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Certification of proof of a world record in the freestyle 100 meters for Cocky Gastelaars of the Netherlands_from the collection of Cocky Gastelaars

She was the fastest swimmer in the world. On March 3, 1956, the Dutch swimmer, Cocky Gastelaars, swam the 100-meter freestyle in 1 minute and 4.2 seconds. The record had been held by fellow Dutch swimmer, Willy den Ouden for two decades until then.

Above is a certificate that Gastelaars received from the FINA, the international swimming governing body.

When she broke a world record, Gastelaars told me that special evenings were organized for her, and that she got lots of presents, like food baskets or a pen. She even got a dog.

In early 1956, Gastelaars and her coach knew that the world record was vulnerable, and they planned and trained with a vision of breaking that record. When a person is believed to be on the verge of breaking records, very often the community is alerted so that official timers and lots of witnesses are on hand.

“I made progress every month.” she told me. “I knew it was coming. I broke the record in Amsterdam in a swimming event against other Dutch competitors. It was rather big crowd for the time. My mom and friends were there. My father had to work. He was running an operation of 36 big boats, but he stayed near the telephone. As it turned out, the station interrupted regular radio programming, and my father was able to hear the broadcast on the radio.”

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Cocky Gastelaars with trainer Dries Peute after breaking world record March 3, 1956

Five weeks later, Gastelaars did it again.

Eight months later, Gastelaars was primed to win gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics….when the unthinkable happened. The Netherlands government decided to boycott the Olympics, joining Spain and Switzerland in a protest of the Soviet Union invasion of Hungary. As you can imagine, members of the Dutch Olympic squad were shocked, angry and devastated by the news. Gastelaars never took off for Australia. At the peak of her powers as the fastest swimmer in the world, she was not allowed to prove her championship mettle because of two countries that had nothing directly to do with either Australia or the Netherlands.

I was so sad. All the swimmers were. We trained every day together. When the Games (for us )was cancelled, (our dream) was all gone. So we just went back to school. We didn’t say much. People asked us how we feel, but we didn’t talk about it. I felt awful. You work so hard for something and suddenly it’s over. We definitely would have had a lot of chances for medals. In fact, after the Olympics, we held relays in the Netherlands in all the Olympic events. I think we broke three world records in the relays, and the women’s medley.

Only recently have officials in the Netherlands recognized the 1956 Olympians who never got the chance to compete. The belated recognition is of course good. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, it is perhaps better to have competed and lost, than to have never competed at all.

Ans Botha, coach for South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, talks to reporters during media availability at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro.
Ans Botha, coach for South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk, talks to reporters during media availability at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 15, 2016. Niekerk won the gold medal in the 400-meter final with a world record of 43.03 (Jeffrey Furticella/The New York Times)

In the world of leadership development, finding the right executive coach is often a matter of chemistry. We often introduce a coachee to two, sometimes three prospective coaches with the hope that one of them will click with the client. So much of a good coaching engagement is the willingness of the coachee to be vulnerable, to allow him or herself to open up and trust the coach. The greater the openness and trust, the greater the commitment of the coachee to change.

The same is likely true in the world of high-performance sports. Not every coach is right for every athlete. While Bobby Valentine‘s cerebral, in-your-face managerial style was perfect for the World Series bound 2000 New Mets, it was awful for the 2012 Boston Red Sox. While Soichi Sakamoto‘s my-way-or-the-highway approach to coaching championship swimmers was perfect for two-time gold medal-winning freestyle swimmer, Bill Smith, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was anathema to fellow Hawaiian swim star Halo Hirose.

When Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa blew away Michael Johnson’s 19-year-old world record time in the 400-meter sprint at the 2016 Rio Olympics, almost everyone was surprised to learn that his coach was a 74-year-old woman whose white-haired, grandmotherly appearance fooled security at the Olympic Stadium. They would not let the woman see her prodigy, Van Niekerk. After being reassured profusely by fellow South Afrikaner athletes that Anna Sofia Botha was indeed the coach of Rio’s newest star, the coach finally got to see her coachee.

As she explained in this New York Times article, “we just hugged each other. It wasn’t necessary to say anything. We knew in our hearts and in our minds what we thought and what we had achieved.”

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Van Niekerk met Botha in 2012, when he enrolled at the University of the Free State, where Botha was the track coach. Even though she seemed to appear out of nowhere, Botha has actually been coaching track for nearly half a century, after competing in track herself. So when she saw this raw talent come to her, and saw a sprinter prone to leg injuries, she recommended that van Niekerk switch from the 200 meters, to the 400 meters, under the assumption that the longer distance would place less stress on his hamstrings.

“I have such a big responsibility to get this athlete to develop to his full potential, and also the responsibility for myself to try to do my very best not to do something wrong which can make or break him,” Botha told the Sunday Times (cited in this Deadspin article.) “The main thing is we listened to what his body said to us. If the body said stop, we stopped, or went a little softer.”

“She’s an amazing woman,” van Niekerk said in this article in The Guardian. “She has played a huge role in who I am today and kept me very disciplined and very focused on the role and who I need to be.” Clearly Niekerk needed someone who could bring the tough love, and Botha confirmed that in the same article.

“I dearly love all my athletes but it’s about being strict … We can laugh, but when we have to work hard, we work hard.”

World-class athletes who self-coach, like javelin champion Julius Yego, are few and far between. The coach can sometimes have a huge impact. Who is the right coach? Well, if you’re serious, you probably should not settle for the first one to come along. The coach right for you is out there. You’ll know it when you meet her.

One of my go-to books for great images from the Tokyo Olympics is the coffee table to me, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964” published by the Kyodo News Agency. On one page, the book tells a wonderful story about the joy of victory through three fantastic pictures.

Ewa Klobukowska anchored a Polish women’s team that won gold in the 4 X 100 relay race, and set a world record time of 43.0 seconds, defeating the American and British teams that took silver and bronze respectively. Klobukowska, who also took bronze in the women’s 100 meter compeition, was so happy in victory that when requested by an official to return the baton, she didn’t want to give it back. I’ve provided the captions from the book below.

“Hannah, we’ve made it.” Poland’s anchor Eva Klobukowska (center) embraces Teresa Barbara Ciepla (extreme right), excited over the world record their team set in the Women’s 400 M Relay.
“Say, young lady, you can’t take it with you!”
“But I want to. I love this baton.” – Poland’s Eva Klobukowska.

“Eva, give it to me.” Poland’s Teresa Barbara Ciepla takes the baton past the official into the dugout.

Five years later,

From the book
From the book “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16”

He was the best at the triple jump in the 1960s. He held the Olympic and world records in that discipline. He hopped, skipped and jumped his way to two gold medals, one in Rome in 1960 and the second in Tokyo in 1964.

And yet, there’s not much available in English about Jozef Szmidt, triple jumper extraordinaire from Miechowice, Poland.

In addition to being the first human to ever triple jump over 17 meters, Szmidt held the world record for an incredible 8 years from 1960. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Guiseppe Gentile of Italy extended 2.75 inches further than Szmidt’s mark. Gentile held that record for moments before Viktor Sanyeyev of the USSR, Nelson Prudencio of Brazil and then Sanyeyev lept progressively further for record marks.