Commentary and Philosophy Non-Fiction posted February 10, 2018

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Honorable Mention: Against many odds...

The Essexville Rocket's Legacy

by Mrs. KT

In 1964 the Winter Olympics were held in Innsbruck, Austria from January 29th through February 9th. Fifty-four years ago, on February 4, 1964, with only five days remaining in that celebrated international competition, America claimed its one and only gold medal from those games.
Few people alive today remember the name of the shy and unassuming twenty-three-year-old part-time barber turned Olympic speed skater from Essexville, Michigan, who won that gold medal in the 500-meter speed skating event.
But I do.
I was ten years old that February day when Terry McDermott, the “Essexville Rocket,” skated to gold.
He won without corporate sponsorship.
He won when no one really believed he could.
He won by never having trained on a regulation track.
He won by racing against a two-time Russian Olympic gold medalist and world record holder on an outside track that was deteriorating from the sun’s heat.
He won on borrowed skates.
And as far as my ten-year-old sensibilities were concerned, he won because he was my distant cousin, and he represented all that was true and good in my world.
I had yet to meet Terry McDermott on that long-ago evening of February 4th. But as my parents and I gathered in our family room to witness the taped broadcast of Terry's gold medal race on our sixteen-inch RCA black and white television set in Saginaw, Michigan, I felt as if I knew him as well as anyone.
He was my kinsman.
His story was all our stories that night.
His life was a life we all knew – a life of family, honor, hard work, humility, faith, and a huge dose of perseverance.
Richard Terrance “Terry” McDermott was born on September 20, 1940, and grew up in Essexville, Michigan, a sleepy little farming community on the outskirts of the more metropolitan Bay City, Michigan.  His uncle was a barber and owned Bunny’s Barber Shop where Terry worked as a part-time barber from 1963 – 1967.
The American athletes of 1964 were amateurs, and as such, not only could they not accept any monetary endorsements, they could not accept any corporate sponsorships. Newly married in 1963, when he wasn’t working at Bunny’s, Terry was training. Much of that training in the winter took place on the outdoor skating rink his father built for him in the field next to Bunny’s.
Terry McDermott didn’t just appear at the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and walk away with the United States’ only gold medal.  He earned his right to be there. He was a member of the Bay County Speed Skating Club during his teenage years and in the years following his high school graduation. In both 1960 and 1961, he medaled in the National Indoor Competition and the North American Indoor Competition respectively. Based on his racing abilities, he qualified for the United States’ Olympic speed skating team in 1960, but his quest for any medal fell short in the Winter Olympic Games held in Squaw Valley that year.
Fast forward to 1964. Once again, Terry made the Olympic speed skating team, but he was not considered to be a likely contender for a medal in a sport dominated by Russian and Norwegian athletes.
The 500-meter race that February Olympic game day in Innsbruck, Austria, was held on an outdoor track, as was the norm in those days. By the time Terry McDermott approached the starting line, the sun had begun to melt the track, and the ice was beginning to disintegrate.
To compound matters, Terry’s skates were missing.  To my knowledge, no one has ever determined if Terry’s skates were misplaced or stolen, but what is true is that Terry skated in skates he borrowed from his coach, Leo Freisenger.
Most coaches would have wanted their athletes to race early in the race given the conditions.  Freisenger was the exception. Forty-four athletes vied for the podium that day; twenty-two pairs of racers.  Freisenger knew that Terry performed well under pressure, and so he opted for Terry to race towards the end of the 500-meter race.
All eyes that day were not on Terry; instead, they were on the Russian speed skater, Yevgeny Grishin, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first individual to break the forty second barrier of the 500-meter race.
As luck, or fate, would have it, Terry McDermott and Yevgeny Grishin were paired to race together in the 17th race of the day.
The part-time barber versus the world’s fastest skater.
The two athletes readied themselves at the starting line.
At the sound of the gun blast, they were off, but Grishin was not in the lead.
No.  That day, the victory belonged to the “Essexville Rocket” who kept his head, his momentum, and his lead throughout the race and won the 500-meter race with the time of 40.1 seconds.
Grishin’s time? 40.6 seconds.
Not only was a new Olympic record set, Terry McDermott’s record would hold until 1972. And it would be sixteen years before another American skater, Eric Heiden, would bring the next gold medal in the 500-meter speed skating race home during the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Terry McDermott’s story doesn’t end there.
In 1968, Terry McDermott once again made the American Olympic speed skating team for the Winter Olympics held in Grenoble, France. Once again, the race was held outdoors.  Once again, he skated not only late in the day, he skated last.  Once again, the sun had begun to melt the ice.  But the “Essexville Rocket” persevered, and this time, he skated to a silver medal with a time of 40.5 seconds, just .2  seconds out of first place. Erhard Keller of West Germany, winner of the gold at Grenoble, remarked of the race, "'If (McDermott) had started in the earlier heats while the ice was still good, I’d have lost.  It’s as simple as that.’”
Win or lose, the Olympics of 2018 are a world set apart from those of 1964 and 1968. Since 1984 professional athletes have been allowed to compete, and many athletes have lucrative sponsorship deals with a myriad of companies. Speed skating now takes place on indoor tracks, with athletes donning aerodynamic skating garb and equipment.
Whenever my thoughts have turned to Terry McDermott and his spectacular upset victory at the 1964 Winter Olympics and his unlikely silver medal win at the 1968 Winter Olympics, those thoughts and memories have been a source of inspiration. Admittedly, during times in my own life, when I have had little faith in my own abilities, I have gained strength and perspective from remembering that when others doubted him, when the odds were against him, Terry McDermott persevered.
I have shared his story with my children.
I have shared his story with my students.
I have shared his story with my colleagues and friends.

As my family and I gather in our family room and watch this, the XXIII Winter Olympic Games, I know my thoughts will transport me back to those past Olympics and the performance of the "Essexville Rocket." I will once again remember an exuberant ten-year-old girl, cheering on a young speed skater from a small town in Michigan who was at best, a long shot to win. And when I do, I’ll hear my father exclaim in disbelief and pride, “He did it!  He did it!  By God! WE did it!”
And I’ll believe once again, just as I did all those years ago, that anything is possible and that sometines, sometimes dreams do come true...




Share Your Story contest entry

For additional readings regarding Terry McDermott and the 1964 Winter Olympics:
"Richard Terrance "Terry" McDermott". Olympics at Sports Reference LLC.
File:Leo Freisinger and Terry McDermott 1964.jpg
Essexville's Terry McDermott shocked the world with Olympic gold in 1964 Games, February 11, 2010
File:Virginia McDermott 1964.jpg
Terry McDermott. Essexville, Bay County, MI / BAY-JOURNAL
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