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Looking back on a GOLDEN PAST

Lake Oswego's Don Schollander was the Michael Phelps of his day
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Don Schollander, left, a Lake Oswego resident who won a then-record four gold medals in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is shown here in a recent photo along with his son, Kyle, and wife, Cheryl.

Michael Phelps has the world of swimming at his feet.

While competing in the current Beijing Olympics the incredible American has rewritten the record books by raising his gold medal total to 14, more than any other Olympian in history.

Lake Oswego's Don Schollander knows just how Phelps feels.

Forty-four years ago it was Schollander who was at the center of the world stage at the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, standing under the spotlight with a then-record four gold medals draped around his neck.

Schollander was Associated Press Athlete of the Year, the Sullivan Award winner as the nation's top amateur athlete, and was on the cover of Life magazine, wearing his U.S. Olympic Team jacket and the four gold medals. Truly, he was the golden boy of sport.

But Schollander did no basking, strutting, fist pumping, or even cashing in on his remarkable success.

'I'm fairly shy,' he said. 'It was kind of a difficult time for me. I appreciated some of the attention, but I wanted to be left alone.'

As a guy who has been there and done that, Schollander has great appreciation for Phelps' accomplishments.

'He's a phenomenal swimmer, he's done a tremendous job,' Schollander said. 'His schedule is so ambitious. He's had to swim 17 different times and that's a Herculean task.'

Besides Olympic swimming, Schollander knows something about China. He had the opportunity to go there to work with swimmers back in 1975, just when the country was opening up to the USA. He stayed in a hotel called, blatantly enough, the Foreigners Hotel and got to observe a nation that had been a mystery for decades.

Ask him about the differences between China then and China now, and Schollander gives a long laugh.

'In 1975 we were just beginning relations with them. They were just coming out of the Cultural Revolution,' Schollander said. 'The hotel I stayed at was old and shabby, and almost everybody was riding around on bikes. What few cars they had seemed like they were out of the 1950s. Now you see lots of cars and freeways.

'China is now a very developed country, it's very modern. You see the Water Cube Pool and the Bird's Nest Track. They're amazing.'

Unlike most observers, Schollander is willing to cut China a break on the smoggy air of Beijing.

'I'm sure it's a more complex problem than we've heard,' he said. 'Beijing is located in a valley, and it gets dust from the Gobi Desert and it has high humidity. Obviously the air is not clean. But Mexico City was smoggy in 1968.'

Certainly, Beijing's air does not compare to that of Lake Oswego, where his family moved to from North Carolina when Schollander was just 7 years old. While LO was a lovely place to live, it was a most unlikely breeding ground for a great swimmer.

'There wasn't a swimming coach. There wasn't even a pool,' Schollander said. 'The first meet I ever swam in was between the Lake Oswego end of the city and the Lake Grove end of the city. It was held in Lake Grove Park.'

There was something else, too.

'I was a lousy swimmer,' Schollander said. 'At ages 9, 10 and 11 I was lousy. I was a pretty good athlete, but I just couldn't swim very well.'

However, by age 12 'I had figured it out,' and at 14 Schollander was leading Lake Oswego High School to the 1960 state swimming championship. 'I was getting better quick,' he said.

In fact, young Don got so good that his parents sent him off to California, where he trained under the legendary coach George Haines at the fabled Santa Clara Swim Club. There he progressed from being a promising teenager into the greatest swimmer ever of his time.

As a coach, Haines was the best, developing Olympic champions like Chris von Saltza and Mark Spitz. But Schollander came up with a training technique of his own that put him over the top.

'Weight training just wasn't being done back then, but my dad thought I should try it,' Schollander said. 'It really helped. I was just a lucky guy because it was my dad who wanted me to do it. I didn't stand up and say, 'Now this thing is scientifically important.' '

Of course, weight training is a crucial component of swimmers' training today, and Phelps is reported to do weight training three times a week.

At the 1964 Olympics, Schollander was gold, gold, gold and gold. He won the 100-meter freestyle and the 400-meter freestyle and swam legs on the winning 4 by 100-meter freestyle relay and 4 by 200-meter freestyle relay. He also set three world records.

What is it like for Phelps? What was it like for Schollander? What is it like standing on a starting block, trying to win a gold medal for the good old USA, plus yourself?

'On one hand, it's not as nerve wracking as you would expect,' Schollander said. 'I didn't drop down from the sky to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. I had already been through the national championships and Olympic trials. I was ready for the pressure.

'The real pressure comes from the Olympics being held every four years. If you don't have it that day, you have to wait four years to try again.

'I was actually more nervous at the '68 Olympics in Mexico City. In Tokyo I was 18 years old and I knew I would have another chance. In Mexico City I was 22 years old and I knew that was it, I was done. Even though I had more experience, I was more nervous the second time.'

The Don Schollander of 1964 proved to be an impossible act to follow in 1968. But Schollander still picked up a fifth gold medal in the 4 by 200-meter freestyle relay and added a silver medal to his collection with a second place in the 200-meter freestyle.

Schollander gained much - worldwide recognition, a place in sports history - from his time of greatness. He seemed to personify everyone's idea of a championship swimmer and was even tagged with the cringe-inducing nickname of 'The Golden Angel.'

What he didn't get was money. Swimming was strictly amateur in those days and careers were extremely short.

'You didn't see a male swimmer past the age of 22. You didn't see a woman swimmer past the age of 18,' Schollander said. 'There's a huge difference. Now you see swimmers in their 30s. You even see swimmers like Dara Torres, who is in her 40s.

'Because of the money from endorsements, the training centers and more international meets, athletes can train full time. It's like night and day from when I competed.'

Still, it is mind-boggling to think of how much money a swimmer the press dubbed The Golden Angel would make in today's market. But Schollander doesn't think about it at all.

'My parents always insisted that education came first,' said Schollander, who attended Yale University following the Tokyo Olympics.

Schollander remained involved in American swimming and the Olympics after his competitive days were over.

He became an advocate for athletes, pushing for more athletic representation on Olympic policies. He even served a four-year term on the board of directors of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

'I think I got elected because I complained,' Schollander said.

He spent the next four years traveling to various venues of important Olympic business around the world. There was another Oregonian who accompanied him - legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman.

One of Schollander's accomplishments was having the athletes vote on who carries the American Flag in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Essentially, though, Don Schollander remained a Lake Oswego boy.

After graduating from Yale, he worked for a year in New York, a year in San Francisco, and then it was back home for good. For the past 30 years he has worked as a real estate developer.

At age 62, however, 'I'm getting ready for retirement,' he said.

His avocation now, of course, is watching the Beijing Olympics, especially Michael Phelps.

'He's a great athlete,' Schollander said.

It would be quite nice if Phelps and Schollander could somehow get together. Because, after all, they are members of a most exclusive club:

The Greatest Swimmer in the World.