AUGUST 14, 1961
It was a promotional stunt, the I 1998 freestyle race between the Australian Olympic champion from 1956 and '60 and his country's best medal hope in 2000, but Iain Murray Rose had never settled for second, not even in an exhibition. Rose climbed onto the starting block, bent forward on 59-year-old knees and dived into the Sydney International Aquatic Centre pool, where he soundly beat Ian Thorpe—15 at the time—in a 100-meter race viewed by a national TV audience in Australia. "I had a 15-second head start," admits Rose.
At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics the victorious Rose, then 17, as Thorpe is now, embraced Japan's Tsuyoshi Yamanaka after the pair's one-two finish in the 400-meter freestyle final. The gesture, which Olympic historian Bud Greenspan would call "proof that [World War II] was finally over," was nearly as radical as Rose's faith in sports psychologists and his diet, which included sea vegetables and millet seeds. Using a broken rhythm kick, a technique that other distance swimmers would come to mimic, Rose also won gold in the 1,500 free and the 4 x 200 free relay. The Seaweed Streak, as meat-loving Aussies called him, would successfully defend his 400 title in Rome in '60 and add a silver and a bronze to his medal collection.
Rose took his golden good looks to California, where as a student-athlete at USC he caught an acting bug that led to a few minor roles. While filming Ride the Wild Surf (starring Tab Hunter) in Hawaii, he missed competing in the Australian national championships—a prerequisite for Olympic participation. In Tokyo in 1964, despite having set a 1,500 world record earlier that year, he ended up doing commentary for NBC. "It was torture to watch," says Rose, "but I had to keep my hand in the Olympic Games."
Six years ago Murray and his wife, Jodi, a ballet dancer, and their now 10-year-old son, Trevor, moved from Los Angeles—where his daughter, Somerset, 36, and her four-year-old daughter, Tess, live—to the seaside Sydney suburb of Double Bay, where Murray had learned to swim as a boy. This month Rose, 61, who works as a sports-marketing executive, will be in Sydney to support the strongest Australian swim squad since he, Dawn Fraser and others ruled the pool 44 years ago. Though Rose says he hopes to stay "behind the scenes," young Australian swimmers traveling down Murray Rose Avenue will be unable to escape the legend whose 1956 performance made him the youngest triple gold medalist in any sport in the history of the Games. Though Thorpe is expected to win three as well, Rose will remain, as always, first.