Before Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps there was Don Schollander. At Tokyo 1964 he became the first swimmer in history to win four gold medals at the same Games, and the first American athlete to do so since Jesse Owens in 1936.
A first world recordDonald Arthur Schollander was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was introduced to swimming by his uncle Newt Perry, a former elite swimmer and a well-known coach. Schollander moved with his family to Lake Oswego, Oregon, at the age of seven and went on to become the town’s most famous resident. Recalling his childhood there, he once recalled: “There wasn't a swimming coach. There wasn't even a pool… I was a lousy swimmer between the age of 9 and 11. I was a pretty good athlete, but I just couldn't swim very well.”
Schollander improved fast, however, and in 1961 his parents enrolled him at the famous Santa Clara High School in California, where he came under the wing of one of the USA’s greatest coaches, George Haines. As part of his intensive training schedule he began lifting weights at the suggestion of his father, the idea being to build up his muscles. It was a wholly unique approach at the time, and the hard work paid off when Schollander set his first 200m freestyle world record in a time of 1:58.8 in Los Angeles on 27 July 1963, becoming the first man ever to dip under the two-minute mark at this distance.
Triumph in Tokyo The only problem for Schollander was that his favourite event was not on the Olympic programme. Undeterred, the 18-year-old would still make history at Tokyo 1964, where he finished as the most successful athlete of the Games. The star of the pool at the Yoyogi National Stadium, the young American won the 100m freestyle in an Olympic record of 53.4 and the 400m freestyle in a world record time of 4:12.2, and added two more golds in anchoring the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays, in which the USA set respective world records of 3:33.1 and 7:52.1. In doing so he became the first swimmer to win as many Olympic titles at one Games and the USA’s first four-time gold medallist since Jesse Owens at Berlin 1936. In recognition of his achievement, the American media nicknamed him “The Golden Angel”.
Mexican wave with Spitz As the captain of Yale University’s swim team, Schollander won three National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles. He broke the 400m freestyle world record three times, taking it down to 4:11.6 in Lincoln on 18 August 1966, and lowered the world 200m freestyle mark on no fewer than ten occasions, setting his last personal best of 1:54.3 in Long Beach on 30 August 1968. By this time the 200m freestyle had become an Olympic event, but when Schollander had the chance to compete over his favourite distance, at Mexico City 1968, he was beaten to the gold by Australia’s Mike Wenden, by 0.6 seconds. He still managed to collect a fifth Olympic gold medal in the 4x200m freestyle relay, in which he teamed with up an up-and-coming 18-year old called Mark Spitz, who would soon be making his own mark on history. After retiring from competitive swimming shortly after the 1968 Games, Schollander moved into real estate and wrote the books Deep Water and Inside Swimming, while his five gold medals remain on public display in a bank in Lake Oswego.