The 1976 Summer Olympic Games of Montreal
Part III: The flag and the broom
On the morning of July 18, 1976, one day after the Opening Ceremony, our three men’s swimming Co-Head Coaches accompanied all of the American men to the pool that would compete on that first morning of preliminary swimming competition. The first event on the Olympic swimming schedule was the men’s 200 meter butterfly and our three entrants, Mike Bruner, Steve Gregg and Billy Forrester seemed ready to race.
In the heats, the East German swimmer and world record holder, Roger Pyttel, also seemed ready, qualifying with nearly the exact same time as Steve Gregg, to lead the finalists. In the finals that evening, Pyttel would be surrounded by the three American men.
That afternoon, before our Olympic swimmers would leave to warm up for the finals, Doc called the entire swim team to assemble in the coaches’ room in the Village, adjacent to the swimmers’ rooms. We crowded into their room, where the three coaches stood in the middle. For the first time, we could start to feel the tension and pressure of the Olympic Games. Everyone knew that the first event, the men’s 200 butterfly final, would set the tone for the entire Olympic swimming competition. We knew how important it was to start out right.
Yet Roger Pyttel, the world record holder in the 200 fly, was right where he wanted to be, in the middle of the pool. Could we upset him? Could we get a couple of Americans on the podium? That is what I was thinking, but not Doc.
He gathered all of the swimmers in a huddle and asked us to put our hands in the middle on top of his. We all struggled to reach our hands into the center of the circle, making sure that we were all touching, and then Doc began to speak.
“Tonight”, he said. “We are going to sweep the 200 fly. That’s right. We are getting first, second and third. Mike, Steve and Billy will lead us off. And after their swim tonight, we are going to sweep every event after that.”
None of us had enough time to even question him, before he asked us to let out the loudest “Let’s Go!” that we had ever shouted. On the count of three, we screamed out “Let’s Go!” so loudly, the women probably heard us at the other end of the Olympic Village.
With that, Doc walked over to the corner of the room and opened a closet door. He reached inside and pulled out an American flag and a dirty old broom. He handed the flag to John Naber (USC) and the broom to Jim Montgomery (IU). They were two of the fastest swimmers on the team and both were great leaders. We looked a little puzzled by the broom.
“Alright”, Doc continued. “John, you lead us with the flag and Jim, I want you to sweep that broom back and forth as we walk over to the Olympic swim stadium. We will walk behind you guys, arm in arm, chanting ‘Sweep, Sweep, Sweep!’. We will sit together. Our butterflyers will hear us chanting those words from the stands. We will sweep this event.”
When the men’s finalists for the 200 fly were paraded out, the American flag was waving in the stands, the broom was held high in the air, and the loud chant of ‘Sweep, Sweep, Sweep!’ echoed all across the Olympic Natatorium. Pyttel stood erect and tall, like he was going to win the event and take home a gold medal. The three American swimmers had a different idea.
When the gun went off, so did Pyttel, passing the 100-meter mark ahead of his world record pace. The three American Olympic swimmers were all a half a body length behind him. By the 125 meter mark, we could see that all three of the Americans were gaining on Pyttel. But could they catch him?
At the 150-meter mark, Pyttel turned first, with our Olympic swimmers just behind him at his shoulders. Now it was a race to the finish. Pyttel was trying desperately to hang on, but with less than 20 meters to the wall, all four swimmers were very close. Any one of the four of them could still win. Who would get to the wall first?
With incredible strength, stamina and efficiency, almost as if they were pulling each other along like a flock of geese, Bruner, Gregg and Forrester sprinted to the wall, finishing first, second and third, in that order. All three Americans swam under 2 minutes for the first time in their lives and Mike Bruner set a new world record at 1:59.2. Pyttel finished fourth, out of the medal count.
In the stands, while cheering at the top of our lungs, we looked at each other almost in disbelief, celebrating our first sweep of the Olympic swimming competition.
“Oh my God”, I remember thinking. “We did it. We swept the 200 fly, just as Doc said we would. Maybe he’s right. Maybe we are good enough to sweep every event. We can do this!”
For the next 5 days of Olympic swimming competition during the 1976 Games, our men’s team would assemble every afternoon with Doc, George and Don in their room, just before leaving for the finals. There, we would put our hands together in the middle of the huddle, proclaim that we would sweep every event on the schedule that evening, and let out the loudest ‘Let’s Go!’ imaginable. Doc would hand the flag and the broom to a different swimmer each day and then, with those swimmers leading the way, we would walk, arm-in-arm, to the Olympic Swimming Stadium together, chanting ‘Sweep, Sweep, Sweep!’
In the 1976 Olympic Games swimming program there were only 11 individual events and two relays, the 400 medley relay and the 800 free relay. For some reason, FINA elected not to have a 200 IM and a 400 free relay in those Olympic Games for the men. Don’t ask me why. That meant that there were 35 possible swimming medals to be won in the men’s swimming competition, including the two relays.
In the end, we did not sweep every event. We swept only four events, the 100 and 200 fly, 200 freestyle and the 200 backstroke. In five other events, 2 American swimmers were on the podium. Of the 35 possible medals to win, the United States men’s swimming team won 27 of them, including both relays, leaving just 8 individual medals for the entire rest of the world to take home. The USA men’s swimming team broke 11 world records in that Olympic competition and lost only one race, the 200 breaststroke, which was won by David Wilkie from Great Britain in world record time.
Perhaps most impressive was that of the 27 American men’s Olympic swimmers, all but one achieved their personal best times at those Olympic Games, not just by a little, but by a lot. We swam way beyond what the world expected us to do and much faster than the times we had swum just about one month earlier at our Olympic Trials. All of that happened because of a flag, a broom, three great coaches and a team of young, determined swimmers.
Some of the FINA members must have grown tired of seeing the Stars and Stripes raised so often in Montreal, because that was the last Olympic Games where three swimmers from each country were allowed to compete in each event. We will never see a sweep in Olympic swimming competition again.
I am so proud to have been a part of that great USA men’s Olympic swimming team in Montreal in 1976, but more importantly, Doc and the other coaches taught us an invaluable life lesson. Our minds control our actions. We can all achieve so much more than we think we can….if we just believe.
Yours in swimming,