They Deserve Better: A Look At Swimming’s Overlooked Stars

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They Deserve Better: A Look At Swimming’s Overlooked Stars

How could they be forgotten? Or overlooked? It doesn’t make sense, not with their credentials and the success they managed during their illustrious careers. Yet, there is a routine state in sports for some athletes – as elite as they might have been – to find themselves overshadowed by the exploits of others, or victims of the passage of time.

Don’t be mistaken. Diehard fans are going to know these names, and they might be able to specifically identify their achievements. Even a well-versed follower of the sport, though, might not have the appropriate acknowledgment for where these individuals rank on a historical basis.

As the Bible of the Sport, Swimming World places significant emphasis on history, and providing its readership with an appreciation for those who paved the way for the current generation of stars. So, as we creep closer to signing off on this Olympic year, we offer a look at six athletes – five members of the International Swimming Hall of Fame – who hold a special place in history, even if they are not always at the forefront of the mind.

Duke Kahanamoku – United States

Guys like Hungary’s Alfred Hajos, American Charlie Daniels and Great Britain’s Henry Taylor came before him, but Duke Kahanamoku can be considered the first global star of swimming. The Hawaiian-born sprinter captured back-to-back Olympic titles in the 100-meter freestyle, but with a caveat. His crowns arrived in 1912 and 1920, the 1916 Games wiped out by World War I.

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Duke Kahanamoku. Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF)

Had international conflict not emerged, Kahanamoku would have been the overwhelming favorite for the 100 free title in 1916 and could have been the first swimmer to win an event at three consecutive Olympiads. Instead, a three-peat was not registered until 1964, when Australian Dawn Fraser won her third straight gold medal in the 100 freestyle.

For good measure, Kahanamoku secured a silver medal in his prime event at the 1924 Olympics, where Johnny Weissmuller captured gold and became swimming’s headliner. Really, it was the emergence of Weissmuller that largely left Kahanamoku as a secondary figure of the sport’s early days. The positive for Kahanamoku is the fact that he excelled in a second sport and was known worldwide as the Father of Surfing.

“Long before Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz splashed into the pool, Duke Kahanamoku emerged from the backwaters of Waikiki to become America’s first superstar swimmer,” wrote David Davis in his biography, Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku. “The original ‘human fish’ won Olympic gold medals, set dozens of world records, and topped the world rankings for more than a decade.”

Murray Rose – Australia

To Australians, who revere their distance stars, Murray Rose is a household name who is adored. But Rose, especially on the global scale and to the non-hardcore fan, is one of those athletes who doesn’t receive proper recognition. In part, that short stick can be connected to the rich tradition of distance swimming in the Land Down Under, and the more-recent greatness – with enhanced media attention – of Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett.

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Murrary Rose. Photo Courtesy: peta.org

At the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, a 17-year-old enjoyed a breakout competition, as he won the 400 freestyle and 1500 freestyle and was a member of the victorious 800 freestyle relay. At a time when Australia had experienced a dropoff from its previous success, Rose proved to be a spark for the future, and a rekindling of Aussie excellence.

Rose moved to the United States after the 1956 Games and enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he led the Trojans in NCAA action. In his next Olympic foray, at the 1960 Games in Rome, Rose repeated as champion in the 400 freestyle and was the silver medalist in the 1500 free, defeated by fellow Aussie John Konrads. A world-record setter in the 400 freestyle, 800 freestyle and 1500 freestyle, Rose defined distance swimming.

“Murray Rose was certainly one of the greatest of all-time,” Konrads said after Rose’s 2012 death. “There’s Mark Spitz in the sprints and so on and Michael Phelps, but they’re short-distance swimmers in the professional era. I think taking into consideration the amateur era, Murray was the greatest of all-time.”

Shirley Babashoff – United States

Which approach should we take when analyzing the career of Shirley Babashoff? Should we appreciate what she accomplished? Or, should we assess what could have been? Truthfully, a combination of those vantage points is what is necessary with Babashoff, who can be argued as the most-affected athlete by the East German systematic-doping program that was in operation from the early 1970s through the late 1980s.

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Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

As a nine-time Olympic medalist, with five of those medals from individual duty, Babashoff is an all-time great. She set multiple world records in freestyle events and was a hammer in relay action for the United States. Still, her hardware ledger could be much more, if not for the impact of performance-enhancing drugs by the East German machine.

At the 1976 Olympics, Babashoff was victimized in all three of her solo events, where she earned silver medals in the 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle. In all three races, an East German captured gold. Babashoff, too, was beaten for gold by doped-up East Germans at the World Championships.

To Babashoff’s credit, she spoke out against the super-fueled status of the opposition. She knew something was amiss and had the courage vocalize her concerns. Sadly, Babashoff’s words were used against her, as she was dubbed “Surly Shirley” by the media and branded a sore loser. In reality, she was the opposite. At a time when administrators of the sport were afraid to investigate and act against what was a clear problem, Babashoff was a hero.

“We would like to get what we earned,” Babashoff has said. “We were going for the medals, not the cash. We were amateurs. We worked so hard. We earned it and it was stolen right in front of everyone’s face and no one did anything about it. It was like watching a bank robbery where they just let the crooks go and then say, ‘It’s okay.’”

Tamas Darnyi – Hungary

The shadow of Michael Phelps is powerful, capable of darkening out even the brightest stars. When someone collects 28 medals in Olympic competition, as was the case with Phelps, the measure of greatness can be skewed. Consequently, what Hungarian Tamas Darnyi pulled off during his reign in the 1980s and early 1990s is not as respected as it should be.

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Tamas Darnyi – Photo Courtesy: Hungarian Swimming Federation

Before Phelps came along, Darnyi was considered the finest individual medley performer of all-time, a man who flourished equally over 200 and 400 meters. While Phelps supplanted the Hungarian as Medley King, we must continue to revere a multi-stroke specialist who knew no peer.

At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Darnyi secured medley sweeps, victories that cemented his status as the premier all-around swimmer in the world. Those doubles were not limited to the Olympics, as Darnyi also swept the medley events at the 1986 and 1991 editions of the World Championships. The Hall of Fame also earned a bronze in the 200 butterfly at the 1991 World Champs and was a European champion in that event.

Darnyi was the first man to crack the two-minute barrier in the 200 individual medley and his world-record time of 4:12.36 in the 400 medley, posted 30 years ago, would be competitive in today’s international waters.

Yana Klockhova – Ukraine

With 55 medals from major international competition, Yana Klochkova was a Tour de Force in the pool from the late 1990s into the mid-2000s. It was in the individual medley events, however, where she excelled greatest, and rose to another level than the competition.

Yana Klochkova. Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

At the 2000 Olympics, Klochkova swept the medley disciplines. In addition to capturing gold in the 200 I.M. by nearly two seconds, Klochkova set a world record in the 400 medley, an event in which featured a triumph by more than two seconds. As evidence of her versatility and endurance, she also picked up a silver medal in the 800 freestyle.

Four years later, at the 2004 Games in Athens, Klochkova defended both of her crowns. Repeating as Olympic champion is never an easy feat, largely due to the target worn and the difficulty of maintaining peak hunger, but Klochkova fended off all challenges to enhance her legacy. Nonetheless, she remains underappreciated, perhaps due to the lower profile of her homeland. If Klochkova hailed from the United States or Australia, her star power would have been magnified.

Beyond the Olympic realm, Klochkova was a four-time world champion, including once in the 400 freestyle, and was a World University Games champion in the 200 freestyle and 200 butterfly.

Kirsty Coventry – Zimbabwe

The most recently active athlete on our list is Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe. A seven-time Olympic medalist, Coventry might come from a nation that does not have a spectacular track record in the sport, but she proved that anything is possible. And, isn’t influence a major factor when we discuss legends of the sport.

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Kirsty Coventry – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Each of Coventry’s Olympic medals is of the individual variety, and the same can be said for the eight medals she won at the World Championships. A product of Auburn University, Coventry walked away from the 2004 Olympics in Athens with a gold medal in the 200 backstroke, silver in the 100 backstroke and bronze in the 200 individual medley. For a woman from an African country, it was a dazzling performance.

Four years later, Coventry was even better and demonstrated a high level of perseverance. A contender for gold in each of her events, Coventry won silver medals in the 400 I.M., 100 backstroke and 200 I.M. Although her performances were sensational, Coventry wanted another gold medal. By the time the 200 backstroke was over, she had it, along with a world record.

Coventry was lauded as a sporting hero in her country and relished her ability to inspire.

“I’m proud that I was able to represent my country for so many years at such a high level – especially when Zimbabwe was going through hard times,” Coventry said, referencing political issues. “Just because you might be from a landlocked country in Africa and didn’t have the same opportunities as some other people in first-world countries, it doesn’t matter as long as you keep pushing yourself and working hard.”

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