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Original Issue

The old man and the pool

Dr. Chet Jastremski is a creaking 31, but he wants to go to Munich

Chester Jastremski, M.D., was clutching the gutter of Indiana University's Royer Pool, resting between laps, when Larry Barbiere, an Indiana backstroker, bobbed up in the next lane. "Hey, old man, why don't you give up?" he said. "You'll never make it." Then, with a splash, he was gone. "I get a lot of ribbing from the younger guys," Jastremski said later. "It's all in good clean fun." Grimacing, he added: "I know Larry meant every word of it."

Whether Chet Jastremski, making another comeback at 31, is really too old will be at least partly resolved at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Chicago in August. Meanwhile, for a family man and doctor, he seems remarkably at home among the younger swimmers in the Indiana pool, few of whom were more than 8 or 9 back when he was the world's best breaststroker. One way he has ingratiated himself is by offering his juniors free medical advice. His motives are not entirely selfless. "The main thing I've taught them is what to do if I should have a heart attack," he says.

Perhaps an even greater liability than his age is that Jastremski has had so little time in recent years for competitive swimming. Besides his degree from Indiana's medical school, he has acquired a wife and three children. He has also served four years as an Army doctor, a hitch that will end Sept. 15. One brief respite from these worldly cares came in 1968 when Jastremski, then 27 and with only two months of training, made the U.S. Olympic team as an alternate, went to Mexico but did not get a chance to swim.

Anxious for a different ending this time, Jastremski has allowed nearly five months for training. Clad in a 10-year-old swimsuit, he reported in early March to his old coach at Indiana, James E. (Doc) Counsilman, who provided him with a supply of noseclips; the latter are a Jastremski trademark, something he continues to wear partly to prevent sinus headaches but mainly, he admits, "out of habit." Jastremski has been working hard ever since, the bantering about his age merely a cover for his determination. "I'm not just training to make the Olympic team again," he says. "My goal is a gold medal at Munich. I honestly believe I can do it. I wouldn't be trying if I didn't."

Winning an Olympic gold medal is something no swimmer his age has ever done. Duke Kahanamoku won one for the U.S. in the 1920 Games on his 30th birthday, while Australia's Dawn Fraser was 27 when she enjoyed her last Olympic triumph in 1964. The oldest American swimmers to earn gold medals since World War II were Bill Smith and Wally Ris, teammates in 1948. Both were 24. It is a measure of the odds Jastremski now defies that when he went to Mexico in '68, he was already four years older than anybody else on the U.S. team.

If this were simply a case of Olympic fever, one would expect Jastremski, being a doctor, to be the first to detect the symptoms. Instead, encouraged by the rather cavalier way he made the U.S. team four years ago, he challenges the most widely held assumptions about swimming. "Physiologically, there's no reason why a person can't swim better at 31 than at 23," he says. "Swimming is 90% psychological. It's a matter of building mental barriers and then breaking them."

Counsilman, while more cautious, shares his optimism. "The odds are probably against Chet," he says, "but it's not impossible. In other sports a Willie Mays or a Johnny Unitas or a Ken Rose-wall can go on because theirs are sports of skill. Swimming involves skill, too, but it's primarily a sport of endurance. Of course, in theory, endurance also improves with age. Some of those marathon runners are pretty old. The only definite reason older athletes keep going in other sports is that they can make their livings at it."

Whatever toll the years may otherwise exact, there is little question about Jastremski's motivation. One incentive is that breaststroke times have not improved as much as those in the other strokes; Jastremski's last world record in the 200 meters, set eight years ago, is only 4.7 seconds slower than Brian Job's current mark of 2:23.5. Then, too, Jastremski hopes to benefit from new wrinkles in technique and training. Finally, he is uncommonly industrious in practice. "Chet is the hardest-working guy out there," says Steve Borowski, Indiana's assistant coach. "He's a perfectionist even in workouts." Jastremski not only refuses to resort to shortcuts in practice, he takes a dim view of those who do. "I just hate it when guys cut corners," he says. "I guess it's irrational of me, but it really bothers me."

An Olympic gold medal is the only major prize in swimming to have eluded Jastremski. His frustrations began in 1956 when, as a 15-year-old from a blue-collar neighborhood in Toledo, he hoped to make the Olympic team, only to be disqualified at the trials because he had executed an improper turn. In 1960, by now a member of the dynasty Counsilman was building at Indiana, he was left off the team when for some reason the selectors chose to fill only two of the three spaces available for breaststrokers.

It was Jastremski's further misfortune to have enjoyed his greatest triumphs between Olympics. His best year was 1961 when he broke every breaststroke record possible, lowering the 200-meter mark during one six-week stretch by almost seven seconds. Employing a short but powerful pull and a quick leg action, he revolutionized the stroke, which had previously been swum with a wider, more stylized technique.

Briefly retiring following his graduation from Indiana in 1963, Jastremski took time off from his medical studies to qualify for the '64 Olympics, improving his own 200-meter record in the trials. "Then I showed off in training camp," he recalls. "I worked hard, my times were great and I felt terrific. All of a sudden I was tired. I was in good shape but I had no sprinting ability." Jastremski settled for a bronze medal at Tokyo, a disappointment almost equaled in 1968 when he did not swim at Mexico City even though he outperformed the other U.S. breaststrokers in training.

Jastremski tries to shrug off his Olympic misfortunes. "There are two ways of looking at it," he says. "One is that the best in the world doesn't always win at the Olympics. He just might not be up that day. The other is that the best in the world is the guy who responds to pressure and wins the big one. Since I've never won it, I subscribe to the first view."

If he really subscribed to that view, Jastremski might never have set his sights on Munich. Last November, while assigned to the U.S. Military Academy hospital, he began swimming during lunch hours at the West Point pool. When the Army granted his request for time off in order to train for the Olympics, Major Jastremski moved his family to Bloomington, Ind., settling in a neighborhood of $40,000 split-levels called Sherwood Oaks. Sue Jastremski framed her husband's bronze medal from '64 and hung it in the family room. Jastremski cringed. "Sue thinks it's nice," he says, "but I'm partial to gold."

Jastremski plans to go into general practice in Bloomington following his discharge. Meanwhile, his own case sounds like something out of Today's Health. When he arrived in Bloomington he weighed 192 pounds, 25 more than in his undergraduate days. He plunged into Counsilman's regimen of 11,000-plus yards a day, which is double the meager three miles or so Indiana swimmers logged during Jastremski's era. The greater distance so exhausted him that he has been sleeping at least 12 hours a day ever since.

"After workouts I feel like this," Jastremski says, hunching his shoulders in imitation of a stooped old man. "The hard part is finding time to spend with my kids. Sometimes I collapse on the floor and they climb on me. They think I'm playing with them."

As these grueling practices went on, Jastremski's weight dropped to 176 pounds. He continued to work on technique, particularly his kick. "I've still got a stronger pull than other breaststrokers," he says. "If I can get my kick anywhere near theirs, I think I can beat anybody." To measure his progress Jastremski went to California last month to compete in a meet that was a far cry from the Olympics. It was the short-course championships of the AAU master's program, one designed for oldtimers in swimming—those over 25.

The meet was held on a windswept hilltop in San Mateo. The blustery weather, while not conducive to fast times, failed to diminish the enthusiasm of children who stood at poolside frantically cheering on their parents, the exact reverse of what one finds at ordinary meets. There were a number of other ex-collegiate stars on hand, but few were in serious training, prompting Jastremski to say: "I'm just swimming against the clock here, not the competition." Having reduced his time in the 200-yard breaststroke from 2:30 in March to 2:18 more recently, he hoped for 2:15 at the San Mateo meet, still a long way from Job's American record of 2:02.36.

His progress was, for the moment, stalled. Entered in the 30-to-34 age group, Jastremski easily won both the 100 and 200, but his time in the latter was 2:18. Nonetheless he pronounced the trip a success: "The important thing was getting the chance to compete before crowds again and to learn to pace myself."

Jastremski returned late one night from California, and the next morning was at the Indiana pool for a full workout. After lunch he relaxed with Sue in their paneled family room. Kelly Jastremski, 4, and Andrea, 2½, were taking a nap in their bunk bed while 9-month-old Ted played on the floor next to Lance, the family's German shepherd. Sue Jastremski, a pretty, bespectacled woman with closely cropped brown hair, spoke of her husband's Olympic ambitions. "At first I was like everybody else," she said. "I thought Chet was too old. I went along with him because I love Bloomington and it meant we could leave West Point earlier. But now I really think he can do it."

Chet let the subject drop until later that afternoon when he and Sue were out for a drive in the rich farmland south of Bloomington. "I didn't know you thought I was too old, Sue," he said in a wounded tone. "I told you," she said. "You must not have been listening, babes."

The next important entry on Jastremski's schedule is this week's Santa Clara (Calif.) International meet. He also plans to take his family on a motoring trip through the Western U.S., but that will be, he pointedly says, "after the Olympics." Should he fail to make the team he would return to the U.S. Military Academy for his last few weeks of Army duty. But never mind that. When Jastremski recently advised a friend, "You can reach me at West Point in August," it did not mean he had suddenly lost faith. By chance, the U.S. swimming team will be training at West Point before it leaves for Munich.