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An alternate history story about the 1940 Helsinki Olympic Games that never happened due to World War II.
The men readied themselves in their lanes. They were the fastest men in the world having proved it through several preliminary heats. Most of the racers here had been in the Olympic finals four years before. The favorite in this race won the 100 meters in the last Olympics and was attempting to be the first man to repeat winning both the 100 meter and 200 meter races in consecutive Olympics. Flashes from cameras glittered in the stands as the men took their marks. The black skin of the favorite twitched as his muscles grew taut. At the sound of the gun the men sprang from their stances at a full run. The favorite pulled ahead of the others just past the half way mark. He burst chest first through the ribbon in a world record time. Jesse Owens won his first gold medal of the 1940 Helsinki Olympics Games. His teammate Barney Ewell garnered the silver medal while Tinus Osendorp of the Netherlands earned the bronze medal. The new world record was 10.2 seconds. The crowd in the New Helsinki Olympic Stadium rose to their feet and cheered Owens and his new record. Owens was just one race away from becoming the first sprinter to win both the 100 meter and 200 meter races in consecutive Olympics. Fourth place German runner, Erich Burchmeyer, came over to shake Jesse's hand and pat him on the back.
The Games of the XII Olympiad were held in Helsinki, Finland from July 20 to August 4, 1940. Tokyo, Japan was the original site of the 1940 Olympics. After Japan invaded China in 1937 the International Olympic Committee started discussions about stripping Tokyo of the games. Despite a full budget and starting work on facilities, Japan decided to give up the games in July of 1938. Helsinki, the runner up to Tokyo in voting, was then awarded the 1940 Olympics. The Olympic torch relay traveled from Berlin to Helsinki where Finnish President Kyosti Kallio carried it and used it to light the Olympic flame in the New Helsinki Olympic Stadium.
Members of the American track and field team ate their meals together. Besides Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe, Glenn Cunningham, Mack Robinson, and Louis Zamperini competed in the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. Joining them in Helsinki were Mack's younger brother and long jumper from UCLA, Jackie Robinson. Also on the team were Myron Piker from Northwestern, Alan Smith from Michigan, Barney Ewell of Penn, and John Munski from Missouri. At their table also sat three American journalists. Those new to the Olympics listened as Owens told of embarrassing Hitler and his master race theory. Zamperini spoke up to mention he met Hitler after the 5000 meter race. Although he finished in eighth place, Zamperini's final lap of fifty-six seconds caught Hitler's attention. Zamperini was competing in the mile this Olympics. The whole table of athletes and journalists laughed aloud when Zamperini told of how he climbed a flagpole to steal Hitler's personal flag.
"I still have it in a box in my cellar!" He shouted.
When the laughter died down a journalist spoke up. "I was in Munich when Hitler was assassinated. Saw it with my own eyes. I even helped catch the guy who did it."
The mood of the people at the table grew somber as the journalist told his story.
The marching music grew louder as the parade grew closer to the media and VIP reviewing stand. Theology student Maurice Bavaud waited, nervously patting the little Schmeisser pistol in his jacket pocket. He came to Munich to save humanity from what he thought was an anti-Christian evil. Bavaud left Switzerland on his mission two months before. He followed his target around Germany, waiting for the right moment to strike. He had no set plan. The twenty-five year old bought his pistol in Basel, Switzerland. He practiced firing his pistol a couple of times in the countryside, but did not know when he would use it on his target.
The Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 brought the National Socialist Party fame and notoriety. Fifteen years later the leaders of that revolt led Germany and led the parade on the streets of Munich celebrating the November ninth event. Adolf Hitler walked front and center wearing a military uniform and giving the Nazi salute to both sides of the crowded parade route. On Hitler's right was the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering. Goering had been wounded on that day fifteen years before. His face was sweating in the cool November air as he kept his overweight body paced with Hitler's step. Ulrich Graf, at Hitler's left, had also been wounded protecting Hitler with his own body in the failed uprising. Graf was once Hitler's body guard, but now had a seat in the Reichstag. Also in the front row walked Doctor Freidrich Weber, a Nazi figurehead and a veterinarian. Just behind the front row, also in uniform, were Professor Johannes Heinrich Schultz and Alfred Rosenberg. Schultz taught and practiced psychiatry while Rosenberg was a racial theorist who spouted master race propaganda and called for the persecution of Jews. Behind these men were other heroes of the putsch and a military marching band. Hitler's chest puffed up as the parade neared the reviewing stand.
In the previous two months there had been several near misses where either Bavaud lost his nerve or Hitler failed to be where he was supposed to be. Bavaud was again nervous and having second thoughts. This would be his last chance to kill God's enemy. He was out of money and would have to go back to Switzerland a failure. The last reichsmarks Bavaud carried were used to buy a ticket to the reviewing stand. To get closer to the street, he posed as a Swiss reporter. Now, the would-be assassin stood just three rows back as Hitler's and his henchmen neared.
The crowd around Bavaud cheered and raised their right arms in salute as Hitler reached the reviewing stand. Maurice Bavaud swallowed hard and said a silent prayer as he discreetly pulled the Schmeisser from his pocket. At first he gently tried to ease past the people in front of him, but they were too excited to see their Fuhrer. In desperation Bavaud shoved his way past the two rows blocking his way and stepped out on to the street. No one saw the small pistol in the assassin's hand until he raised it and fired two quick shots. The bullets found their mark, hitting Hitler in his left chest and his neck. A blood-splashed Graf reacted by trying to use his body to block any further shots at his friend and leader. Bavaud's third shot hit Graf under his left arm between two ribs and into his lung. By now people in the crowd were screaming and fleeing the gunfire. Those in the parade also tried to escape the assassin. Stepping closer to his targets Bavaud turned his gun on the atheist Rosenberg. Two more shots echoed off the buildings lining the parade route. One bullet hit Rosenberg in the chest while the other missed the target, shattering a window across the street. The last two bullets from the Schmeisser killed Hermann Goering. Goering had fallen in the panic, dying where he lay crumpled on the street with wounds in his back and his temple. Without thinking, Bavaud tried firing his empty weapon twice more before placing it back in his pocket. Before he could escape Bavaud was tackled by Doctor Weber and an American journalist who had been in the reviewing stand.
Within minutes the panic subsided. The Munich police secured the area near the reviewing stand. Bavaud was rushed away before the upset crowd could harm him. Several uniformed men surrounded the dying Graf while a man kneeled to tend his wound. Other military men guarded the bodies of Hitler, Goering, and Rosenberg. A few of the men had visible tears on their faces.
Across town Josef Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler were meeting to discuss the response to the assassination of German diplomat Ernst von Rath in Paris. Because von Rath was killed by a young Jewish man, Goebbels wanted to punish all German Jews with an orgy of violence and destruction throughout Germany. Himmler wanted a more measured response that would not upset the world community. The men would meet with Hitler that afternoon to make a final decision. Nazi party members in Vienna and in cities across Germany were told to prepare for the violence, but to wait for a final order to act.
A young SS officer rushed into the room without knocking, interrupting Goebbels' and Himmler's heated debate. Not waiting to be acknowledged the young officer reported that he just received a phone call from Doctor Weber. The Fuhrer was dead. The men's faces turned pale, each one thinking about the implications of the report. The young officer quickly added that he was told Goering and Rosenberg were also killed and Graf was near death. The men no longer thought about the anti-Jewish riots and instead each began to plot how they would gather their allies to take control of Germany to become the next Fuhrer. Both men stood, gathered their papers and briefcases, and left for their respective offices.
By early afternoon the news of Hitler's assassination spread across Germany and had been cabled to Paris, London, New York, and Washington D.C. Wehrmacht generals communicated in a flurry of phone calls. Admirals Doenitz and Raeder were contacted. The consensus among Germany's military leadership was that no one wanted that chicken farmer Himmler or that crippled bastard Goebbels giving them orders. They may have followed Goering, but he lay dead next to the Fuhrer. The German military moved faster than either Himmler or Goebbels to seize power. Within hours of Hitler's assassination the SS leadership were arrested and the Reichstag in Berlin surrounded by Panzers. Rudolf Hess immediately swore allegiance to the military. Goebbels died resisting arrest in Munich. Himmler committed suicide when he learned of the mass arrest of the SS. Reinhard Heydrich attempted to flee to Italy in a plane he piloted, but the Luftwaffe shot his plane down just before the Alps.
The anti-Jewish riots scheduled for the night of November ninth never occurred. Most of the SS leadership was under arrest. The German military focused on defending Germany's borders against Communism rather than expanding the borders. Eight months after Hitler's assassination Germany held new elections for the Reichstag. The National Socialists won more seats than the other parties, but not enough to form a government. Europe settled into a détente content to influence distant colonies in Africa and Asia.
In Helsinki Olympic Stadium Americans Louis Zamperini, John Munski, and Glenn Cunningham lined up for the final of the one mile race. In 1938 Zamperini set the college mile record and earned the nickname The Torrance Tornado. Also competing in the race were milers Jack Lovelock from New Zealand, Luigi Beccali of Italy, Phil Edwards of Canada, Gunder Hagg of Sweden, and Jerry Cornes representing Great Britain. The men stood in their starting stances waiting for the starting gun. Each runner reviewed their race strategies in their heads. Just after the starting gun fired Zamperini raced to the front of the pack, running in the second lane. Just behind him on his right was Hagg. Edwards nipped at Zamperini's heels, while Cunningham tried to sneak up in the first lane. The runners stayed closely packed through the first two laps with little change in position. In the third lap both Edwards and Cornes tried to make their move to gain the lead. Zamperini just increased his pace and slowly increased his lead. His long legs moved in long, graceful strides. The crowd came to life on the last lap as they looked at the official time and realized history could be made. The runners were strung out on the track. Zamperini had a clear lead. The race became a struggle for silver and bronze among Hagg, Cunningham, and Cornes. The three runners jostled for position on the last lap, running at a dead heat. Coming out of the last turn Zamperini put on a burst of speed. He crossed the finish line followed seconds later by Hagg of Sweden for silver and then American Cunningham for bronze. When he looked at the official time Zamperini could not believe it. He wiped the sweat from his face and looked again. The official time was 3:59:7. Zamperini dropped to his knees and raised his arms straight above his head in triumph. The other runners all came over to congratulate him by patting him on his shoulders and saying good job in their various languages. History would record Louis Zamperini as the first man to run an under four minute mile. The photograph of the kneeling, triumphant, twenty-three year old runner would grace the front pages of newspapers around the world. Torrance, California would celebrate Louis Zamperini Day every year on July 24; the day Zamperini broke the four minute mile mark at the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
The tall, blond German trotted up to Jesse Owens as he stretched and prepared for his first try at the long jump. Owens smiled and shook the German's hand. The men knew each other from the Berlin Olympics. Lutz Long gave advice that helped Owens make the long jump finals where he beat Long for the gold medal. They made small talk while watching Italian Arturo Maffei make his first jump. Owens and Long made their jumps qualifying for the final of five rounds, as did American Jackie Robinson. The long jump was Jesse Owens' second of four events. Along with hoping to be the first to win gold in the 100 meter and 200 meter events in consecutive Olympics, he was trying to repeat winning four gold medals in track and field. Seven long jumpers made it to the final round. The United States was represented by Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. Germany also had two competitors in the finals, Lutz Long and Wilhelm Leichum. The rest of the field was Naoto Tajima of Japan, Arturo Maffei of Italy, and Robert Paul representing France. Every jumper had passed the mark of 7.96 meters to reach the finals. The competitor with the longest jump in the finals after the last of three attempts earned the gold medal.
After the first jumps Naoto Tajima was in the lead followed by Jackie Robinson and Lutz Long. Jesse Owens trailed the field with no score due to a disputed foot fault. Before his second jump Owens set his marks beside the track. He set them up just a few inches back from his first jump just to make sure he did not foot fault again. This was a technique Lutz Long taught him at the Berlin Olympics. Sprinting down the track Owens took his last two steps perfectly and completed a jump that put him in the lead. Shaking the sand from his uniform, he smiled when his distance was posted. His 8.08 meters was a new Olympic record. The top three after two jumps were Owens, Robinson, and Long. On the last jump Robert Paul of France took the lead with an 8.10 meter jump. America's hope was with the last jumps of Owens and Robinson, the last two competitors to jump. Owens calmly stepped on the track for his last jump. He took off down the track and flew through the air. Sand flew as he landed 8.11 meters from the take-off mark. He was now in the lead with only Jackie Robinson left to go. Robinson placed his markers beside the track and walked back to the starting line. Jesse Owens walked beside him giving him encouragement and advice. A confident Jackie Robinson smiled and then took a deep breath before he raced down the track. With a final burst of energy Robinson leaped forward. After the landing Jesse Owens saw he would only win a silver medal for the long jump. Tying Owens' world record, Jackie Robinson's jump reached 8.13 meters. Jesse Owens trotted over to Robinson to congratulate his teammate. The men hugged briefly then raised their arms in triumph facing the stadium crowd. Jesse Owens would not repeat his 1936 feat of winning four gold medals in track and field, but he was proud of his teammate's victory.
Owens had little time to enjoy his silver medal. He was the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 meter race. The leadoff runner for the Americans was Myron Pike. Next, was a veteran of the Berlin games, Ralph Metcalfe. Silver medalist in the 100 meter earlier in this Olympics, Barney Ewell, would run third in the relay. As the men practiced their handoffs in the infield the Italian and German teams did the same. Erich Borchmeyer, Erwin Gillmeister, Wilhelm Leichum, and anchor Gerd Hornberger made up the swift German relay team. It was an unchanged line-up from the 1936 Olympic race. The other threat to an American gold medal chance was the Italian team of Orazio Mariani, Carlo Monti, Tullio Gornelli, and Gianni Caldana. Despite the fierce competition, the athletes spoke to each other and shared encouraging words.
The starter called the runners to the track. The men took their spot throughout the track in their proper lanes. The lead-off runners prepared themselves in their staggered positions on the track.
"On your mark. Set." The starting gun fired and as the runners began to sprint it was quickly fired again. The French runner had a false start. The starting runners trotted back to their blocks. The French runner knew that if he false started again his team would be disqualified. The runners again prepared themselves for the start. This time the starting gun fired just once. Every team made their first handoff clean The Italians had a small lead at the handoff, but the Americans were close behind.
Ralph Metcalfe's handoff to Barney Ewell came before the Italian handoff. By the time Jesse Owens received the baton from Ewell the Americans had a clear lead. Owens sprinted to the finish line, crossing in the Olympic record time of 39.7 seconds. Three tenths of a second later Gianni Caldona of Italy crossed the line for the silver, followed just one tenth of a second later by German Gerd Hornberger for bronze. Piker, Metcalfe, and Ewell ran to Jesse Owens and swarmed him with hugs. His teammates lifted Owens up on their shoulders as they slowly paraded past the grandstand filled with cheering spectators.
The 200 meter final was scheduled for the day after the 4 x 100 meter race. The night after his 4 x 100 meter gold medal win, Jesse Owens slept easily. He was confident in his ability to win. Three Americans made the 200 meter finals. Besides Owens, Alan Smith and Mack Robinson also made it through the preliminary heats to the final race. Dutch sprinter Tinus Osendorp, Paul Hanni of Switzerland, and Lee Orr of Canada also sped into the 200 meter final. Owens was in the second lane. To his left-front was Osendorp while Smith had lane three to Owens' back left. Hanni, Robinson, and Orr prepared in lanes four, five, and six respectively. Owens was calm, his mind only thinking of his technique and strategy. The other runners ran in place and shook out their arms and legs to loosen up. The small talk ended and they focused on the race. When the starter told the runners to take their mark Owens did not think about making history. He knew he just wanted to win. At the gun Owens was fastest out of the blocks. The racers turned the corner with Osendorp and Robinson at Owens' heels. Never letting up, Owens crossed the finish line with a world record time of 20.4 seconds. Osendorp, the silver medalist, congratulated Owens on his win and on being the first runner to win the 100 meter and 200 meter race in consecutive Olympic Games. Mack Robinson earned the bronze medal for the United States. Reporters and photographers surrounded Jesse Owens as he walked off an Olympic track to the last time. Headlines across the United States highlighted Owens as an American hero. Owens and the rest of the American track and field team would be guests at the White House upon their return from Europe.
The 1940 Helsinki Olympics was just the start of the great lives Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson would lead. The gold medal he earned for the long jump allowed Jackie Robinson the opportunity to finish school at UCLA and earn his degree. Both men would serve in the military as officers during the Great Pacific War against Japan keeping them out of the 1944 Rome Olympics. Jesse Owens served in the Army as did Robinson. Owens' bravery at the Battle of Manila in 1944 earned him the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. Robinson stood up for civil rights while training in the South. After the war Robinson took up professional baseball, first playing in the Negro Leagues. He became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball after he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. Owens after the war became a public relations representative for Ford and Atlantic Richfield. He also organized the National Organization of Wounded Negro Veterans and was director of the Chicago Boys Club. Both men were outspoken about civil rights, speaking to church groups, colleges, and testifying before Congress. In 1957, President Chester W. Nimitz signed a Civil Rights Bill into law and used the National Guard to enforce it. After his baseball career ended, Robinson became and announcer for ABC Sports. He died in 1972 of a heart attack brought about by heart disease and diabetes. Robinson was posthumously given the Medal of Freedom in 1973 by President Robert Kennedy. Jesse Owens would also earn a Medal of Freedom. His came in 1976, just four years before his death from lung cancer in 1980.
On May 14, 1941 with little fanfare and no official press release, Maurice Bavaud was executed by guillotine at Ploetzensee Prison in Germany. He died believing he had saved the world from a great, destructive evil.