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Michael Nicholas, the coowner of Tucson's Gekas-Nicholas Gallery, tells of meeting Rick DeMont for the first time a few weeks ago: "He came by with his portfolio and I felt that he had potential as an artist, so I agreed to show his paintings. Then I asked him about himself. He told me he'd been an Olympic swimmer, but he didn't go into details."
DeMont picks up the narrative: "I told Michael I'd swum in the Olympics and he said, 'Well, that's not going to sell any paintings.' That was fine with me. Swimming and painting are separate parts of my life."
Several of DeMont's paintings now hang in Nicholas' gallery, including watercolors depicting Arizona's big-sky country and a large landscape in oils in which the hills look like canned peaches and the clouds like mounds of Reddi-Wip. Although DeMont's signature is prominently displayed in the lower right-hand corner of each painting, few visitors to the gallery have recognized the name. Nicholas was right: the fact that DeMont swam at the Olympics is not going to sell any paintings.
But then, what good has DeMont's Olympic experience ever done him? Olympic buffs, unlike art fanciers, will have little difficulty identifying DeMont as the distance swimmer who was stripped of one gold medal and deprived of a shot at winning another at the 1972 Olympics. He had taken an asthma medication that had been prescribed by his personal physician, and he had duly listed it on a medical history he had filled out for the U.S. team doctors. DeMont was 16, the youngest member of the U.S. men's swim team at Munich, but swimming achievements are so ephemeral that within 18 months he no longer dominated his specialties, the 400-and 1,500-meter freestyles. After that he continued to show up at meets but was lucky to get into the consolation finals. He had become a melancholy figure who kept to himself and went all but unnoticed. He failed to make the 1976 Olympic team and his swimming career appeared to be over. Indeed, his life as a distance swimmer was over.
What happened next might best be told to the accompaniment of a trumpet fanfare. As they get older, stronger and inclined to take life a bit easier, distance swimmers frequently gravitate to shorter distances, but when DeMont reemerged as a sprinter in 1977, it seemed too late for him to be exercising this particular option. Nevertheless, by the end of that summer he had established himself as one of the world's top performers—perhaps the top—in the 200-meter freestyle. After this stunning comeback, his luck turned sour, illness slowing his progress during his final season at the University of Arizona. Then last summer he decided not to compete. But now, at 23, a ripe old age by swimming standards, DeMont is training with Tucson's Conquistador Aquatic Team and will compete in this week's AAU championships in Fort Lauderdale. And he says that come next summer he may shoot for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. DeMont's best chances figure to come in the 200 free and the 800 free relay; he may also take a shot at the 100 free.
Don Swartz, who coached DeMont for six years at Northern California's Marin Aquatic Club, says, "I believe that Rick has a chance of making the team, and if he does, he can win." His present coach, the Conquistadores' Dick Jochums, says, "Rick's got the talent, that's for sure, and after what he did in '77, I'd have to say he's got a shot." Peter Daland, coach of the U.S. Olympic men's team in 1972, disagrees. "There are a lot of young swimmers coming up and it's going to be difficult for a '76 Olympian to make our team, much less a '72 Olympian." Then he adds, "But I'd like to see Rick do well. The world owes him one."
That sentiment is widespread. Discussing DeMont's disqualification at Munich, one indignant American official told reporters, "It's spelled with a capital 'd' and a small 'm' and it's pronounced robbed." He erred—the "m" is capitalized, too—but the conviction that DeMont was severely wronged in Munich is shared by Dr. Claude A. Frazier, an allergist in Asheville, N.C., who has never met DeMont but has written nearly 600 letters to newspapers, Olympic officials and medical groups in hopes of getting DeMont's gold medal returned. However, the International Olympic Committee says that the case is forever closed and U.S. team doctors at Munich, who have been generally blamed for DeMont's woes in 1972, say he will have to bear most of the responsibility himself. Choose up sides, please; the case of Rick DeMont, the only American besides Jim Thorpe to be stripped of an Olympic gold medal ( Thorpe won two golds in track and field in 1912 but had to surrender them when it was discovered he had played professional baseball), is still capable of arousing passion.
DeMont himself generally manages to steer clear of the controversy, just as he has succeeded in paddling out of his sport's mainstream. Now a strapping 6'2" and 185 pounds, three inches taller and 35 pounds heavier than he was in Munich, DeMont has set himself apart from the sport's well-scrubbed golden boys by training in a full beard, an adornment he planned to shave off for this week's AAU meet. He also eschews the pampered country-club existence led by many swimmers in favor of what he calls a "cruisy life-style," one more suited to, well, a track man. He sleeps on a waterbed in a friend's house in Tucson, periodically forswears eating red meat and likes nothing better than to join friends for a pitcher of beer and a game of pool at a local haunt called The Shanty. The parents of his girl friend, an ex-swimmer who lives in Phoenix, consider him an unreconstructed hippie, and his father, a dentist in San Rafael, Calif., who sends him $100 a month pocket money, mildly complains that Rick lacks "direction."
But DeMont feels that swimming and painting give him direction enough. He spends two hours a day in the water and at least twice as long with brush in hand. He completed his final credits toward a degree in art at Arizona this summer. Bruce McGrew, a professor of art at Arizona who has taken DeMont under his wing, says, "Rick is in a formative stage but there's something definitely there. You hear about boxers and other athletes who paint and they're usually awful. Rick isn't any Sunday-afternoon painter. His talent is at a high level."
DeMont credits his absorption in art with helping him come to grips with his 1972 disqualification, a trauma he spoke of one sweltering morning while driving toward the cool mountains northeast of Tucson, where he intended to do some painting. A sharp-featured but sleepy-eyed figure, he spoke of his past troubles calmly and somewhat distantly, almost as if they had happened to somebody else.