Updated: Jun 9
Four-time U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist in Swimming
"Perhaps you will forget tomorrow the kind words you say today, but the recipient may cherish them over a lifetime." Dale Carnegie
Most Athletes at the Games begin their career by studying a role model in their sport. My hero, Roland Matthes, was the defending Olympic champion in my favorite events the backstrokes.
Roland, a devout Communist from East Germany, entered the 1974 swimming season undefeated in his best events since the 1968 Olympic Games. He seemed invincible, breaking his own world records almost at will. He spoke almost no English and never went out of his way to make friends with swimmers from the West. He also seemed to shy away from interviews.
In 1974, the East German National team visited California for a dual meet against the U.S. swimmers. Most experts predicted the East Germans would win every woman's event, and the American men would sweep every race except the backstrokes. Pressure mounted as I realized AMerica's chance to win the meet weighted squarely on my ability to upset my champion.
Studying the video of the great German, I noticed that Roland accelerated into each of the turns while most of his opponents slowed down, fearing they might hit the wall. By "hitting the turns," Roland came off the wall a stroke ahead, and from his competitors' point of view, he disappeared from sight. His vanishing act devasted his opponents' confidence.
When I raced Roland in the finals of the dual meet, I concentrated on increasing my pace into the turns. Instead of extending his lead over me on the wall, Roalnd found himself falling behind. This shocked him--and helped me defeat him in all three of our head-to-head contests that meet. The Americans won the meet, but Roland's records remained intact.
Two years later, in the semifinals of the 100-meter backstroke at the 1976 Olympic Games, I won my heat and finally broke Roland's world record. Though Roland had qualified for the finals in an earlier heat, he was there, in the warm-down pool beneath the bleachers, to watch me best his record.
Entering the warm-down pool in an adjacent lane, I felt both proud of my accomplishments and guilty for removing my hero's name from the record books. Then Roland came sliding over the lane rope and "chucked' me under the chin with a playful fist. Smiling at me he said, "Very fast," in his strong German accent, before sinking beneath the surface and returning to his lane.
We met again the following night. I entered my first gold at the Games, breaking my world record, and Roland won the bronze behind my U.S. teammate Peter Rocca. Roland had been "the man to beat" for a remarkable eight years after setting his first world record.
Standing on the awards stand, Roland was surprisingly charming and gracious. But it was his semifinal comment that I treasure the most. The man I idolized told me that he was impressed by me. Roland's compliment impacted me for life.
We can use our words to build walls or to be a force of influence. Who can you bless with a few words of encouragement today?
A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
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