Gold Medal Lockdown

Former swimming superstar Rick DeMont has triumphed over an ordeal that could've crushed him

Rick DeMont has walked through the bonfire. The UA swim team's associate head coach has faced an agony that few elite athletes will ever know.

He wears his crucible well. When he's on the deck at Hillenbrand Pool, he's loose, easy-going. Shorts, sneakers, ball cap, shades. To swimmers drifting in for workouts, he's just Rick.

Didn't he, like, used to swim?

Dude, seriously ... do I look like a history major?

Do these young swimmers even know who you are?

"Not really." DeMont shrugs. "Maybe some have read the media guide, but that's about it."

They don't know you were an international swimming sensation? A teenage phenom?

He laughs. "I've coached kids who don't know who Mark Spitz was. What happened to me is light years away to them ... and that's all right with me."

But when you win an Olympic gold medal at 16, and have it snatched away for no good reason, and then those same people take away your chance at a second gold in your signature event, history is everything.

History collapses onto those moments and stops. Time stops.

It's always going to be the 20th Olympiad. Munich, Germany. It's always going to be early September 1972.

No one expects DeMont to win the 400-meter freestyle. It's not his race. His best event, the 1,500 free, is three days away.

But an athlete as good as DeMont, as loose as DeMont, is a dangerous cat.

Without bluster, matter of fact, he says, "Nobody wanted to race me."

His signature style is the negative split. It started in track and field. DeMont is the first to bring the technique into the pool. It means starting slow, then turning on the burners in the second half.

DeMont does that in the 400. At the end, he's gliding over the water, catching one opponent after another. He touches the wall just ahead of Brad Cooper of Australia.

The winning margin is the smallest possible--1/100th of a second.

DeMont collects his gold medal, then takes a urine test.

He's euphoric. "A month before at the Olympic Trials, I broke the world record in the 1,500, and I knew I could really knock it in the finals," says DeMont, now 52. "I went to bed that night thinking, this is going to be great."

Then comes a rap at his door in the Olympic Village. Team Manager Ken Treadway is there asking DeMont what medicine he's taking.

The answer is Marax. DeMont suffers from asthma and allergies.

His mom, Betty, says he began asthma treatments at age 4. He's been getting weekly allergy shots for years. None of that is secret.

While being processed in the United States, every athlete fills out a form declaring the medicines they're taking. Marax is among the medicines DeMont lists. His coaches fill out two more forms, and they list Marax, too.

DeMont takes it before the 400. Marax contains ephedrine. The substance is banned by the International Olympic Committee.

Treadway confiscates DeMont's Marax pills. They're not exactly hard to find. The bottle is standing on his night table, out in the open. "I didn't know anything in Marax was illegal," DeMont says.

Events begin to spiral. The young swimmer is hauled before the IOC Medical Commission. About 15 people from around the world sit at an oval-shaped table.

In accusatory tones, commissioners ask him to define asthma. They demand he act out an asthma attack.

DeMont has no lawyer at his side, no family, no coach. The only person with him is an American doctor.

"As an athlete, I can look into someone's eyes and see fear, and this guy was scared to death," DeMont says about the doctor. "I knew he wasn't going to help me. He was going to cover his ass. Standing in front of those people, I knew things weren't good anymore."

The grilling ends ambiguously. The 1,500 meter is set for that night.

"I left thinking, shoot, maybe I'll get to swim this thing," DeMont says. "Even if they screw me in the 400, at least I'll get the 1,500, because I hadn't taken any more medicine."

The race is moments from starting. DeMont is in the ready room, getting loose.

U.S. swim coach Don Gambril approaches, tears rolling down his cheeks. He blubbers out two words, "No go."

Much of what happens next is gone from DeMont's memory. But he recalls trying to get out to the pool, and guards blocking his way. They didn't fight hard, a good thing. "I would've gone berserk," he says.

Betty, in the stands, hears the announcer say DeMont isn't going to swim. She fears an asthma attack. "I was desperate to get to the pool and find answers," she says.

When Betty gets there, Gambril tells her Rick has done nothing wrong. But he can't swim. Life magazine captures the moment in a dramatic photo. It shows Betty, Rick and Gambril huddled poolside, shaken, distraught.

DeMont and his mom watch Mike Burton win the 1,500 free, breaking Rick's world record.

DeMont's brother Ken, 14, averts his eyes. He can't bear to watch the race. Betty sits in stunned silence.

"When that starter went off, and Rick wasn't in the water, I couldn't believe the world would let this happen," Betty says. "I wanted to run out there and shout, 'Stop! You can't swim this without Rick!' It broke my heart."

With the race over, reporters descend in a pack. Betty has been told not to say anything and brushes past them. She has to fetch her mother from the stands.

"Oh, my poor mother, she had no idea what was going on," says Betty.

The DeMonts exit the building to a waiting car. It turns into a perp walk. Reporters shout questions. Cameras click. Flashbulbs explode.

"It was like we were criminals," says Betty. "It was horrible."

Rick DeMont has been stripped of one gold medal and denied his shot at a second gold that he feels ... believes ... knows he can win.

In the space of days, his dreams are crushed, his character impugned.

The bonfire that will engulf his life has begun.

Thirty-six years later, DeMont sits poolside at Hillenbrand, watching his swimmers. When he reaches this point in the story, he pauses and lays a hand on his heart.

"A piece of me got lifted away that day," he says.

DeMont rises rapidly as a young swimmer in the Marin County community of Terra Linda, Calif.

His first coach is Ann Curtis, winner of two golds and a silver at the 1948 Olympics. She sees Rick's potential, tells Betty he has an amazing kick.

At 10, DeMont breaks a national record in the 200 free. At 13, he's picked to swim on a 400-meter relay team.

It's a big deal, Northern California all-stars versus Southern California all-stars. He trains hard and travels to Los Angeles. But at the last minute, the coach yanks him from the race, says he isn't fast enough.

"That really spurred him on," says Ken, Rick's brother and a coach at North Bay Aquatics Swimming in Marin County. "He started training like a madman."

But he battles allergies and asthma every step of the way. Betty makes sure his coach, Don Swartz, understands DeMont can't have contact with feathers or wool. "Anytime Rick went to a hotel," says Betty, "I'd tell Don, 'Make sure the pillows are out of there.'"

At 15, in 1971, DeMont attends his first Amateur Athletic Union nationals in Houston. He has a bad allergy attack.

Swartz calls Betty in the middle of the night asking what to do. Rick is scared. The big meet is the next day. Betty tells the coach to talk to him, calm him down. A team physician prescribes Marax, and DeMont takes it for the first time. If that doesn't work, Betty says, "Get him to the emergency room."

It works. He's able to swim, finishing 14th in the 1,500.

"From then on, he was like a supernova in his ascension in the ranks," says Ken.

Over 12 months, he goes from 14th-best in the country in the 1,500 to world-record holder, then Olympian.

At times in his youth, when Rick's attention strays from the pool, Betty always brings him back. He loves hiking and fishing, and he especially loves art and painting.

But no matter the distraction, Betty encourages him to get back into the water.

"Swimming was good for his asthma and allergies," she says. "When he swam, he was healthier. The water, the moist air, it's good for respiratory problems."

The day after his disqualification from the 1,500, the DeMont family heads back to the Olympic Village for a promised meeting with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

But everything is different. It's Sept. 5.

Tanks are rumbling through the village. Soldiers and police are scrambling this way and that. Hours earlier, at 4:30 a.m., Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli wrestling team.

It touches off an international crisis. Eleven Israeli athletes and coaches eventually will be murdered. The DeMonts realize that no meeting will take place. Rick can make no appeal.

His Olympics are over.

"If the Israeli-Palestinian thing hadn't happened, I might've gotten an objective look from the IOC," says DeMont. "But that was definitely a bigger issue."

He only wants one thing now: to get out of town.

Another gang of reporters descends as he tries to board a bus in the Olympic Village. His swimming teammates and other athletes hold them back.

"They were protecting me," DeMont says. "I was a mess. I wasn't talking."

With his parents on a different flight, he's alone again. He flies to JFK. Realizing reporters will be waiting at the San Francisco airport, DeMont doesn't board the flight on which he's booked and arranges to take a different one.

"He called and told me the flight he'd be on, and that his name wouldn't be on the manifest," says Don Swartz.

He arrives in San Francisco and steps from the plane unrecognized.

He's world-famous. He's anonymous. It's late at night. The kid and his coach hurry home in the dark, shattered.

The 20th Olympiad becomes known for the horrible Israeli massacre, for swimming teammate Mark Spitz winning seven golds.

The DeMont thing is a footnote. Maybe it'll fade before long. Maybe everybody will forget, and he can go back to being an ordinary kid.

Hardly. From now on, there'll be no such thing as ordinary for Rick DeMont.

Did the ephedrine in Marax boost DeMont across the finish line in the 400? Highly unlikely.

Ephedrine can act like an amphetamine and stimulate the nervous system, which explains the ban. But at the time, The New York Times reported that DeMont's urine "test proved positive 12 parts in a million--a trace one doctor here described as an infinitesimal amount."

In his book Introduction to Pharmacology, author Mannfred Hollinger runs some numbers on the DeMont case and says the ephedrine he took was equivalent to 10 milligrams of amphetamine.

Some studies have shown as much as 20 milligrams of amphetamine don't improve a swimmer's performance.

But here's the kicker, often overlooked: Even if DeMont gained some pharmacological effect from ephedrine, Hollinger writes that Marax also contains hydroxyzine--"which would have been expected to produce a sedative effect, thus operating in the opposite direction."

In fact, a warning on DeMont's Marax bottle cautioned against driving or operating dangerous machinery while taking the medicine, because it can cause drowsiness.

Swartz, also a coach at North Bay Aquatics, says the facts of what happened aren't in dispute. The U.S. Olympic staff asked for and got a list of the medicines DeMont was taking. The swimmer and his coaches assumed the medical staff would examine the forms to make sure the medicine complied with IOC rules.

If not, they'd inform the IOC of the situation. They'd find a fix.

"It turned out to be a dangerous assumption," says Swartz, his voice shaking with emotion more than three decades later. "They either didn't look at the information, or looked at it and ignored it. The result was a travesty that's not reparable."

But DeMont isn't done. He wants vindication.

He gets his chance the following year, August 1973, at the World Aquatics Championships in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. He faces many of the same swimmers, including Brad Cooper in the 400-meter free.

Instead of Marax, DeMont is taking another medicine that doesn't contain ephedrine. If he wins here, no one can say ephedrine gave him the edge in Munich.

Not only does DeMont beat Cooper; he becomes the first man in history to swim the 400 in less than 4 minutes. His time is 3:58:18.

In the 1,500, DeMont finishes second to Stephen Holland of Australia. DeMont lets him get out to a big lead, but this time, the negative split doesn't work. He can't catch up. Holland shatters the world record.

But DeMont beats his own best time by 18 seconds.

Swartz recalls DeMont's training regimen prior to Belgrade, the fury of it.

"It was the first time I'd seen anyone throw up in the swimming pool and keep swimming," he says. "What he did in 1973 is the real story of Rick DeMont."

"It was sheer willpower," says DeMont. "I had something to prove."

Swimming World Magazine names him Swimmer of the Year for 1973.

Oh, yes. That little matter of the gold medal?

Here's a twist no screenwriter would dare invent.

The night of the 400-meter race, DeMont sleeps with the medal around his neck, and when he leaves Munich, he still has it in his suitcase.

"I didn't want to give it back," he says. "It was mine."

At home in Terra Linda, it stays in a box on the TV, a beauty, a wonder and a horror at the same time.

"It wasn't something any of us really looked at," says Ken. "It had a kind of aura around it. It just sat there like things do in houses."

In June 1973, DeMont prepares for the Santa Clara Invitational swim meet. A TV crew--as Swartz recalls, they were from ABC's Wide World of Sports--comes to the house to film a pre-race interview.

They ask DeMont about winning the gold, then having it taken away, the disappointment. He says, "You know, I still have the medal."

They ask to see it. He shows it. The camera is running.

When the interview airs, someone with the USOC sees it and realizes DeMont still has the medal that was supposed to have been stripped away. The following month, the USOC's president sends DeMont a letter saying, "I am now advising you that it is absolutely necessary that medal be returned."

What choice does DeMont have? He still wants to swim in international events. His father stuffs the medal into an envelope and sends it back.

Swartz laughs and says, "If Rick had kept his mouth shut, he'd still have the medal."

But it makes little difference to DeMont. "I was bent out of shape with the medal, and I was going to be bent without it," he says.

But everything is different now. DeMont's a changed person.

"I saw too much of how power works, more than a guy my age needs to see or deal with," DeMont says. "Before Munich, everything I did in swimming was out of love for the sport. After that, everything I did in swimming was out of hate. I was running on a whole lot of anger."

The DeMont family tries to return to normal life. They want to erase Munich from their memories. They never talk about it.

"We didn't have to talk about it," says Ken. "It was a train wreck."

"We all went into our own little cave," says Betty.

Rick's cave is a deep and dark place. "I headed off into a whole different territory," he says. "Self-destructive, drinking, all of it. I think I went into some kind of posttraumatic stress disorder. Mostly, it was depression. I should've been seeing a therapist, but back then, you just didn't do that."

He shuts up about it and tries to move on, as the bonfire roars. DeMont comes perilously close to letting it consume him.

"For three or four years, I was a walking dead man," he says. "I realized there was nothing I could do to beat this rap. I was always going to be gold-medal-loser boy."

A different man would've vanished behind the flames, gone to ashes. But DeMont finds his way back through coaching.

At 18, he starts giving lessons to little kids in backyard pools and swim clubs in California.

It helps him rediscover his love for the sport. He swims for two years at the University of Washington, his final two years at Arizona. He's a four-year All-American.

After graduating in 1979, he spends summers coaching in Northern California and winters living at the Rancho Linda Vista art colony in Oracle, north of Tucson.

He indulges his lifelong love of painting, and this, too, has a healing effect.

He goes out of his way--sometimes actually sneaking out back doors--not to talk about what everybody else wants to talk about.

"I tried to stay invisible," says DeMont. "If I talk about what happened, people just don't believe me. You couldn't make up this story."

But hiding from Munich doesn't work. The events keep echoing.

Competing coaches whisper about him. One actually approaches Swartz on the pool deck and says flat-out, "Rick's a doper."

In 1996, DeMont's 11-year-old daughter, Angela, comes home from school in tears. Someone at school has called her dad a drug cheat.

"This thing came down on a lot of people," DeMont says. "I had to stand up for the name, for my family."

He wants to change the "cheater" perception once and forever. He launches a bruising legal battle that spans 12 years.

He succeeds, in a way. He spends every extra dime he has in legal fees, and in 2001, the U.S. Olympic Committee issues a statement acknowledging they mishandled his medical information.

Without apology and 29 years later, they state publicly, for the world to hear, that what happened in Munich wasn't his fault, and that Rick DeMont is not a cheater.

And his medal?

He assumes the USOC sent it to IOC headquarters near Lausanne, Switzerland, and it remains there, locked away in a vault. Few who follow Olympic matters believe the IOC--often described as impenetrable, political, Byzantine--will relent and send the medal back to DeMont.

Except DeMont himself. He firmly believes he'll get it back some day.

"I don't know why I believe that," he says. "It might be after I'm dead, but I really believe it's going to happen. It'll probably be one of my kids who gets to wear it."

It's a Friday night in October. The UA's Gallagher Theater is hosting a showing of a recently released documentary, Negative Split: The Rick DeMont Story.

Producer/director Doug Follmer, a 2004 UA grad and one of DeMont's former swimmers, pushes for years to get it made, on a $30,000 shoestring.

It wins Best Social Documentary at the 2008 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival (in their Los Angeles July 2008 Awards).

"This story needed to be told," says Follmer, a media arts/fine arts major at Arizona. "I first heard about what happened to Rick as a sophomore in 2001, and knew right away I wanted to put it on film. Everybody can relate to a young guy battling a disease and having other obstacles put in his way." The movie is something good to come from Munich. There have been other good things.

Former UA swimmer Crissy Perham wins an Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992. She thinks so much of DeMont, her former coach, she gives him her gold medal, telling him to keep it until he gets his own.

"I wanted him to know the depths of my gratitude," Perham says. "In spite of his experience, he always made us feel the Olympics were the absolute best thing that could happen to you. I only gave him what he deserved."

Only those who know the effort it takes to win an Olympic gold--the pure, grinding, soul-testing work--understand what it means to give it away.

Swimmer Steve Clark, winner of three golds in 1964, makes the same offer.

No testimonial could be more powerful, more meaningful.

DeMont arrives at the Gallagher to a waiting crowd. Friends, family, swimmers.

Former UA coach Bob Davis is there. DeMont credits him with helping revive his love of swimming. Brother Ken has come in from California.

Smiles and handshakes all around. The hugs go on a long time. Life has never been better.

UA head swim coach Frank Busch is there, too. His team, with DeMont on the coaching staff, this year won both the men's and women's NCAA championships.

DeMont has developed an international reputation as a freestyle coach. He's been to the last two Olympics as a coach for the South African men's swim team, in Beijing this year as head coach.

He's also developed a reputation as a fine landscape painter. Right now, his work--dense, highly compacted, almost abstract Sonoran Desert scenes--is on display at the Eric Firestone Gallery downtown.

The show, which includes paintings by Douglas Denniston, has been a hit. It runs through Nov. 29.

He and wife, Carrie, have two young daughters: Tierra, 3, and Jordan, 6 months.

The couple has broken ground on a swim school they plan to open in Tucson, at the corner of Ina and Shannon roads, probably next year.

And when Negative Split ends, the Gallagher Theater crowd stands in spontaneous applause. They're cheering DeMont's character, his guts at what he's endured, the pure inspiration of his story.

But they're also saying--we know you won it, Rick. We know you're an Olympic champion.

DeMont doesn't seem to know how to react. He's wearing a flowered beach shirt and jeans. Think Magnum, P.I. But the hair is thinning in front.

Slowly, awkwardly, he stands to accept the cheers. He smiles, waves.

"I ... I was overwhelmed," he says later. "I was humbled."

It looks as if history can resume again. It looks as if Munich is over. But DeMont knows Munich will never be over, not completely. The story will follow him to the end.

Eight years ago, The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia, as part of its coverage of the 2000 Olympics, publishes a list of the Top 10 Olympic drug cheats.

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson is No. 1. No. 2 is Rick DeMont.

At home after the movie, wife Carrie asks him what it's like to see himself onscreen.

"He said it's really hard," says Carrie. "Rick doesn't have a smidgen of victim in him, but every time it comes up, the pain comes back again. But you know, he wouldn't be the amazing artist he is if he hadn't had that experience."

"Rick might look laid back," says Ken. "But he's one tough guy. Inside, he burns bright."

The bonfire.