Tales from Past and Present: IU’s Olympic Swimming History

The Indiana University Archives would like to congratulate IU swimmers Cody Miller (’14) (USA), Blake Pieroni (USA), Lilly King (USA), Kennedy Goss (Canada)Ali Khalafalla (Egypt), Anze Tavcar (Slovenia), and incoming-transfer Marwan El Kamash (Egypt) as well as divers Amy Cozad (’13) (USA), Michael Hixon (USA), Jessica Parratto (USA), and James Conner (Australia) for earning a spot on their respective country’s Olympic swimming and diving teams! In honor of the 2016 US Summer Olympic Games, the Archives would like to take our readers back in time and recount just a little of IU’s Olympic swimming history.

IU’s Most Successful Swimmer: Mark Spitz

Mark Spitz w Medals
Mark Spitz during the 1972 Olympic Games

One cannot possibly talk about IU’s Olympic swimming history without first mentioning Mark Spitz!

Mark Andrew Spitz (born on February 10, 1950 in Modesto, California) first gained fame at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, where he earned four medals: two gold, one silver, and one bronze. He swam for Indiana University from 1968 to 1972 where he trained with the legendary James “Doc” Counsilman. While at IU Spitz went on to win eight individual NCAA titles and contributed to four school NCAA Championships, completely rewriting IU, Big Ten, and NCAA record books in the process. By the spring of 1972, Spitz had set 23 world swimming records and 35 United States records.

In the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Spitz attained the world record for most gold medals received by any Olympic athlete by winning 7 gold medals, ousting the current record holder at the time (Italian fencer Nedo Nadi who received five Olympic medals during the 1920 games) and earning himself a place in Olympic history. To date, his achievement has only been surpassed by Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. However, Spitz also set new world records in all seven events in which he competed in 1972, an achievement which still stands. 

Mark Spitz at IU

Those Who Didn’t Get to Compete: the 1980 Summer Olympics

Cynthia Potter
Cynthia Potter from 1976 Olympics

IU has had a long history of producing Olympic swimmers, but not all of them got to live out the dream to its fullest extent. In the summer of 1980 IU had three swimmers who were awarded the highest honor an athlete could imagine: a chance to represent the United States in the Olympic Games. Soon Amy McGrath, Cynthia Potter, and Brian Bungum would be on their way to Soviet Russia to compete in Moscow. It was the culmination of countless hours of training and years of dedication to their sport. Cynthia was the veteran of the group, having already won a bronze in the 1976 Olympics. For first-timers Amy McGrath and Brian Bungum, it was the realization of a dream. However, it was not meant to be.

On Christmas Day 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan under the pretext of upholding the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty of 1978. Upon their arrival in Kabul, the Soviet troops staged a coup, killing the Afghan President Hafizullah Amin. By December 27th they had installed a socialist, Babrak Karmal, as the new leader of the Afghan government.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan spurred President Jimmy Carter to issue an ultimatum in January of 1980 stating that if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan the United States would boycott the Summer Moscow Olympics. His warnings went unheeded and the US, along with 65 other countries, refused to compete that summer. Sadly, we will never know what Cynthia, Amy, and Brian could have contributed to the athletic world that year.

Left: Amy McGrath with her diving coach Hobie Billingsley Right: Brian Bungum

Present Day: the Hoosiers’ 11 and Rio 2016

The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics began this past Friday and will end with the closing ceremony on Sunday August 21st. These 11 swimmers (now dubbed the Hoosiers’ 11) will be joined by IU’s head diving coach Drew Johansen and head swimming coach Ray Looze who will act as Team USA’s head diving coach and assistant women’s swimming coach respectively. We are so proud of Hoosier swimmers Lilly King, Blake Pieroni, and Cody Miller who have all already won Olympic medals in the 2016 games! King and Blake will bring home golds (King decided to break a record while she was at it) and Miller has earned a bronze! We are excited to watch the Hoosiers’ 11 as they continue this month and hope to see more podium appearances!

Go Big Red! 

Remembering our Track and Field Olympic Greats

Two-Mile Relay Team: (L to R) Campbell Kane, Wayne Tolliver, Paul Kendall, Roy Cochran; 1941

IU Hoosiers at the Olympics!

From July 27 to August 12, thousands of athletes from over two-hundred countries will strive for gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.  Among them, there will be Hoosiers, continuing a long line of 173 Olympians from Indiana University who have collectively won 49 gold, 16 silver and 21 bronze medals (IU Hoosiers).  These 173 Hoosiers have represented 15 countries, including the United States, and competed in 19 different sports. Among IU’s most memorable Olympic accomplishments include Mark Spitz’s astonishing 7 gold medal win at the 1972 Munich Olympics and Bob Knight’s role as head coach for the gold-medal-winning 1984 U. S. Men’s Basketball Team, which included IU Hoosier Steve Alford.

IU’s Olympic tradition has been so strong, in fact, that the familiar term “Hoosier Nation” has taken on a new meaning – an Indiana Daily Student reporter said of the 1968 Olympics that the seven gold medals won that year by IU Hoosiers “would rank IU 11th among the nations of the world.” Not only that, but the “14 medals possessed by Hoosier athletes” in 1968 “[made] a total surpassed by only 16 nations.”  In addition to holding its own as a “nation,” in 1964 IU “[produced] more Olympic athletes than any other school in the United States” (Indiana Alumni Magazine).  Another impressive statistic is that IU athletes have competed at every summer Olympics since 1932, apart from the 1980 Games in Moscow, which saw the U. S. government’s controversial protest against the Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan.  Over the years, Hoosiers have been especially strong at swimming and diving, but it is IU’s track and field competitors who started it all and who will be the focus of this post.

IU’s Early Track and Field Olympians: From 1904 to 1952

Leroy Samse, 1906

In 1904 Leroy Samse and Thad Shidelar began IU’s tradition of Olympic formidability by bringing home silver medals in the pole vault and 110 high hurdles, respectively.  Following a hiatus that spanned nearly three decades and six Olympic games, IU returned to Olympic competition in Los Angeles in 1932 with two more track and field representatives – Ivan Fuqua and Charles Hornbostel.  Hornbostel finished sixth in the 800-meter run, while Fuqua set a world record in the 1600-meter relay as the squad’s lead-off man, becoming the first IU Hoosier to win Olympic gold.  The success of these two men has been attributed, in part, to IU-Bloomington’s head track coach at the time, Earl C. “Billy” Hayes.

Coach Earl C. "Billy" Hayes, 1939

Hayes, who was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1976, served as head track coach for the Bloomington campus from 1924 until his death in 1943 and was known for raising IU’s Track and Field program from the dust to a first-rate championship team worthy of national and international acclaim.  Under Hayes’ leadership, the IU Track and Field team won three NCAA team titles, the national collegiate outdoor team title, and eight Big Ten conference titles.  Not surprisingly then, “Billy” Hayes was selected as assistant track coach for the U. S. Men’s Team in the 1936 Berlin Games.  He took with him three of his own – Charles Hornbostel for his second Olympics, Tommy Deckard, and Donald “Don” R. Lash.

Of these three, Don Lash – who was himself an eventual Hall of Famer – is undoubtedly the best known.  Lash was a talented long distance runner who won twelve national titles during his career, including seven consecutive national cross country championships.  Additionally, in 1936 Lash broke a world record in the 2-mile race.  Though Lash competed in the 1936 Olympics – finishing thirteenth in the 5,000-meter and eighth in the 10,000-meter – he did not bring home a medal.  Lash had high hopes to come back and redeem himself in 1940, but due to the onset of World War II, he never had the chance.  Despite this, Lash’s experience in the 1936 Olympics had a life-changing impact on him.  In a 1992 interview, Lash recalls:

In 1936 when I was on the Olympic team we went to Berlin and Adolph Hitler sat right behind the American stand and I saw him almost every day.  I saw those people rise when he would come into the stadium and they were just like stiff pokers with their hands out saluting him.  I realized that he was more like a God to them than a leader of a country.  When I got back and realized what he was really trying to do, I got into the FBI. . . I knew that we didn’t want Nazism and so I was very devoted in my work.  I was sincere.

Coach Hayes timing Don Lash, 1939

The image that Lash so vividly relates was a startling harbinger of the war to come.  As a result of World War II, the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled.  However, 1948 was an exciting year for IU Track and Field Olympians.  Not only did Roy Cochran take home two gold medals from the 1948 London Olympics – one in the 400-meter hurdles and the other in the 1,600-meter relay – but he became the first person from IU to win an individual gold medal.

Cochran, who was yet another one of Hayes’ stars, struck fame not only by winning gold, but by being singled out by King George VI during a cocktail party at Buckingham Palace.  The Indiana Alumni Magazine (September 1948) relayed the following, which originally appeared in the syndicated column of Vincent X. Flaherty:

For some reason, the King singled out Roy Cochran, America’s 400-meter hurdles Olympic champion . . . Roy, a real guy, who is extremely intelligent and versed, kept the conversation kicking 15 minutes with the King.  The two sat off in one corner of the big room all by themselves.  Other members of the party wondered why the King devoted so much time to one individual . . . “He’s one of the swellest guys I ever met,” said Cochran thoroughly enthralled.  “And do you know something else?” said Cochran.  “It took a real King to make me taste my first drink of liquor.  He didn’t make me, of course.  I just sort of felt it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t.”

Roy Cochran, 1939

While it was difficult to compete with Cochran’s individual gold medal win, not to mention his media-worthy encounter with the King of England, Fred Wilt was another one of IU’s outstanding long-distance runners who also competed that year and finished 11th in the 10,000-meter run.  Wilt returned to Helsinki in 1952, finishing twenty-first in the 10,000-meter.  He would be the last of Hayes’ men to compete at the Olympics, essentially marking the end of an era.

The Legacy Continues:  Highlights From 1952 to the Present

Since the end of the Hayes’ era, IU has continued to send exemplary Track and Field competitors to the Olympics.  The following list offers some highlights:

Milt Campbell, 1955
  • Helsinki – 1952: Milt Campbell won silver in the decathalon.
  • Melbourne – 1956: Milt Campbell competed again in the decathalon and brought home gold this time.  Greg Bell took gold in the long jump.
  • Rome – 1960: Willie May won silver in the 110-meter hurdles.
  • Montreal – 1976: Sam Bell was assistant coach for the U. S. Men’s Track and Field Distance Team.
  • Los Angeles – 1984: Sunder Nix was the gold medalist in the 1600-meter relay, while Timi Peters brought home bronze in the same event.
  • Sydney – 2000: For the first time, the Women’s Track and Field program was represented – DeDee Nathan finished ninth in the heptathlon.
  • Beijing – 2008: David Neville was the gold medalist in the 400-meter relay and bronze medalist for the 400-meter run.
DeDee Nathan, 1988

It’s been over a century since Leroy Samse and Thad Shidelar began IU’s Olympic legacy.  Since then, IU has excelled not only in Track and Field but in a wide variety of events from swimming and basketball to fencing and diving.  Undoubtedly, the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics will be no different.  This summer IU high jumper Derek Drouin will join the Canadian Olympic Team, while IU swimmers Dorina Szekeres, Nicholas Schwab, Marguax Farrell and Kate Fesenko will represent their native countries of Hungary, the Dominican Republic, France and Ukraine, respectively.  Additionally, diver and IU alumnus Christina Loukas has earned a spot on the U. S. Olympic Team.  We wish them all the very best of luck !

If you are interested in learning more about IU’s rich Olympic history, please contact the IU Archives.