For Glenn Mills, a Missed Olympic Opportunity in 1980, but a Career of Giving Back

Glenn Mills
Photo Courtesy: Chris Georges / Swimming World Archive

For Glenn Mills, a Missed Olympic Opportunity in 1980, but a Career of Giving Back

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the fourth day of the 1980 United States Olympic Trials, when a team was selected, but did not get the chance to compete at the Moscow Games.

Nearly 40 years later, Glenn Mills still has not watched a single second of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Mills was one of many athletes robbed of the opportunity of competing in the monumental global event, as U.S. President Jimmy Carter led a boycott of the Games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979.

Mills was just 18-years-old in 1980, a member of a stacked Cincinnati Marlins team led by future U.S. National Team coaches Dennis Pursley and Frank Busch, and shared a training pool with Mary T. Meagher. Rumors had been swirling all around the country in the lead-up to the Games whether or not the United States would be attending the Olympics in the Soviet Union. In the pre-internet age, it was easy to ignore those rumors and stay focused on the end goal and not be affected by the constant overflow of negativity and speculation on social media sites.

“I was a senior in high school and I moved away from home to relocate to train for the Olympics,” Mills told Swimming World during the week of the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Games. “I’m from Cleveland but I moved to Cincinnati.

“When you move away from home, all you do is that sport so you are completely consumed by it. Back then the training was different. We swam so much it was ridiculous. I would leave the house around 4:30 a.m. and practice would start 4:45. I would swim for two and a half hours before school. And then swim for two hours and 45 minutes or three hours alternating days after school.

“We would do some dryland about every day so you were so exhausted that the last thing you did was watch the news or read anything. There was no internet so you only got information that people gave you.”

Swimming was in a different realm in 1980, compared to where it is 40 years on. Professional athletes were unable to compete at the Games, due to the IOC’s strict rules on amateurism, and thus there were few professional opportunities for Olympic athletes after college. With the United States refusing to send a team to the Olympics, it was a huge blow for the older college swimmers that were holding on for a chance to make the team. For a swimmer like Mills, who was just 18 in 1980, missing the Olympics hurt, but it was not as painful as it was for some older athletes.

“We didn’t go through as much drama or as much heartache or soul searching as athletes that were older,” Mills said. “People that were hanging on for another Olympics or were hanging on from college and then finding out that there wasn’t going to be anything – those were the people I think that were impacted much greater than a team of 17, 18, 19-year-olds that were still in it no matter what.

“It didn’t impact our training nearly as much as it would have for other people.

“The other thing that was different back then, you couldn’t earn money so when you were done, you were done. You couldn’t coach on a team and still be a swimmer because that would be using your skill or your sport for money.”

1980 Olympic Trials

Although the United States would not be sending a team to the Olympic Games in Moscow, the summer season wasn’t completely over. The “Olympic Trials” were held the week after the Moscow Games in Irvine, with the intention of motivating the athletes to compete with the times posted a week prior in Russia.

Even though there was no incentive to go compete for tangible medals in Irvine, the motivation was still high for Mills and his teammates.

“We knew they were going to name a team so you definitely wanted to be on the team. We went for one reason: to win as many events as we could,” Mills said.

“I know people that were just hanging on and it was difficult because there was nothing for them. But we went with a sole purpose of winning, so it doesn’t matter if it is Olympic Trials, or Senior Nationals, or NCAAs…you go to these meets to show that you are the best.

“There was definitely a different aura to the meet, but we didn’t go into the meet saying, ‘oh what a bummer. We aren’t going to this other meet so let’s just not swim fast.’

“I didn’t care what the times were in Moscow, I never even thought about it. I was more worried about John Moffett in the lane next to me than I was with somebody on the other side of the world. I only cared about the people that were around me in finals.

“I think they did it from a marketing standpoint and trying to hype people up but the reality was we were there to race our friends and if we did well enough then we would get this thing that said ‘you’re an Olympian.’

“But 40 years later, the question still exists: are we really? That’s the real bummer about it – it’s like this anchor that hangs around your neck.”

Mills won the championship final in the 200 breaststroke at those Trials in Irvine with a 2:18.78, just 0.01 ahead of Moffett (2:18.79), and reigning Olympic silver medalist John Hencken (2:19.09), who was going for his third Olympic distinction.

Mills was officially an Olympian although he didn’t physically compete, or walk in the Olympic ceremonies, or stay in the Olympic village. Despite those buts, he officially held that title of Olympic swimmer. Competing five days after the Moscow 1980 final, Mills’ time would have placed him fourth had he replicated that swim in Russia. Had the circumstances been different and he was able to swim in the final, the results could have looked different. But Mills refuses to play the “what if” game. What’s done is done in his mind.

“I will never answer if I thought I would have gotten a medal because that takes away from the guys that won the medals,” Mills said. “It wasn’t their fault that we weren’t there. I would never do that because they have the medals and they deserve them. There is no conjecture to be done.

“It’s like people that call in to sports talk shows on Monday morning: this quarterback should have done this thing. Well, how do you know what he should have done?”

Robertas Žulpa won 200 breaststroke gold in Moscow with a 2:15.85, as the only Soviet, then and since, to stand on the top of the podium in the men’s 200 breaststroke at the Olympic Games. Hungary’s Albán Vermes won silver (2:16.93) and the Soviet Union’s Arsen Miskarovs (2:17.28) won bronze.

1984 – A Chance at an Olympics For Glenn Mills

Mills_Glenn1

Glenn Mills. Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archive

After 1980, Mills went off to the University of Alabama to swim for future hall of fame coach Don Gambril, who at that point had been a part of four U.S. Olympic team staffs, including 1980. Mills was the NCAA Champion in the 200 breaststroke in 1983, and heading into 1984 was again a favorite to make the team for Los Angeles – this time for a real opportunity to compete.

“You go into the meet and you’re excited and nervous. They don’t hold a special nervous for one meet, you should be nervous for all meets so it was pretty much the same. We were all pretty experienced at that point,” Mills said of the 1984 Trials held in the two-year-old IU Natatorium in Indianapolis, which would go on to become a mecca in the sport.

In the 200 breaststroke heats, Mills cruised to fifth at 2:20.22. Doug Soltis (2:19.41) was the top seed ahead of 1980 Olympian Moffett (2:19.51) and Brett Beedle (2:19.65). But Mills knew the race would come from Moffett in the middle and Richard Schroeder (2:20.56) out in lane eight.

Moffett and Schroeder, who finished first and third earlier in the meet in the 100, used their speed on the front half to take it out in 1:03, while Mills was out in a 1:06, which was quick for him. Mills tried to run down the leaders, but ran out of pool and finished in fourth. Schroeder won at 2:17.64, Moffet second on 2:17.66. Beedle was third at 2:18.01 while Mills was locked out in fourth at 2:18.28.

“I remember looking at the clock and seeing I got fourth,” Mills said of the race in 84. “I remember seeing I missed the team by five tenths of a second and there was a mixture of emotions. The first one was obviously sadness and disappointment, and the other was that I swam pretty well. I represented myself well and it was a decent race so I went over to John and congratulated him and that was that.”

The United States named a team of 43 swimmers to compete in Los Angeles. Sixteen of them had made the team four years prior in Moscow and were getting a real chance at competing. Twelve of those Moscow Olympians had represented the team in 1976, leaving 15 swimmers who made the team in 1980 to never swim in an Olympics.

Glenn Mills is one of those individuals.

And he was reminded of that when he saw his good friend John Moffett walking the deck along with the rest of the team headed to Los Angeles at the conclusion of the 1984 Trials.

“That was something that still hurts because they marched out all the past Olympians that were there and so I was standing there and they marched out the ’84 team. Two days after you missed the team, you realized you had nothing but legacy. There is nothing else to look forward to.

“I remember John walking down and he had this huge smile on his face and he was so happy to have made the team again and I remember we looked at each other and the smile left his face for a second, he felt so bad. But he and I are still incredibly close friends so I was as happy for him as he was sad for me.

“That’s the way it goes.”

Even though Mills never watched a second of the Games in Moscow, there was no way he would miss the chance of watching the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

“Absolutely I watched them. My friends were there!” Mills said. “I was jumping up and down – it was exciting!

“I’ll never forget Bruce Hayes coming back in the 800 free relay, watching Mary T. and John. The heartbreaking thing was watching John swim the 100 breast with his leg taped up. It was brutal from that standpoint but all those people there from different countries, my roommate from college (Swiss breaststroker Felix Morf) swam.

“There was no way I wouldn’t have watched it. I was glued to it every second. I was really happy and pleased for so many people.”

Life Post Swimming

Glenn Mills continued to swim for another week after missing the 1984 team. When doing a set of 4x50s pace long course, he swam under 30 seconds for the first time in his life. Right then and there he realized he still had something left, and got out of the pool before any “what more could I have done” thoughts flooded him. He retired from swimming at the age of 22.

After swimming, Mills started Go Swim TV, which is a paid service that gives coaches access to underwater swimming educational videos.

“The concept behind it, it started as creating content and videos. Way back when I was a swimmer, I was on a stroke film of Ernie Maglischo, one of the greatest swim teachers and scientists in history,” Glenn Mills said. “When I looked at the video I saw things I was doing because we never got filmed underwater back then. When I saw the video, I realized things I was doing incorrectly, and I changed them.

“Ernie is a scientist, and when he broke it down and put numbers and graphs and charts to it, I didn’t understand it. It didn’t speak to me as an athlete. I felt things and so when I saw it, that spoke to me more than the math and science that Ernie did. That doesn’t mean what he did was wrong because a lot of people, that’s how they understood it. I’m just more of a visual learner than statistical.

“So when I started this, I would go to the athletes and interview them about what are the most important things that they think they do. I wanted them to teach me about their stroke rather than me looking at it and saying ‘ok this is what I think you do.’ I wanted them to tell me what they thought they did and what they focused on.

“I am one voice and if I have a pre-conceived notion of how something can be done, if that notion is not right for the person in front of me, then I’ve done them a disservice.

“So as a teacher, it’s my responsibility to learn as many variations of technique as possible so that I have an answer for the person that is in front of me. The whole process was probably more about me learning to become as versatile as a teacher as possible, but as a business we publish the videos and content.”

In 2016, he was the Paragon Award winner in competitive swimming for Go Swim, which has become the sport’s leading provider of educational video content, and is the official technique video supplier of USA Swimming.

“I think that the best compliment I’ve gotten is from one of my heroes in swimming and in coaching Jonty Skinner, who said I’m much more well-known as an educator than as a swimmer,” Mills said. “So I appreciate that because that has been my work for the last 25 years, teaching and trying to help other people.

“There’s a lot of people I work with that have no idea I was a swimmer way back when because it is not about that. It is about what can I get them today? I’m very fortunate to still be involved in the sport. I love it and I think we help the sport.”

Glenn Mills has continued to leave an imprint on the sport of swimming. Even though he was never physically in Moscow, Mills will forever be remembered, 40 years on, as a proud member of the 1980 Olympic Team.

5 comments

    • avatar
      Donald Gibb

      As great an athlete as Glenn was, he is an even better human being! His sense of humor and commitment to our sport will be remembered for a long, long time.

  1. avatar
    Barbie Nelis

    Thank you. Glenn has a great FB page and website. Loved reading about him.

  2. avatar
    John

    I used to race Glenn quite often as I swam for Indiana University. Such a gentleman and a great competitor. It was always a pleasure to compete with him.

    • avatar
      Robo

      You’ve always been and will continue to be my Olympian friend. The backstory is touching and shows a tremendous level of sportsmanship. Many life lessons on how to persevere and act for younger swimmers. I’m honored to be your friend!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.