19, and at 5 feet (1.5 meters) and only 98 pounds (44 kgs), said to be the smallest Olympian at the 1964 Olympics. Gymnast, Dale McClements, competed in a tough competition with much stronger teams from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, ending up the highest ranked American at the Tokyo Games.

And she kept a journal of her time.

She told me that she was very excited to go to Japan, and experience a different way of life. Below are excerpts from her diary, and how her teenage eyes saw the world, one particularly different from her life in Seattle.

Oct. 4th:  Food here is very good although for some reason I haven’t been eating that much for lack of hunger and quest for drinks.  They have all kinds of food which could suit all nations.  Oh-yoyo and Sayonara!  Good morning and goodbye.

Oct. 5th:  We had a flag raising ceremony today.  When all the members of a country are all in the village, we have to march as a team to the Olympic circle of flags with other countries doing the same thing.  So we marched, if you want to call it that.  After seeing how well and in step all the other teams are, it is kind of embarrassing to march with our team.  We have bikes we can ride all over the village. We spend most of our time training or in the village. You just pick one bike up and leave it when you get off of it.  Sometimes we end up racing for bikes though.  We also get free ice cream here. It’s fun.  

Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan and Linda Matheny in the Olympic Village, Olympics, from Dale McClemments Kephart's personal collection
Dale McClements, Kathy Corrigan and Linda Matheny in the Olympic Village, Olympics, from Dale McClemments Kephart’s personal collection

Oct. 8th:  We went into town yesterday.  This is where I noticed that there are so many people here.  The streets are loaded with people.  I love the Japanese people and thought – they are so quiet, yet so friendly and humble.  I think they are great and this has been the best country I’ve been to so far.  Traffic drives me crazy here so I just don’t look at where we’re going anymore.  It’s a miracle that we haven’t had a wreck yet.

Oct. 10th:

Today was opening ceremonies. It was a great one too. The standing around for 3 hours was worth the one hour ceremony. First we marched halfway around the stadium and onto the field. Some speeches were made, then the Olympic flag was raised. Next, balloons were let loose, the torch bearer ran the track, climbed the carpeted steps to light the torch at the top of the stadium, the pigeons were let loose, then – most impressive of all – 5 planes described a circle in the air which formed the linking Olympic circles in their correct colors. Then we marched off.

But as time approached the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics, there was considerable uncertainty around the make-up of the US women’s gymnastics team. Surprisingly, the team had not been finalized. Who would round out the six members of the team? Who would end up being the alternate? McClements expressed the frustration she and likely other members of her team had during the Games.

Oct. 13th:

Things are a very big mess right now. Everything has been leading up to this, but today everything blew sky high and we haven’t even reached the worst part of it yet. It’s nice to be on the team, etc, but they sure shouldn’t put us through the mental strain they are when it is so close to the meet. Actually, I have nothing to be upset about because I’m in a good position. The number 1 problem is who is going to be the alternate? That’s a good question – no one of us can even take a wild guess. The past few days our routines have been judged by our own staff. I have ignored this and concentrated completely on my training. It is bothering a lot of the team however. What bothers me is that we are not getting enough training in because of so much formal preparations to be judged. 3 people on the team do not have a secure position.

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

When McClements returned home to Seattle after competing in the Summer Games, and then exhibitions in other parts of Japan, she met with the press. She said that US Women’s Gymnastics will never improve until the politics are removed from the selection process. For a long time, there had been complaints by gymnasts regarding the head of the AAU gymnastics body who, apparently, made all decisions regarding selection at that time.

“The problem could be called one of personalities,” McClements was quoted as saying in The Seattle Times. “A few persons control the sport nationally. These few insist upon using the same small number of judges and refuse to allow new blood in. there are several other qualified to judge, one of them a former Olympics competitor, but these are ignored. One result of this ‘control’ has been poor planning, to the detriment of those competing and to the standing of United States teams internationally.”

For example, she cited that the team was together only for two weeks to train and that the