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The old man and the pool
Jerry Kirshenbaum
June 26, 1972
Dr. Chet Jastremski is a creaking 31, but he wants to go to Munich
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June 26, 1972

The Old Man And The Pool

Dr. Chet Jastremski is a creaking 31, but he wants to go to Munich

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Chester Jastremski, M.D., was clutching the gutter of Indiana University's Royer Pool, resting between laps, when Larry Barbiere, an Indiana backstroker, bobbed up in the next lane. "Hey, old man, why don't you give up?" he said. "You'll never make it." Then, with a splash, he was gone. "I get a lot of ribbing from the younger guys," Jastremski said later. "It's all in good clean fun." Grimacing, he added: "I know Larry meant every word of it."

Whether Chet Jastremski, making another comeback at 31, is really too old will be at least partly resolved at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Chicago in August. Meanwhile, for a family man and doctor, he seems remarkably at home among the younger swimmers in the Indiana pool, few of whom were more than 8 or 9 back when he was the world's best breaststroker. One way he has ingratiated himself is by offering his juniors free medical advice. His motives are not entirely selfless. "The main thing I've taught them is what to do if I should have a heart attack," he says.

Perhaps an even greater liability than his age is that Jastremski has had so little time in recent years for competitive swimming. Besides his degree from Indiana's medical school, he has acquired a wife and three children. He has also served four years as an Army doctor, a hitch that will end Sept. 15. One brief respite from these worldly cares came in 1968 when Jastremski, then 27 and with only two months of training, made the U.S. Olympic team as an alternate, went to Mexico but did not get a chance to swim.

Anxious for a different ending this time, Jastremski has allowed nearly five months for training. Clad in a 10-year-old swimsuit, he reported in early March to his old coach at Indiana, James E. (Doc) Counsilman, who provided him with a supply of noseclips; the latter are a Jastremski trademark, something he continues to wear partly to prevent sinus headaches but mainly, he admits, "out of habit." Jastremski has been working hard ever since, the bantering about his age merely a cover for his determination. "I'm not just training to make the Olympic team again," he says. "My goal is a gold medal at Munich. I honestly believe I can do it. I wouldn't be trying if I didn't."

Winning an Olympic gold medal is something no swimmer his age has ever done. Duke Kahanamoku won one for the U.S. in the 1920 Games on his 30th birthday, while Australia's Dawn Fraser was 27 when she enjoyed her last Olympic triumph in 1964. The oldest American swimmers to earn gold medals since World War II were Bill Smith and Wally Ris, teammates in 1948. Both were 24. It is a measure of the odds Jastremski now defies that when he went to Mexico in '68, he was already four years older than anybody else on the U.S. team.

If this were simply a case of Olympic fever, one would expect Jastremski, being a doctor, to be the first to detect the symptoms. Instead, encouraged by the rather cavalier way he made the U.S. team four years ago, he challenges the most widely held assumptions about swimming. "Physiologically, there's no reason why a person can't swim better at 31 than at 23," he says. "Swimming is 90% psychological. It's a matter of building mental barriers and then breaking them."

Counsilman, while more cautious, shares his optimism. "The odds are probably against Chet," he says, "but it's not impossible. In other sports a Willie Mays or a Johnny Unitas or a Ken Rose-wall can go on because theirs are sports of skill. Swimming involves skill, too, but it's primarily a sport of endurance. Of course, in theory, endurance also improves with age. Some of those marathon runners are pretty old. The only definite reason older athletes keep going in other sports is that they can make their livings at it."

Whatever toll the years may otherwise exact, there is little question about Jastremski's motivation. One incentive is that breaststroke times have not improved as much as those in the other strokes; Jastremski's last world record in the 200 meters, set eight years ago, is only 4.7 seconds slower than Brian Job's current mark of 2:23.5. Then, too, Jastremski hopes to benefit from new wrinkles in technique and training. Finally, he is uncommonly industrious in practice. "Chet is the hardest-working guy out there," says Steve Borowski, Indiana's assistant coach. "He's a perfectionist even in workouts." Jastremski not only refuses to resort to shortcuts in practice, he takes a dim view of those who do. "I just hate it when guys cut corners," he says. "I guess it's irrational of me, but it really bothers me."

An Olympic gold medal is the only major prize in swimming to have eluded Jastremski. His frustrations began in 1956 when, as a 15-year-old from a blue-collar neighborhood in Toledo, he hoped to make the Olympic team, only to be disqualified at the trials because he had executed an improper turn. In 1960, by now a member of the dynasty Counsilman was building at Indiana, he was left off the team when for some reason the selectors chose to fill only two of the three spaces available for breaststrokers.

It was Jastremski's further misfortune to have enjoyed his greatest triumphs between Olympics. His best year was 1961 when he broke every breaststroke record possible, lowering the 200-meter mark during one six-week stretch by almost seven seconds. Employing a short but powerful pull and a quick leg action, he revolutionized the stroke, which had previously been swum with a wider, more stylized technique.

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