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Friday, December 10, 2010

Tim McKee

Tim McKee (above) is most famous for having lost the gold medal in the 400 meter individual medley by two-thousandths of a second to Gunnar Larson of Sweden at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. After that race the IOC decided that henceforth all races would only be judged to the hundredth of a second. McKee also won the silver medal in the 200 IM at those Olympics. Four years later in Montreal McKee broke the existing world record in the 400 IM but had to settle for yet another silver.

I got to see McKee perform in person once, at the 1972 National AAU championships in Dallas. Back then, US Nationals were, apart from the Olympics, the biggest meet in swimming (the world championships didn't exist yet). Mark Spitz, who four months later would win seven gold medals in Munich, was there, as was every other American record holder of the time. A national title could be the culmination of an entire career, so everyone's nerves were on edge. 

McKee seemed to regard nationals differently -- he saw it as a big party. During warmups for finals he would do a clownish backstroke where after each stroke he would playfully pat the water at his side. (I tried imitating it later, but found it impossible.) Even when the swimmers marched out for finals, towels over their heads, McKee would play to the crowd, joking and waving. I was shocked to see he actually competed in the finals wearing a puka shell necklace.

McKee was basically David Lee Roth before Roth was. There are very few people who can pull off that kind of macho hotdogging while managing to stay cute and funny, and do it all with an undertone of self-mockery that allows them to get away with it. And McKee did it all fearlessly, on a stage where most people would be way too nervous to exhibit such uninhibited glee. Both McKee and Roth were fearless, muscular, acrobatic, and funny -- what every boy wants to be. 

Usain Bolt pulls it off. I've seen various boxers, most notably Jorge Paez, pull it off. But the vast majority of us would simply be way too nervous, klutzy, and inhibited to be able to do it.

A college teammate of mine once joked to me that when he would be at various AAU meets, he would lay down on a mat, ingest a little honey exactly a half hour before his races, try to stay warm, and get up to shake his muscles loose right before his event. Meanwhile he would see McKee and his Suburban Swim Club teammates running around like a pack of feral animals. They never bothered to put on their sweats, and would take turns putting their fists six inches from each other's arms, and then punching as hard as they could. They evidently found this a never-ending source of entertainment.

One of my coaches told me that when McKee was at the Pan American Games in Colombia in the summer of 1971, he led an expedition of swimmers into the seediest section of Cali to find a whorehouse. He was 17 years old at the time.

The Olympic training camp in 1972 was located at West Point. Word filtered back to the coaches that McKee smoked, so one of them took him aside and suggested he lay off the cigarettes. McKee looked the coach straight in the eye and said, "Oh no sir, I would never smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes are bad for you." Meanwhile, the coach couldn't help but notice the nicotine stains on McKee's fingers.

One day McKee started to climb the 10 meter diving platform at the pool. This was strictly off limits to anyone but the divers, so the Army guards told McKee to come down. McKee just ignored them and continued to climb, so the guards started to go up after him. McKee got to the top, and looked at the men coming after him. He waited until they were almost at the top, and then did a perfect one and a half somersault dive into the pool. (If you've never been to the top of a ten meter dive, it's thirty-three feet up but looks as if it's three hundred and thirty feet down.)

One of my college coaches had been a teammate of McKee's at the University of Florida. This coach told us that McKee trained hard, but would also party all night, every night. Every morning as the other Florida swimmers trudged down the corridor of their athletic dormitory for morning practice, they would see McKee poke his head out of his dorm room, usher a couple of girls out, and then join them. After practice, when the other swimmers would go to class, McKee would just go back to his dorm room and sleep all day until it was time for afternoon practice. 

At the time, I thought McKee the coolest thing I'd ever heard of. Looking back three and a half decades later, with the wisdom and (theoretical) maturity of my years.....he still seems awfully cool.

In 1971 A Clockwork Orange was released. It made Malcolm McDowell, who played Alex, the antihero of the movie, famous. Alex was bad, but in such a gleefully exuberant way that he made a certain brand of naughtiness -- or evil, if you prefer -- attractive. (And yes, I realize I'm describing the charm of a sociopath.)

Tim McKee was Alex come to life (minus, perhaps, the viciousness).

The "perhaps" is because the kind of unbridled confidence it takes to pull off such an act usually goes hand in hand with a narcissistic personality, and maybe even a sociopathic one. I never met McKee (he was about eight levels above me in swimming), and it's entirely possible that he was a difficult personality. On the other hand, I knew a fair number of people who had met him, and none of them ever expressed dislike. (Most simply expressed amusement, or more frequently, awe, at his antics.) So he gets the benefit of the doubt.

Last summer McKee was one of the swimming celebrities who took part in the Swim Across America (a cancer fund raiser), and I saw a picture of him. It's always a shock to see how anybody has aged after a long period of time. But somehow it's more of a shock to see someone who was immortalized at a young age, someone famous for having been a wild young man. (He is second from left, below.)

He was quoted recently, when asked about his near miss in Munich, as having replied, "You waste the present and the future when you dwell in the past."

No one could ever accuse McKee of having lived anywhere but in the present.

Addendum, 12/25/10 -- Just spoke to the aforementioned college teammate of mine who had described McKee running around like a feral animal at those AAU meets. My friend, who was a great swimmer in his own right, had gone on a foreign trip representing the US in Sweden with McKee in early 1976. He told me that McKee won both the 200 and 400 IM's at that meet -- without having even warmed up. I was a little incredulous at this. I asked, what do you mean he didn't warm up -- you mean he just took a short swim beforehand? My friend said, no, he literally never even got into the water before his events. He just stood on deck and shook his arms a little, then raced. (This is unheard of in swimming.)

My friend also said that all of the guys on the US team tried to get the attention of the Swedish girls at the meet, but that the girls only wanted to pay attention to McKee. My friend said he had heard a lot of McKee stories before this, but had never really believed any of them. After that trip, he believed all of them.


Anonymous said...

Perfect comparison to David Lee Roth. In my next life I want to come back as McKee-like to balance out the overly conscientious, boring life I'm living. I bet the young McKee got a lot of girls, too...not to strike too chauvinist a note, he wrote conscientiously.

John Craig said...

Anonymous --
You missed the part where, according to my coach (his former teammate), he "ushered a couple of girls out" of his dorm room every morning before practice.

Not that I would want to strike a chauvinistic note.

Pete said...

I went to Malvern Prep High School with Tim and swam with him on the High School team a little. His swimming style seemed effortless. But I am sure he trained hard. Always the fun loving class clown type and always the first to thumb his nose at the establishment. He was a natural born swimmer and if he were born a little taller perhaps, he could have been one of the truly great ones.

John Craig said...

Pete --
I understand what you're saying, he wasn't Spitz or Phelps, but in my book, two individual Olympic silvers makes you great.

I agree about the height. Swimming ought to be done by height classes the way boxing and wrestling are done by weight classes. For the 5'8" McKee to lose to the 6' 2" Larsson or the 6' 3" Strachan was sort of equivalent to Sugar Ray Leonard being beaten by Muhammad Ali.

In the end, as far as I'm concerned, his personality made him greater than those others anyway.

Unknown said...

Very interesting article and I believe captures the essence of my brother Tim's personality. He has matured but still maintains a youthful outlook on life!
Tim is a unique character and a one of a kind individual.
In the pool, I do not believe there was ever a tougher athlete mentally. The bigger the race the tougher the competition the faster he swam...every time! Most of Tim's greatest races were in Olympic competition, clearly the world's grand stage for swimmers.
Three silver medals in Olympic competition is an awesome achievement! Especially for the 5'8" perpetual underdog from Newtown Square and Suburban Swim Club. He was never the favorite to win, except in his own mind!
In regard to the 400IM in the Munich Olympics in 1972 Tim was flat out robbed of his justly earned Gold Medal. There is some excellent clear footage of that historic race that stirred international interest and controversy at To the naked eye you would swear Tim won that race every time you watch it (I saw it for the first time this week). For the German meet officials to not rule that race a tie and award Two Gold medals is one of the greatest injustices in Olympic competition history. The IOC ruled two years later never to take another race in Olympic competition below the 100th of a second. Every race since they have awarded two GOLD, Silver or Bronze medals. They also never offered the US Olympic Committee any explanation for not making their decision retroactive to that race.
For years after that race the little Red, White and Blue international envelopes from every corner of Earth, from some really smart people, would show up at our home with compelling arguments for Tim actually having won that race. The analogies were appropriate, a distance that can not be measured, a Nat's eyelash, or the length your fingernail grows in a day. They now know that engineers can not build pools to the specifications to measure and justify 2/1000th's of a second. Remember Michael Phelps 8th gold medal performance in the 100 Fly in a recent Olympics...the underwater camera picked up 1/100th perfectly...about the distance of a fingernail, or maybe the first knuckle of your finger.
Keep in mind as you the watch the video that Tim is in lane 7 and Gunner Larssen is in lane 4. The mathematician's and engineers in those International letters also theorized that the impulse time of the low voltage Omega timing system, submerged in water is more than likely greater than 2/1000th's of a second to travel from lane 7 to lane 4, where all the leads converge before running to the computer.
Who won? We may never know for sure, but this interested observer feels justifiably certain that Tim McKee deserves Gold just as much as Gunner Larssen.
Like Tim I am not living in the past. However, I am seriously contemplating taking this version of the truth directly to the new IOC president Thomas Bach (from Germany). The goal will be to see Tim McKee awarded his justly deserved GOLD medal in RIO in 2016...44 years later that should be the case! This was our father's ("Big Al's)dying wish. Big Al was a pretty darn good swimmer himself! His Ohio State Team won National Championships while he was there. This guy named Hitler destroyed his Olympic dreams in 1940...he would have been a favorite to medal. As any good parent can comprehend, that is why Tim was able to put the result in the rear view mirror, but Big Al never really let it go.
Anyone out there from the US Olympic committee, USA swimming, SSA (Swim Across America), Larry Day, or a sharp legal mind want to help me rally the troops?
Hey, Rio has been on bucket list for some time. What better reason to go, and to celebrate, than to see Tim McKee get his GOLD! See you in RIO!!!
Respectfully, Tim's little brother, Kevin McKee

John Craig said...

Kevin --
There's no question about your brother's toughness. As hard as he partied, he did some legendary sets in training as well. I heard one story that during the Olympic training camp in '72 he did a set of 3 x 400 meter IM's at the West Point pool. The world record at the time was 4:30.8, and your brother went something like 4:39, 4:38, and 4:37. The WR-holder, Gary Hall, who was also swimming that event at the Olympics, was supposedly watching, and the version of the story I heard was that this somehow did Hall in psychologically.

There's also no question that Tim deserves a gold medal for his 400 IM that summer. But I wouldn't hold my breath about that, the IOC has been notoriously reluctant to go back and overturn previous results, even in egregious cases like the East German doping scandal. Tim was robbed, but so were a whole lot of other swimmers from the '76 to '88 era.

By the way, I hope Tim has seen this post.

Conductor Dave said...

I met Tim in 1971 at the Santa Clara Invitational. I was a local swimmer (though not on SCSC) and the Suburban team invited me in with them to the evening Finals, as I only had enough cash to attend that morning's prelims. I sat with the Suburban swimmers and joined the team in yelling "Go, Tim McKee, Go! " and watching him ham it up. As a result, I followed Tim and the other Suburban swimmers - as best you could back then before the internet - whenever I could find big meet stats. I remember weeping while watching the Munich Olympics on TV when it was decided that Tim was to get the Silver medal...
I'll be in Rio as a spectator, and will weep once again if he is awarded his Gold, but with tears of happiness and pride this time. My family and the others around me will wonder what the heck I'm crying about, and I'll say "I knew him back then" and it will only be a bit of an exaggeration.
Dave Hibbert

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your story.
Not sure about Rio myself but if Tim is awarded his gold there I will be there!
Wishful thinking maybe but I am an eternal optimist when it comes to just results.
All the best, Kevin

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your story about Tim.
If we get to Rio I will be sure to look you up ahead for the trip.
All the best, Kevin

Anonymous said...

I swam with Timmy at Malvern. In a meet against a non-conference school, end of 1970 and prior to his run at the 72 Olympics. Timmy swam every individual event simply a workout and won every event!
His prowess and dedication to hard work unmatched in all my years in athletics.

I had the privilege of being a friend. So many great memories, but one in particular at a weekend folk festival, 3 days of partying. At the last day of the festival our group consisting of maybe 50 or so partyers; our group elects the individual who showed in many ways that they had the best festival. Timmy was one of the nominees. For his final demonstration of why he was deserving of the award, he did a one arm handstand against a tent pole and chugged a 12 oz. Bottle of beer. Awesome!

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thank you for that great story, you've just added to the legend of Tim McKee. I probably wouldn't believe that story if it were told of someone else, but McKee had the kind of build and coordination where you could see him being able to pull off a one arm handstand.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled upon this blog and have my own Tim McKee story. We're an Aussie family who were holidaying in Fiji about 10 - 12 years ago - I'm guessing Tim was early 50's at the time. I was waiting in the line at the hotel's Tourism desk and in typical Fiji fashion it was extremely slow. A silver headed American guy about 10 years older than me was also in the line and got chatting and we quickly established that we were both wanting to do an island cruise day with our respective families and we had established that our children were of similar age. This friendly American named Tim suggested we might as well do book it together and make a day of it for later that week which we did.
As we finished making the booking at around 9.30am Tim suggested we adjourn to the bar and he became my new best friend for the next week, and it was a "9am kick off" most days. Just through general conversation rather than any big noting, in passing Tim mentioned that he swam for the US in the Olympics in the 70's. I didn't know whether this outgoing American guy was have a lend of me, but after a discreet google search, there was no doubt my new friend was indeed an American Olympian and swam with the best.
Whilst my connection with Tim was only for several days, I can only imagine the mischief he must have got up to as a youngster, as he was quite a character in his mid years!
I hope he and his family are all well.

John Craig said...

Anonymous Aussie --
Thank you for that story, that's actually very impressive in its own way. That McKee would not make a big deal about his glory days somehow in keeping with his personality.