July 12, 1979
For the last hour I have searched my mind for an appropriate gift or memento
for the occasion of the complete victory and vindication you have won.... Alas,
I can think of no material object that would be sufficient.
There can't be
any tougher task than to be bombarded by falsities, crimes and worse—to have
the judicial system impress its seal of approval upon such acts.... I am
grateful that my profession—the law establishment—has ultimately, if quite
late—done justice by and for you-
Wally the Wolf
This letter is a
perfect extension of Wally, and the telling phrase, to me, is "no material
object that would be sufficient." Wally embodies the Olympian spirit Pindar
wrote about and made you believe existed:
He who wins, of a
sudden, some noble prize
In the rich years of youth
Is raised high with hope, his manhood takes wing
He has in his heart what is better than wealth
temperament expresses the superiority of sport over nature, and is a product of
sport's innate humanity. In nature you kill, in sport you compete. A race is
run to the finish, not to the death, and it honors competition, not conquest.
It favors excellence and measures it, an electronic world of clocks measuring
speed to the one-hundredth of a second and fractional whispers of tail winds.
It has no place for injustice, not even a way to measure it. Indeed, excellence
itself is sweetly impractical. Nature wouldn't dream of extending itself to the
limits, like Bob Beamon's Mexico City leap, any more than agents and motion
picture executives do. (They make the deal and kill you. They wouldn't, and I'm
not recommending they should, measure the relative skill with which they lie,
renegotiate and cheat, or hold any competition dedicated to that end.)
Wally, like many
swimmers, can be kind to the point of being bland. Perhaps it's the kindness of
the medium. Water is used for therapy as well as for competition. In it you can
develop a fierce aerobic capacity without harming a single fiber of fast-or
slow-twitch muscle, a dendrite, a neuron, a tendon. No marathoner can even
qualify for the Olympics if he has to run a race too near the actual event. It
tears him to pieces.
A swimmer can
swim by the hour and only grow stronger. In a way, water allows the swimmer to
feel he's defying gravity. His body is, in effect, one-third its normal weight.
Water supports and surrounds and caresses. It feels good and builds you up
while virtually never tearing you down. And evolutionarily, swimming is
regressive. Like dolphins and other cetaceans, the athlete who competes in
water goes from the land back into the water and, like the dolphin, must think
to breathe, and therefore not think about much of anything else. Competing in
water is something that is almost calculated to make you kind. And finally, it
is clean—pure even. Money isn't made swimming, not as a rule. You swim for the
ferocious fun of it, like Wally Wolf.
I remember the
story Wally told me on the day of the trial, when the judge finally intervened
on our behalf. He and I and Patrice Donnelly, the hurdler-actress in Personal
Best, were driving back from downtown L.A., heading west on Wilshire, when he
recalled the 1948 Olympic trials at the Rouge Park Pool in Detroit. The
competition was held outdoors, it was July, and the air was hot and still. The
200-meter free, which he was swimming to qualify for the relay team, had been
delayed, and the air had grown even more still. The backstroke flags over the
end of the pool were limp and lifeless. As the starter called everyone to the
blocks, the 17-year-old Wally went up to his primary competition, the
prohibitive favorite to win, the great George Hoogerhyde. Wally offered to
shake his hand. Hoogerhyde refused. "I don't shake anybody's hand before a
race," he said quietly.
and got up on his block. "I remember it was suddenly very quiet," he
said. "And I looked down into the pool. The delay had made everything
perfectly still—the lane lines, the water—nothing could even be heard spilling
into the gutters. And the surface was perfectly clear, like crystal. When they
set us and I leaned over, I could see myself like I was looking in a mirror.
The gun fired. I got off the blocks and watched myself all the way to the
surface of the water until I hit it. I never forgot that moment...." Wally
shattered his image and won his race, beating everyone including the great
Hoogerhyde. That still surface represents to me the inner tranquillity of the
great athlete at the supreme moment when he bows before the starting gun.