In recent years, we have become accustomed to the idea of a swimmer winning multiple gold medals, but it wasn’t always recognised as such a possibility. In 1964, the American swimmer Don Schollander became the first Olympic athlete to win four gold medals at a single Games, a feat that was all the greater because the victories were accompanied by three world records and one Olympic record. And all this, despite missing out on his favourite event.
Schollander had learnt to swim well thanks to the teaching of his uncle, who ran a swimming school. At high school, he wanted to play American football, but was judged too small and so turned to swimming instead. His talent was obvious and, in 1962, he won three freestyle events at the American Championships.
Selection for the Olympic team was assured, but the pity was that his strongest race, the 200m freestyle, was not part of the programme for Tokyo. Instead, he was chosen for the 100m, 400m, 4x100m relay and the 4x200m relay
First up was the 100m, in which Schollander took the lead not long after the turn and held off the challenge of Britain’s Bobby McGregor to earn gold and an Olympic record. Next up was the 4x100m relay, in which he swam the anchor leg, inheriting a substantial lead to bring his team home in a new world record.
The third of his four finals was the 400m. Schollander’s used his 200m excellence to hold the lead at half distance, but if his rivals were expecting him to fade then they were to be disappointed. Victory came with a margin of more than two and a half seconds, lowering his own world record. If that victory seemed easy, the triumph of the 4x200m team was even more straightforward. The USA was so confident in this event that a reserve team had been used in qualifying – and hasd still set the fastest time. In the final, with Schollander again on the anchor leg, they demolished the world record, becoming the first team ever to go faster than eight minutes and finishing the race more than seven seconds ahead of Germany, in second. It was the first time that an American had won four golds since Jesse Owens in 1936 and also made Schollander the only quadruple winner of the 1964 Games. On his return home, he was acclaimed as the USA’s athlete of the year, but he was a reluctant star. He disliked the limelight and retired after the 1968 Games, in which he won a gold and silver, saying that he was sick of water, and wouldn’t be taking a bath or shower for the next two years!