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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Roy Saari

Roy Saari, one of the legendary names in swimming history, died on December 30th at age 63. He was a two time world record holder in the 1500 meter freestyle, Olympic silver medalist in 1964 in the 400 meter individual medley, and nine time NCAA champion.

The cause of death was a massive coronary. Whenever someone like this dies of a heart-related ailment, especially at a relatively young age, it's a little surprising. You'd think that a heart strong enough to power Saari to such a glorious swimming career would not give out at 63.

It's possible that in the last forty years he took up smoking, or drinking, or sucked down a pint of Haagen Dasz every other night. But judging from the older picture of him (with his wife), and the obituary (he was a developer, city planner, and realtor, and had two children) his vices were probably relatively minor. It's also possible he hadn't done any exercise in forty years.

I was slightly surprised when I saw these pictures of him for the first time. Whenever I read about a world record holder, I always expect someone who looks like a young Dolph Lundgren, so am usually surprised to see someone who looks more, well, human. In the left hand picture Saari looks like Lundgren's somewhat wimpy 16-year-old brother. The older Saari looked like planner.

This is no knock on Saari. There's no questioning the toughness of anyone with his credentials in the distance events. It's a knock on my stupid expectations.

In any case, it's surprising that he would go down from a heart attack. When I mentioned this to a friend, he suggested that it was almost as if some of these guys who were so vital when young just burned through their lives more quickly. Maybe there's something to that. When you burn the candle at both ends (I only recently figured out that phrase referred to both ends of the night, I had always pictured a candle with a wick at each end) you're certainly going to use up your life more quickly. Then again, when Saari was in training, he probably led a healthy lifestyle.

There do seem to be a fair number of people who die while exercising. Whenever I hear of someone who dies from a heart attack after three sets of tennis, or who dies while running (every major marathon seems to claim at least one victim), I wonder how much longer they would have lived had they not exercised so strenuously. Think of Marlon Brando, who spent his last twenty years north of three hundred pounds, yet lived to eighty. It's a pretty good bet he didn't spend his spare time on a Stairmaster. And who knows, maybe he lived the longer for it.

I've known a fair number of physically fit people who died young, and a fair number of degenerates who've stuck around surprisingly long.

Maybe we all have our built in expiration dates and there's just not a lot we can do about it.

And maybe we should admit to ourselves that we exercise for sanity and vanity rather than for longevity.


Anonymous said...


There is a valid reason for putting your head between your legs if a plane is about to crash. The reason is, so you can kiss your ass goodbye!


Connor said...

Probably the greatest swimmer that the southern California area ever produced, as well as a genuinely nice and pleasant person. Was still physically active, so his death is a real surprise, especially since he had had a physical not too long ago.

John Craig said...

Connor -- Gary Hall (Sr.), Brian Goodell, and Tim Shaw might dispute that title, but certainly no one would dispute Saari's greatness. Sounds like you knew him personally, it's good to hear he was a nice guy as well.