When I say that I'm glad I was born Australian, not American, I hope all my American friends will not be offended. But I believe in frankness. And it's a fact that the warm, soft, synthetic existence Americans lead poses a real doubt about their future. A people who so thoroughly mollycoddle themselves must steadily become weaker, physically and spiritually. The Americans are not the only people who are insulating themselves from their environment; the tendency exists even in my own country. I shudder to think what would happen to some of these pampered people who've separated themselves from nature if suddenly they were thrown back into the natural environment that God provides. How many would survive?
My first taste of American life came at the end of the 1957-58 Australian season when Merv Lincoln and I were invited there to compete in a series of races prior to our appearance in the Empire Games in Wales. It was an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world, though I was shocked by some of the things I saw. No sooner had the invitation arrived than I was alerted for a radiotelephone call from Villanova University. It was Ron Delany, the young gentleman who 18 months before had expressed doubts about the wisdom of my tough training schedules. He wanted to know what races were planned for me.
"You know, my bhoy, Oi don't mind admittin' you've got me a bit worried now," said Ron. And he tried to pump me on my plans—without success.
The plane trip from Sydney to Honolulu left me so tired and sick that I viewed my scheduled 880-yard race in Hawaii's Punahou Relays with some apprehension. The Hawaiian champion, Chauncey Pa, provided fierce opposition until well into the second lap. If he'd known how awful I felt he might not have cracked when he did, allowing me to win in 1:53.1.
It was at Waikiki Beach that I became aware how many wealthy Americans lose interest in their physical condition. There is no point using euphemisms; they were fat and they were flabby. Even the kids. I saw a boy of no more than 8 whose muscle tissue hung on him limply like pieces of sacking—the end result, I was sure, of two generations of soft living. Unlike Australian beachgoers, the frequenters of Waikiki couldn't swim 10 yards to save themselves. Two other facets that intrigued me were the way the women bossed their menfolk and the vanity of almost all of them, men and women. I took great delight in sprinting through the water, splashing bald heads and white, puffy legs.
One rugged type
Ironically, amid this apparent decadence I was introduced to one of the most masculine characters I've been fortunate enough to meet. George Downing was in his late 30s or early 40s, superbly fit, easygoing and adventurous, and the greatest surfer in the world—a fact that I realized as soon as I was informed that each day he went out on a surfboard to crack the huge waves north of Honolulu. One day, while out on a catamaran, we discussed the possibility of touring the world together on such a small but sturdy craft. A reckless mood came over me in which impetuously I decided to toss in my job, retire from running and live under sail. The mood wore off sufficiently for me to continue my tour, though I'm not sure to this day whether there's a more appealing life than the rugged outdoor existence, close to water, that George leads.
Another pleasant experience in Honolulu was discovering such a harmonious intermingling of so many races. Japanese, Chinese, Indians, British, Portuguese and French intermarried, sang, danced and ate together, played together and prayed together. Their uninhibited happiness was to me an encouraging symbol in today's troubled world.
When my coach, Percy Cerutty, and I flew into Los Angeles we felt very much like innocents abroad. We were installed at the Sheraton Hotel in a suite of rooms bigger than my home in Perth.
"Hey, Percy," I joked when the porter opened our door, "you go in that direction and I'll go in this and if we lose contact I'll see you tomorrow morning at breakfast."