The U.S. swimmers were hungry, tough and successful beyond anyone else's fondest hopes. At first they had just one imperative: to repulse Australia and make amends for the dismal American performance at Melbourne in 1956, when we won only two swimming gold medals (plus three in diving).
The Larson affair toughened this resolve. California's Lance Larson was placed second to John Devitt of Australia in the 100-meter freestyle by two of the three judges, even though he was timed a split second faster. A U.S. protest failed, despite controversial filmed "proof" of his victory. Then came Thursday and the U.S. disappointments in track and field.
Eight medals in three nights
Profoundly aware that the U.S. looked to them for heroic performances, the swimmers lightly fed the butterflies in their stomachs, then soberly left the Olympic Village dining hall for the short bus ride across the Tiber to the swimming stadium. It turned into a glorious evening. The U.S. won three swimming gold medals, and so began an offensive that brought victories in five of the six remaining swimming and diving events—eight of nine possible gold medals, all told, in three nights' work.
Altogether, the U.S. won nine swimming and two diving gold medals to five in swimming and none in diving for Australia. The American girls beat the Aussie girls five events to one, and the U.S. split four to four with the Australian men.
The key to America's return to world pre-eminence was youth—and lots of it. This was a new wave of Yankee swimmers. None of our individual winners, with the exception of 25-year-old Gary Tobian, had ever seen Olympic competition, while all but one of Australia's 1960 winners had been in action at Melbourne.
Between them, the famous Australian Konrads kids won only one gold medal, despite their assortment of world freestyle records. Ilsa, 15, was shut out, and John, 17, had to wait until the last night for his single victory, in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
In the battle of the kids, America's Chris von Saltza was easily the champion and, indeed, the swimming star of the Olympics. At 16, she was amazingly steady under the heaviest pressure of her competitive life. Her defeat by Dawn Fraser in the 100-meter freestyle race might have' taken the heart out of a less courageous swimmer. But Chris blitzed her over 400 meters (Dawn finished fifth after boasting she would win) and then anchored the American relay teams to two world-record victories for three gold medals and individual supremacy.
It was with notable relay victories that the American swimming breakthrough opened and closed. U.S. fans, still in a mild state of shock after the decline and fall of John Thomas, began to revive Thursday evening as the remarkable convalescent, Jeff Farrell, anchored the American medley relay team to a clocking of 4:05.4, a full five seconds faster than the listed world record.
As dedicated an athlete as there was in Rome, Farrell had made the U.S. team only eight days after an emergency appendectomy. Given a big lead by Lance Larson, the medley butterfly man, Farrell churned in 10 meters ahead of the second-place Aussie. He completed a double an hour later by anchoring the 800-meter freestyle team to still another world record.