BLOOMINGTON HERALD Enlarge
The iconic sports figures from Toledo come to mind quickly.
Football: Jim Parker. Basketball: Jim Jackson. Boxing: Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure. Wrestling: Greg Wojciechowski.
And when it came to the swimming pool, there is only one name: Chet Jastremski.
The 1959 graduate of St. Francis de Sales High School was, at least for one brief period in history, labeled as the “World’s Best Swimmer.”
Dr. Chester Andrew Jastremski, who won a bronze medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1964 Summer Olympic games in Tokyo, died on May 3 in Bloomington, Ind. He was 73.
Jastremski made his mark as a college swimmer for Indiana University under the tutelage of legendary coach James “Doc” Counsilman.
From a local perspective, Jastremski’s own legend took form outside of the view of many of his contemporaries and classmates.
When he began at St. Francis — which is now a perennial high school swimming power in Ohio — there was no pool, and the Knights had no swim team.
Although Jastremski blended well with his fellow students there, it likely wasn’t until after graduating — when he was featured on the cover of the Jan. 29, 1962, issue of Sports Illustrated magazine — that there was a true buzz amongst his former classmates and teachers at St. Francis about Jastremski’s swimming prowess.
“That was great to see,” said Tom Guitteau, a classmate and former University of Toledo football player and Rockets radio color commentator. “Our class of 1959 was the first four-year class at St. Francis, and having him on that Sports Illustrated cover was a feather in the cap for our high school. We were trying to make it as an institution of learning as well as athletics, and that certainly gave a lot of credence to what St. Francis was trying to accomplish.”
Jastremski’s swimming exploits were suddenly on the national radar.
“Everyone pretty much followed what he was doing after that, with the Olympics and things like that,” said another 1959 classmate, Tom McGuire, the owner of the All-American Coach Co.
“We were all pretty excited for him. What he had done at that age was an unbelievable accomplishment for anybody, let alone a fellow classmate.”
The legacy lasts to this day at St. Francis, which long ago honored Jastremski in the school lobby with a glass case that displays his SI cover and other memorabilia.
“He’s probably our most celebrated alumnus in that he had his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he was declared the greatest swimmer in the world at one time,” said Rev. Ronald Olszewski, a 1962 St. Francis graduate. “He was a senior when I was a freshman at St. Francis, so I really didn’t know him then.
“But I did get to meet him years later, and it was impressive to be with him and to talk to him.”
Jastremski’s time in the limelight occurred nearly a half century before the Internet and other related technology made information almost instantly available around the globe. A time when events at the Olympic Games were brought to viewers on a tape-delay basis only.
But that didn’t make Jastremski’s achievements in the pool any less impressive.
Jastremski had gone to Indiana as a butterfly specialist who was adept at all four competitive strokes. But he basically owned the breaststroke during the early 1960s, setting 12 world and 21 American records. He won 13 U.S. championships, and his body of work led to his induction in 1977 into International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Jastremski, with Counsilman’s help, revolutionized the breaststroke with a new whip-style kick that is still used today.
“I remember the people from Sports Illustrated coming down for the picture,” Jastremski told The Blade in 2008. “That was a great thing, and I really enjoyed the experience. But by the year after, I was largely ignored. There wasn’t much emphasis on swimming then. The interest was in professional sports.”
“Chet the Jet,” as he was once called, trained and competed on his own — before and during his time at the school after beginning competing in the sport at the downtown YMCA at age 9.
“My mother [Gertrude] was deathly afraid of the water and never learned to swim, but she wanted me to learn how,” Jastremski said.
Just weeks after starting classes, the Toledo YMCA swim coach dropped by the pool one day to check for prospects. He timed the youngsters and was impressed by young Chet’s speed.
“He said, ‘I want you to start on our swim team,’ so I did,” Jastremski said. “Within a short time I swam in my first race. I don’t even remember how I did.”
The swimming prodigy was soon traveling with his parents to regional YMCA meets, and the rest is history.
At Indiana, he was never allowed to compete for an NCAA title because the entire athletic department was on probation during his career.
Ultimately, Jastremski’s Olympic legacy was more hard luck than success.
By age 15, his talent was obvious. His father, Chet Sr., registered him for the 1956 U.S. Olympic trials in Detroit in advance of the Melbourne Games. Chet won the 200-meter breaststroke competition, but after a disputed official’s ruling, he was denied a spot on the U.S. team.
“I entered several races, but in the 200-meter breaststroke I had the best time,” Jastremski said.
This time the best time was not good enough. Jastermski, who had just completed his freshman year at St. Francis, was disqualified.
“What was related to me was that it was one official at the far end of the pool,” Jastremski said. “He was supposed to be new, and he called somebody else over. Then there were more people. I guess they finally reached some kind of a quorum and decided I wasn’t going to the Olympics.
“My dad told me that they explained that, on a turn, my legs went down in something like a dolphin kick, and that wasn’t allowed. I was upset, but not really bitter. I was still in high school so it wasn’t a big deal.”
In 1960, Jastremski took another shot at the Olympics at age 19 after his freshman year at IU. Once again, what he did in the water did not count.
His 200-meter breaststroke time was the second best at the U.S. trials, and the criteria allowed for two breaststrokers to join the team in Rome. The second qualifier would compete for the United States in the 100-meter leg of the 400 medley relay team. Jastremski’s 100 time wasn’t up to his standards, but was better than the next leading competitor. Regardless, he was left off the team.
“Bill Mulliken from Ohio University went and swam the 200 and won the gold medal,” he said. “The next year I broke his 200 record by eight seconds. They had criteria about qualifying for the team, and they could only take two breaststrokers. I was never really sure what happened or how they made the decision.”
Finally, in 1964, Jastremski did make the U.S. Olympic team, swam in the 200 breaststroke finals in Tokyo, and won a bronze medal. His training strategy perhaps cost him Olympic gold.
“Years after that, James Counsilman said, in retrospect, that he might have trained me inappropriately for the 200,” Jastremski said. “We trained so hard during that time that we were very tired. He thought that maybe the distance training broke me down.”
Jastremski had recently finished medical school at IU in 1968 when he decided to make an attempt to qualify for the Olympics in Mexico City. He was not able to peak by the time of the trials, but earned a spot as an alternate.
“I had just graduated from medical school, and there was not enough time to train before the trials,” Jastremski said. “I only had eight weeks.”
Did any swimmer ever have greater misfortune in relation to the Olympics?
“If there was, I’ve never seen it,” Jastremski said. “But actually the coaches had a harder time with it than I did. You just have to deal with it.
“If you let those kinds of things get you down, they’re probably going to bother you the rest of your life. I didn’t want to worry too much about things that happened in the past.”
Jastremski had just finished a four-year military commitment with the U.S. Army in 1972 when he decided, at age 31, to try the Olympics once more. He swam a qualifying time that enabled him to compete at the U.S. trials after not swimming for four years, but the training time was not sufficient to get him close to the best from the United States.
In 1976 in Montreal, he was a team physician for the United States, and in 1980 in Moscow, he on part of the Olympic drug testing committee.
Jastremski and his wife and children made their home in Bloomington, where he was a physician for 35 years before rheumatoid arthritis led him to retire in 2007.
“Chet was a terrific person — the type of guy you wanted to hang around with,” Guitteau said. “He was pretty humble about his success. A lot of swimmers today have egos. Chet had no ego. He was a regular guy. Easy going. If you didn’t know what he was doing [in swimming], you’d be hard-pressed to think of him as an elite athlete, which he was.”