According to SportsIllustrated, the world s best swimmer in 1961 was Toledoan Chet Jastremski, who swam for James Doc Counsilman at Indiana University.
Sports Illustrated cover Handout Enlarge
Before Michael Phelps was regarded as the best swimmer on the planet, there was Mark Spitz and his seven gold medals from Munich in 1972.
And, a decade before Spitz, that lofty status was once reserved for Toledo s own Chet Jastremski.
Although Jastremski s Olympic record pales in comparison to those of Phelps and Spitz, the 1959 graduate of St. Francis de Sales was once regarded as the World s Best Swimmer.
That was the declaration on the cover of the Jan. 29, 1962 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine inset with a photo of Jastremski, then a junior swimmer at Indiana University under legendary coach James Doc Counsilman.
Inside that SI issue, the related article written by Arlie Schardt described Jastremski as follows:
Beyond argument the best swimmer in the world. Last summer broke world records in his specialty not once but again and again, and in doing so changed the basic conception of the stroke itself.
That stroke was the breaststroke and Jastremski, with Counsilman s help, revolutionized it with a new whip-style kick that is still used today.
I remember the people from Sports Illustrated coming down for the picture, Jastremski said. 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.
Jastremski had come to Indiana as a butterfly specialist who was adept at all four competitive strokes, but he basically owned the breaststroke during the early 1960s, set 12 world records, and his body of work led to his induction in 1977 into International Swimming Hall of Fame.
So why doesn t the name Chet Jastremski evoke the same level of awe as Spitz or Phelps?
That question is where this story begins and ends because, as talented as he was in the water, Jastremski s historic legacy is tempered with misfortune or hard luck or poor timing, or some combination of all three.
EARLY RIPPLES: On the infrequent occasion that Chet Jastremski, 67, gets into a swimming pool these days, it s usually during the summer months. Most often it s outdoors at a YMCA in Bloomington, the home of Indiana University and the city where he was a family practice physician for 35 years before rheumatoid arthritis led him to retire last year.
It was at the indoor YMCA pool in downtown Toledo where it all began for Chester Andrew Jastremski Jr. in late 1949, when his mother enrolled him in a swim class.
My mother [Gertrude] was deathly afraid of the water and never learned to swim, but she wanted me to learn how, said Chet, who was later joined by younger brother, Duane.
FIRST SPLASH: Just weeks after starting classes, the Toledo YMCA swim team coach, Tom Edwards, dropped by the pool one day to check for prospects. Edwards timed the youngsters with a stopwatch as they swam a lap or two, 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 just after I turned 9. I don t even remember how I did.
Jastremski was soon traveling with his parents to regional YMCA meets.
When I started out it was just for enjoyment, and my mother and father were very interested and wanted to go to the competitions, Chet said. By the time I was 12 the family and I were traveling to invitational meets to places like South Bend and Cuyahoga Falls. When I was about 13 our coach took us to swim against college teams. A lot of times we won. The oldest kid we had was 17. It was an opportunity to improve without really thinking about it or trying to be good.
KICKED OUT: By age 15 Jastremski s talent was obvious, and he and father, Chet Sr., registered young Chet for the 1956 U.S. Olympic trials, which were held in Detroit in advance of the Melbourne Games.
Jastremski won the 200-meter breaststroke competition, but after a disputed official s ruling, was denied a spot on the U.S. team.
It was kind of wide open back then, Jastremski said. They just said here s the times for the races, and you had to get your entry in a few weeks ahead of time. Then you just showed up. I entered several races, but in the 200-meter breaststroke I had the best time.
This time the best time was not good enough.
What was related to me was that it was one official at the far end of the pool, Chet said. He was supposed to be new, and he called somebody else over, and 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. I just felt like I lost an opportunity. There wasn t any meanness associated with the decision. I just don t think anybody was really sure about the rule.
Ironically, the second-place swimmer who moved into Jastremski s breaststroke slot on the U.S. team was also a member of the U.S. water polo team and, when a scheduling conflict occurred at the games, that swimmer skipped his breaststroke heat to compete in a water polo match.
PROBATION: When Counsilman was coaching at Indiana University from 1957 to 1990, the Hoosiers often had one of the best programs in the country. They once won six straight NCAA men s team titles (1968-73).
But IU had no chance at titles from 1960 through 1964, the years Jastremski swam on scholarship at IU. In fact, the Hoosier swimmers never made it to an NCAA meet during that time.
Because of a third major recruiting violation by IU football coach Phil Dickens and his staff during the late 1950s, Indiana was placed on a university-wide probation by the NCAA, and was not permitted to compete in NCAA tournaments in any sport for those four school years.
Thus, Jastremski, whose event times were the best in the world for much of that time, never even got a chance to win an NCAA event title.
EARNED BUT BURNED: 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, but the criteria allowed for two breaststrokers to join the team in Rome.
The second qualifier would compete for the U.S. 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. Californian Paul Hait, who was also vying for the spot. Instead of simply putting Jastremski on the team based on merit, Hait was named by the committee in charge of selecting the team.
Bill Mulliken from Ohio University went and swam the 200 and won the gold medal, Jastremski 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 breast-strokers. They wanted the person to be fast for the relay, and also to be good in the 200. I was second in the 200. I was slower in the 100, but I was ahead of Paul Hait.
Hait swam the breaststroke leg on the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team that won the gold medal.
I was never really sure what happened or how they made the decision, Jastremski said. I was told by somebody that, since we already had several guys on the team from Indiana, that they might have wanted some more equity from other parts of the country. Paul was from California. Whether that is true or not, I don t know. James Counsilman was in on that meeting, and whatever happened in there died with him a few years ago.
Councilman, considered as greatest swimming coach of all time and the coach of highly successful U.S. Olympic teams in 1964 and 1976, died at age 83 in 2004.
If you look at something like that now, Jastremski said of being bypassed, everybody would go running to a judge.
BURNED OUT: In 1964, Jastremski finally made the U.S. Olympic team, qualifying for the 200 breaststroke. This time he seemed poised for a gold medal run. But his rigorous pre-Olympic training under Counsilman proved counterproductive, and Jastremski took home a bronze medal from Tokyo for the 200-meter breaststroke, the only Olympic award he would ever win.
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.
BEST, BUT NO GOLD: Jastremski had recently finished medical school at IU in 1968 when he decided to make an attempt to qualify for the Olympic games in Mexico City. He was not able to peak by the time of the trials, but earned a spot as an alternate.
Continuing his training between the trials and competition in Mexico City, Jastremski did peak. Swimming only a preliminary heat on the medley relay team, Chet s 100-meter breaststroke split in that heat turned out to be .02 seconds faster than the eventual gold medal winner s time in the individual 100-meter final. Don McKenzie of the U.S. swam 1:07.7 to take that gold.
I had just graduated from medical school and there was not enough time to train before the trials, Chet said. I only had eight weeks.
Looking back, did any swimmer ever have greater misfortune in relation to the Olympics?
If there was, I ve never seen it, Chet 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.
TWO OTHER OLYMPIADS: Jastremski had just finished a four-year military commitment with the U.S. Army (one year of residency at a base in Texas and the last three at West Point) in 1972 when he decided, at age 31, to try the Olympics once more. Although he swam a qualifying time that enabled him to compete at the U.S. trials after not swimming for four years, the training time was not sufficient to get him close to the best from U.S.
By the time I qualified for the trials, I realized I didn t have a prayer, said Jastremski, who did travel to the Olympics twice more. In 1976 in Montreal he was a team physician for the U.S., and in 1980 in Moscow, he on part of the Olympic drug testing committee.
ON SPITZ AND PHELPS: Mark Spitz was a great swimmer, Jastremski said. Actually, me and some of my teammates helped recruit him to Indiana. Mark had a perfect body style for swimming for his time. He was svelte and had long arms and he was really great.
This year, with Michael Phelps and some of the other swimmers, I m very interested in watching the Olympics.
I think he s fantastic. It s obvious that he and his coach have a very good relationship, and that his coach has prepared him very well from the time he was a young boy.
He s a very strong individual with long arms and big feet and big hands. That s the physical side. But he seems quiet and he also seems like a very nice person. After you ve done what he did four years ago and is doing now, it would be easy to get full of yourself or to become aloof. But he seems like the same person he s always been. I admire that.
Contact Steve Junga at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6461.
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