Yesterday, one of the greatest swimmers of this past century died after a 3 month battle with leukemia and he was 73 years old. He inspired a generation of swimmers who mostly remember him in the late 1950's and early 1960's. He is probably the best known swimmer in the world until 1964, when Don Schollander came on the scene and won 4 gold medals at the 1964 Olympics. I was about 10 years old in 1961 and knew of his Olympic successes and he along with Dawn Fraser were the first swimmers that really captivated the American swim scene that were not swimmers from the USA.
He was the first swimmer to win 3 gold medals at the Olympics with the 400 Free, 1500 Free, and the 800 Free Relay which the Australian squad beat the USA by 8 seconds. He returned in 1960 but was not expected to win the 400 Free and the 1500 Free and his countryman John Konrads was favored in both events because he was the World Record holder. In fact, people weren't sure he could medal because he was in a slump at the time and swimmers like Yamanaka and George Breen, had faster times going into the 1960 Olympic Games and he had beaten those guys in the 1956 Olympics.
In the 1956 Olympics, George Breen had set the World Record in the prelims in the 1500 Free and broke Murray Rose's record by almost 7 seconds and he qualified 3rd behind Breen and Yamanaka. In the finals he negative split the race and was the first to do this and won the race but with a slower time than what Breen did in the prelims by 6 seconds. His race strategy proved successful and from that point on he became the most feared racers in swimming.
At the 1960 Olympics, he lost to Konrads in the 1500 Free and in taking the silver he committed to training harder and getting back to the top in the 1500 Free. He choose to come to the USA and swim for USC in the NCAA program in 1961. With him swimming here, everyone that was in swimming knew of his accomplishments and what he meant to swimming. He swam for 2 years and basically went undefeated in the 220, 440, and mile swims. The only blemish on his record was he did not swim fast enough to qualify for the 220 at the 1962 NCAA Championships and was 8th and missed the final. For two years straight he was the NCAA Champion in the mile and won the 440 in 1961. He had the US Open Records in all of the events he swam
He was the first US Open 200 Yard short course record holder and because he swam in the era where the 220 and 440 were swam, a lot of his records don't get the respect that they should because you can't compare them to swimmers past 1964 because they got rid of those and swam the 200 and 500 Freestyle events. While he was at USC, he studied acting and wanted to be in movies and films and he was successful in doing that because he was in two big films between 1964 and 1968.
In August of 1964, he set World Records in the 800 Free and the 1500 Free and just missed Schollander's 400 Free World Record by a half a second. He wanted to be the first swimmer to win 3 golds in the 400 Free and win another in the 1500 Free. Dawn Fraser was going for the same hat trick and was successful in the 100 Free. Even though he set those World Records and was in the top 4 in the 200 Free, the Australia Swimming Union which is like are USA Swimming claimed he was ineligible because he did not compete in the Australian National Championships. To compete in the Australian Olympic Trials, he had to swim in the National Championships and this was a new requirement. The ASU said that Rose knew of the selection procedure and that Rose responded that he was filming in America and could not get back for the Australian Championships but could be available to swim in the Aussie Trials. The ASU wanted no part of that and said you get back here and swim and its now or never for you to be eligible to swim in the 1960 Olympics.
Murray was cast in two famous films at the time, He made is debut in Ride the Wild Surf with Fabian, James Mitchum, Shelly Fabares, and Barbara Eden. This was his first big break and even thought it wasn't that great of a film, he was out there as an actor. His next casting was in the "Ice Station Zebra and he was cast alongside of Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan, and the great Jim Brown in one of his early films after retiring from football. There was no way he was going to leave the set and if he did it would pretty much trash any kind of career in films.
In the past missing the Championships, according to previous experiences did not rule a swimmer ineligible for the Olympics because they could prove themselves at the Olympic Trials. He pleaded and begged for them to reconsider him to swim in the Olympic Trials and the ASU said no. After this was announced, the whole country was in an uproar because this seemed like an injustice to the best swimmer in the world. Because of this, his request to swim in the Olympic Trials and eventually the Olympics was denied. It was fact that the times he swam would have had him in the 200, 400, 1500, and the 800 Free Relay.
Once he couldn't swim in the trials, he knew that he could not swim because to do so would create many inequities by violating the selection criteria. The ASU could not ethically drop one of the selected swimmers from the team. This is kind of what happened in the USA with Jeff Farrell but with many different circumstances. So that ended that but he started a successful career as a television commentator for NBC in America. He never tried to swim again to qualify for the Olympics and he retired with that decision.
Murray Rose was the first TV commentator that I remember that was an Olympic swimmer. There may have been others but I don't remember them in the 1960's when swimming was really taking off and it began receiving media attention. In those days the only media you had was occasionally TV on Wide World of Sports and they would show the AAU Nationals and possibly the NCAA Championships. He was the first and Donna De Varona, Mark Spitz, John Naber, Rowdy Gaines, Summer Sanders, and a host of others own a debt of gradititude for him being the first.
Yesterday, there was such an outpouring of grief from the entire swimming world about Murray Rose. Before Phelps and Spitz, there was Rose and he was as important to his era as they were to there eras. At the time of his success, Gus Stager and Bob Kiphuth have said that he was the greatest swimmer that ever lived up to that point which would be 1960.
He was also very influential to United States Masters Swimming because a year before I joined USMS, there was an article in Sports Illustrated about Masters Swimming in July 1981 and how it was becoming more popular and swimming greats are starting to embrace it. Lance Larson, another legend in swimming from that early 1960's and Murray Rose were featured in the article along with others. Murray Rose swam in the 1981 Short Course Nationals and did very respectable times and swam the mile almost as fast as he did in college. He had a show down swim in the 200 Free with Lance Larson and everyone was on there feet and Larson won by a touch at the wall. They both went low 1:52's which was very respectable for 31 years ago. Murry won the 500 with a 5:09 time and that is very close to the 5:08 that Lance Armstrong did and they both were in the 40-44 age group.
I think Rose will go down in history as one of the great distance swimmers of all time with Hackett, Salnikov, and Perkins. We will never know what he could have accomplished at the 1964 Olympics but for 8 years he was practically as good as anyone in distance swimming. His contributions outside of swimming were even greater and I linked some stories about Murray so people can see the impact he had both inside and outside of the sport.