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.)
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.