The 50th Anniversary of Mark Spitz’s First Olympic Gold Medal at the Mexico City Olympics

Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archive

Each day through October 26, Swimming World will take you back 50 years to the Olympic Games in Mexico City, and will re-tell the stories of those Games through archived meet recaps through the Swimming World Vault.

Mexico City, Mexico – On October 17, at 10:00 AM the first qualifying heat of the women’s 4×100 meter medley relay boomed off the starting blocks in the spacious new Alberca pool heralding the beginning of 10 days of competitive swimming and diving. This event was five days after the Opening Ceremony, but to some athletes who had been training at altitude for close to a month, and to others who had been living at the Olympic Village for many weeks, it was the end of mañana.

October 17, 1968

Women’s 4×100 Medley Relay

The women’s 400 meter medley relay was expected to be an American breeze despite the fact the U.S. “B” team of Jane Swagerty, Sharon Wichman, Susie Shields and Janie Barkman had qualified second (4:34.7) to Australia by a tenth as each won separate heats.

On paper the American quartet of Kaye Hall, Catie Ball, Ellie Daniel and Sue Pedersen were capable of going 10 seconds faster than their “sister” team, and the question was “how fast could the Aussies go?”

Wasting no time after the gun, Miss Hall took the lead but was unable to shake the determined Australian, Lynne Watson, and had to be content with a body length lead at 1:07.8 to 1:08.5. Even more determined was 14-year-old Judy Playfair who came up on Miss Ball and cut the U. S. lead to three tenths, out-splitting Catie 1:15.9 to 1:16.3.

Miss Daniel swam a terrific butterfly leg but was unable to shake 18-year-old, Lyn McClements, who dropped her time several seconds to 1:05.0 opposite Ellie’s 1:04.8. When Miss Pedersen took over for the U. S., the crowd relished an upset as Australian’s anchor, Jenny Steinbech, was but two yards back. However, Sue turned on the juice with 50 meters to go and brought home the medal with 59.4 to Jenny’s 1:00.6.

The U. S. girls clocked 4:28.3, a world and Olympic record, and the Australians were timed in 4:30.0, tying the old world mark and well under the 4:33.9 Olympic standard the U. S. set in 1964. West Germany, with great swims from Uta Frommater, 1:15.7 breast, and Heide Hustede, 1:06.1 fly, took third from the Russians, 4:36.4 to 4:37.0. East Germany was fifth, 4:38.0, Great Britain sixth, 4:38.3 (Alex Jackson, 1:00.9 free), Holland seventh, 4:38.7 (Ada Kok 1:05.5 fly)and Hungary eighth, 4:42.9 (4:41.2 in prelims).

The medley relay was an eye popper for the Americans, as the Australians showed that the United States was not invincible. It served as an ice-breaker for the meet, relieving the pressure of the tearful U. S. girls who were anxious to get started.

U. S. women’s coach Sherman Chavoor, said: “The challenge is good. I think our girls can go faster but were a little nervous.”

The U. S. girls have a pending world mark of 4:28.1 set at Colorado Springs during their high altitude training. (This mark was rejected by FINA at their Mexico meeting prior to the Games.)

susan-pedersen-1968-olympics-mexico-city

Susan Pedersen, Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archive

Medalists:

  1. United States, Kaye Hall, Catie Ball, Ellie Daniel, Susan Pedersen, 4:28.3 (Olympic Record)
  2. Australia, Lynne Watson, Judy Playfair, Lyn McClements, Janet Steinbeck, 4:30.0
  3. West Germany, Angelika Kraus, Uta Frommater, Heike Hustede, Heidemarie Reineck, 4:36.4

Historical Notes:

  • This was only the third time in Olympic history this event had taken place with the US winning the first three gold medals. East Germany was the first non-American gold medal winner in 1976.
  • The United States has won this event 10 times out of the 15 it was contested in the Olympics.
  • This was Australia’s second silver medal in this event, but did not win another medal in the women’s medley relay again until 1996 in Atlanta. They have won a medal in the event in every Olympics since. 
  • The Australians won their first gold medal in this event in 2004.

Men’s 4×100 Free Relay

The American men’s 400 m. freestyle relay team was the same one that lowered the world record at the Olympic Trials in Long Beach – Zac Zorn, Steve Rerych, Mark Spitz, and Ken Walsh, Rerych swam with Don Schollander, Mike Wall, and Bill Johnson in qualifying in the morning.

“After Zorn jumped to an easy lead at 25 meters he thought he was going out too hard and backed off,” said coach George Haines.

Even so, Zac clocked 53.4 to lead the field by two body lengths over Frank Wiegand, East Germany, 54.3, Peter Schorning, West Germany, 54.5, and Semyon Belitz-Geiman, USSR, 54.7. Rerych streaked 52.8 to lose everybody in sight with East Germany still second. Spitz did not let up and pushed a 52.7 split giving U. S. anchorman Walsh almost a three second lead over the Russians, swimming second after Georgy Kulikov’s 52.9 leg. Walsh posted 52.8 and won easily in 3:31.7 a world record time, over the Soviets, 3:34.2 (llyichev anchored in 52.6) and the fast closing Australians, 3:34.7 (Windle did 53.7, Wenden anchored in 51.7).

Great Britain took fourth in 3:38.4, followed by East Germany 3:38.8, West Germany 3:39.0, Canada 3:39.2 and Japan 3:41.5.

The ease of the U. S. victory belied the hard swims (the splits Zorn, 53.4; Rerych, 52.8; Spitz, 52.7 and Walsh, 52.8). Wenden and Ilyichev split faster, but Coach Haines spoke of the great American depth after the event:

“I’m not so sure our qualifying team (Bill Johnson, Rerych, Mike Wall and Don Schollander) couldn’t have come back and won this final. I think they could beat their 3:35.3. Look at Rerych, he split faster tonight” (53.1 to 52.8).

zac-zorn-1968-swimming-world-photo

Zac Zorn; Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Archive

Medalists:

  1. United States, 3:31.7
  2. Soviet Union, 3:34.2
  3. Australia, 3:34.7

Historical Notes:

  • This was only the second time this event was contested at the Olympics.
  • The United States remained unbeaten in this event at the Olympics until 2000 when they were famously beaten by Australia.
  • This event has been contested 12 times at the Olympics and the Americans have won the event nine times.

Read more on the 1968 Olympics

5 Comments

5 comments

  1. Anne GB

    An amazing athlete. Most Okympic Golds at any swimming meet. 😍😍😍

  2. Dave LaBerge

    Perfect motivation to get my butt out of bed tomorrow for morning workout at Santa Clara

Author: Andy Ross

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Andy Ross is the new man on board at Swimming World. He is based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the International Swimming Hall of Fame. He is a 2017 graduate of Southern Illinois University where he graduated cum laude.

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