Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
Part II: Olympic Swimming Training Camp
To train the men’s swimmers for the 1976 Olympic Games of Montreal, the Team USA coaches wanted to be in a town with no distractions.
Canton, Ohio, is best known for the National Football League Hall of Fame, and that is where football began in America. It is also home of the C.T. Branin Natatorium at Canton McKinley High School, built from the generosity of the Timken family, and named after their former swim coach. Even today, more than 40 years later, the Branin Natatorium serves as the site for the Ohio State High School Swimming Championships each year and is still considered a very fast pool.
In 1976 the Branin Natatorium was brand new and Canton was a good place for a bunch of young Olympic swimmers to stay focused on the tasks ahead of us. None of us were too much into football, so there wasn’t much else to do there, but train and rest. In all of our swim team meetings, neither Doc, George nor Don ever discussed specific goals. In fact, they made it a point not to. Their objective was to bond the team and have fun.
A lot of the entertainment during that swimming training camp was provided by Olympic breaststroker John Hencken, a.k.a. Rocket Man. John was an engineering student at Stanford and was fascinated by rockets and airplanes. Almost each day after practice, with the entire team watching, John would launch one of his home-made rockets in the field near the hotel or throw one of his carefully constructed paper airplanes from the 10-meter tower at the Branin Natatorium, trying to beat his distance record.
A few times, we visited the local movie theater for the matinee between practices, drawing inspiration from characters like Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josie Wales, who single handedly killed nearly the entire Confederate Army.
Swimming practices were exceptional in the Olympic training camp, with great times being recorded by all swimmers nearly every day. While we could have easily looked at each other as competitors for the upcoming 1976 Olympic Games, we did not. Instead, we became our own support group. Our ages ranged from 15 (Bobby Hackett) to 25 (me) and many of the younger swimmers, including Brian Goodell, Casey Converse and several others, had never competed in an International meet before. With just a few weeks remaining before the biggest stage of our career, the Olympic Games, none of us seemed worried. None of us were afraid. None of us were intimidated in the least. We were having fun and getting mentally prepared, without even really knowing it.
I am not quite sure how it happened in those five weeks of training camp, but that Olympic men’s Team, filled with swimmers from bitter school rivalries and swimmers that were very young and inexperienced, bonded into the most confident, cohesive and close-knit team I have ever been on, including college or club teams. There was no hazing, no right of passage. Everyone deserved to be there. Instead, there was a lot of laughing and joking and fun, along with some really fast practice times.
Once the swimming training in Canton was completed, we flew to Plattsburgh N.Y., near Lake Placid, to be outfitted in our Team USA gear. From there, we drove in vans 50 miles directly north to Montreal for the biggest swimming meet of our lives. Given the circumstances, we felt unusually calm and confident. We proudly wore our Team USA gear every day.
The 1976 Montreal Olympic Pool was just across the way from the Olympic Village. It was so close that, unless we were competing that day, we would walk as a team together to the Natatorium to watch the finals. We were only able to swim in the impressive competition pool a few times before the Games began, so most of our training sessions leading up to the Opening Ceremony were at the Claude Robillard Sports Center, which contained another beautiful 50-meter pool. It didn’t really matter where we went to swim, though, in those few days leading up to the Opening Ceremony. We remained confident.
In the Montreal Olympic Village, the USA men’s swimming team was housed at one end of the Village and the women’s swimming team at the other end. We hadn’t trained together and we didn’t get to see much of the women except at the dining room or at the pool. It was a shame. I think we could have helped them emotionally get through the competition, while facing incredible adversity. But we were separated nearly the entire time.
The night before the Opening Ceremony, Steve and I were summoned to the headquarters of the USOC for the purpose of selecting our flag bearer. There, I was both shocked and honored to be selected by the team Captains of all 28 sports to lead our Team USA athletes into Montreal Stadium the next day. It was an indescribable feeling for me, but proudly, Steve and I walked back to our Village rooms, eager to share the exciting news with our team mates.
We both considered that having a swimmer honored to carry our flag and lead Team USA into Montreal Stadium for the Opening Ceremony, which was the first time in history that had happened, was a good omen. We just didn’t know how good.
To be continued……..
Yours in Swimming,
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