- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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July 12, 1979
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-
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
Wally Wolfs 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.
Wally shrugged 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.