Faster, Higher, Stronger: USNA Athletes Compete on the World Stage

By Gary Lambrecht

As the Summer Olympics drew closer in 1996, David Robinson ’87, the greatest basketball player in the history of the U.S. Naval Academy and one of the best the NBA has ever produced, might have had good reason to back out of his third trip to the world’s quintessential athletic competition.

Robinson had battled a hernia condition throughout the second half of the 1996 season with the San Antonio Spurs. He would require postseason surgery and would need time for rest and rehabilitation as well as time to gear up for another NBA training camp in October. And he already had won two Olympic medals, including his first gold with the famous “Dream Team” at the Barcelona games in 1992.

Why not skip the festivities in Atlanta and spend the summer preparing his body for another long NBA grind?

“Are you kidding me? I think they would have had to drag me off of the court,” said Robinson, who helped the United States win another gold medal in Atlanta.

“Sure, I was dinged up, but I had another chance to put ‘USA’ across my chest and represent my country. There was no way I was passing that up.”

If you posed the same question to any of the 85 Naval Academy graduates who have had the honor of representing the United States as Olympians, you’ll likely hear the same.

Robinson was the last Navy athlete to make an Olympic team. But midshipmen have left their mark on the games, going back more than a century, all the way back to 1912.

That year, Navy’s rifle team, captained by the future Admiral Harris Laning, of the Class of 1895, and featuring Carl Osburn, of the Class of 1907, won a bronze medal in Stockholm, Sweden.

Osburn would compete in three Olympic Games—1912, 1920 and 1924—with dazzling results as a shooter. Osburn won four medals in team and individual competition in 1912. By the time he was done in Paris in 1924, Osburn had earned a total of 11 career medals, a number that would not be eclipsed until Mark Spitz did it at the Munich games in 1972.

Among other highlights over past decades, Navy took home gold medals in eight-man rowing in 1920 and 1952.

At the Summer Olympics in 1932, the Navy gymnastics team shined, as Raymond Bass ’31, William Galbraith ’29 and Thomas Connelly ’33 grabbed the gold, silver and bronze, respectively, in the rope climb.

That same year, fencers George Calnan ’20, Curtis Shears ’22 and Richard Steere ’31 brought home bronze medals (foil).

Since wrestlers Josiah Henson ’45 and Peter Blair ’55 won bronze medals in the games of 1952 and 1956, respectively, Navy athletes rarely have reached the medal stand. That is partly explained by how the Olympics has surrendered its once-exclusive amateur status and opened its doors to professional competitors.

One of Navy’s modern exceptions is, of course, Robinson. He won a bronze in 1988 before striking gold twice, and is the only basketball player ever to play on three Olympic teams (1988, 1992 and 1996).

Another is Brian Ledbetter ’85, a sailor in the Finn class who won a silver medal in 1992. The other is wrestler Lloyd Keaser ’72, who was awarded the silver medal for wrestling in Montreal in 1976 as a 149.5-pounder—albeit under bizarre and excruciating circumstances.

Keaser entered the gold medal match against Pavel Pinigin of the Soviet Union with what Keaser thought was a comfortable lead. Keaser misunderstood that because he had accumulated so few penalty points leading to the finals that he could afford to lose by up to 11 points and still win the gold, as long as he didn’t get pinned.

To this day, Keaser regrets adopting such a defensive posture in the match, especially since the pre-race match strategy backfired badly. As it turned out, the cushion was only seven points, and Pinigin snatched away the gold medal with a 12-1 victory.

“That will always be my most painful match. I tried to protect something I thought I had,” recalled Keaser, who had won the freestyle World Championship in 1973. “I wrestled totally opposite of the way I usually did.”

As the years have passed, the sting of that loss hangs with Keaser. But so does the absolute thrill of representing the United States by simply being great enough to participate in his only Olympic Games.

“Attending the Academy and representing our country that way was one thing. Doing it at the Olympics with ‘USA’ on your shirt, that was another,” Keaser said. “Marching into Olympic Stadium was the most thrilling experience I’ve ever had. I stood [a short distance] from where the torch was lit, and the doves started flying. The roar of the crowd gave me goose bumps.”

Whether you talk to medalists or the various Naval Academy Olympians who returned home without a medal, the thrill of being there, in the elite international arena, is a sentiment that remains strong. The bond among surviving teammates remains tight.

And the camaraderie that crosses national and team lines in the Olympic Village, where athletes typically make a hobby of exchanging lapel pins with fellow competitors, elicits palpable memories.

Robinson recalled his first Olympics experience in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, when he was fulfilling his U.S. Navy commission and was part of the last all-amateur basketball team sent by the United States. Before the opening ceremony, Robinson mingled with some of the thousands of athletes.

“There were more than 10,000 of us on the field at the stadium,” Robinson said. “One minute I’m talking with members of the Australian rowing team, then some U.S. boxers, then a bunch of guys from the Turkish team and the Hungarian team. I remember thinking about the impact of sports and how it really was bringing people together. That is way special.”

J. “Bert” Freeman ’70 was the second African-American to win a national fencing championship. He is also one of five Navy fencers to make the Olympic team between 1960 and 1976, each without medaling.

Alfonso Morales ’60, also a fencer, came up short in four consecutive games, lastly the Munich games in 1972, where Freeman will never forget being eliminated.

“I think about that day even now. But other things override it,” Freeman said. “For me, the second-best feeling was winning that national championship in Waltham, Massachusetts. The best feeling was making the [Olympic] team.”

“I remember that ‘wow’ feeling in the village, where there was so much camaraderie. We were all athletes, whatever our color or nationality. I’ve told lots of stories about that as a father and a grandfather.”

As a member of the 1960 Navy rowing team that stunned California and Syracuse in the Olympic Trials—back in the days when college teams represented their country—Howard Winfree ’61 tasted that same bonding and disappointment.

The Midshipmen, after coming from behind to upset Great Britain in the qualifying round, finished fifth at the Games.

“We expected to at least win a medal, but we didn’t realize how advanced the European rowers were,” Winfree said.

A number of things stuck with Winfree regarding his experience. The 1960 team featured some big personalities and memorable characters, none more so than a light heavyweight on the boxing team named Cassius Clay, who would soon be world-famous as Muhammad Ali. Winfree said he did Clay a favor by taking a picture of him with some track athletes.

The rowing team also flew to Rome on the same plane as the women’s track team, led by superstar-in-waiting Wilma Rudolph.

Winfree has been back to Rome several times since his Olympics venture, always making time to check out the rowing site outside of the city. And the team has stuck together tightly over the years. Winfree said the Navy team started scheduling reunions about 25 years ago, and has held one every five years since.

“We talk about those good times, and we always row,” he said. “[The Olympics] has been a large part of our lives ever since.”

Casey Bahr ’70 was a member of the U.S. soccer team that went to Munich, where the Americans had a rough time competitively. They were eliminated after going 0-2-1. In its final game, the U.S. was routed by West Germany.

But he also had an up-close view of a dark chapter in history. That edition of the Games will forever be identified with the most infamous incident in Olympics history.

In the late stages of the ’72 Games, eight Palestinian terrorists slipped into the Olympic Village, killed two members of the Israeli team and took nine others hostage. After their demands to release political prisoners from Israel were refused, the Munich Massacre ended at a nearby airport, where all nine Israeli hostages were killed by the terrorists, five of whom later died during a shootout with German police.

Bahr had a bird’s-eye view of the early hours of the tragedy. It began with two Israelis being killed in their quarters after the terrorists broke in. The Games were suspended for two days.

“We had already been eliminated, so I wasn’t under any kind of curfew at the time. I was awake when the first shots were fired around 4 a.m. [on 5 September]. We were housed in a building not far from the terrorists,” Bahr recalled.

“German police came in and roused us around 7 a.m. They were looking for more Israelis [to protect]. They were looking for Mark Spitz [an American of Jewish heritage], but they had the wrong floor,” he added. “We could see the terrorists that morning. We didn’t know anybody was dead. We thought it was a hostage situation.”

By winning seven gold medals with the swimming team, Spitz dominated the competitive portion of the Games. But the massacre of the Israelis was the most indelible story of that Olympics.

“That’s what it’s still remembered for the most, and deservedly so,” Bahr said.

What former Navy rower Dan Lyons ’81 remembers the most about his experience in the coxed pair competition at the 1988 Olympics is the untimely illness of his partner, Wisconsin graduate Robert Espeseth. They were two of the finest rowers in the nation in the 1980s.

Lyons, who played a big role in the resurgence of Navy crew—along with one-time Olympian John Walters ’85 and two-timer Greg Montessi ’82—won 11 national championships in various events. He won a world title in 1986 and also a gold medal at the Pan American Games.

As Lyons and Espeseth prepared for Seoul, confidence was running high.

“We were spinning some incredible times in training. I knew we were going to win [the gold],” Lyons recalled. “But all Olympians’ stories are amazing, and you’re going against amazing competitors and people who want to beat you. And there is a huge element of luck involved.”

“You’re going to a foreign country, in most cases. You’re in another time zone with two weeks to acclimate. Everything has to go right. You can’t get sick.”

But that’s what happened to Espeseth after a virus swept through the village. In the middle of a qualifying heat against East Germany, the Americans were three lengths ahead and rolling. But Epseseth, badly dehydrated, began to fade.

The East Germans went on to earn a silver medal. Lyons went home without a medal after officially finishing 11th with a replacement partner.

“You get over it, but it takes a while,” said Lyons, who retired from competitive rowing shortly after that Olympics disappointment. “When you throw yourself at something, and bad things happen that are out of your control, it’s crushing.”

Captain Bryce Saddoris ’11, USMC, former Navy wrestler and ground supply officer stationed at Camp Lejeune with the 2nd Marine Logistics Group, knows exactly of what Lyons speaks.

Saddoris, who holds the Navy record with 147 victories and has been a premier talent on the Marine team for several years, seemingly was in ideal position last fall to become Navy’s first Olympian in 20 years.

At 145.5 pounds, Saddoris entered the World Wrestling Championships in October ranked No. 1 in the world. But things did not turn out as planned. First, he lost to eventual world champion Frank Staebler in the quarterfinals. Then, during the bronze medal match against Algerian Tarek Aziz Benaissa, Saddoris, who had never suffered a serious injury during more than 20 years on the mat, got hurt.

During his 5-4 loss to Benaissa, Saddoris fractured an eye socket and suffered a concussion. He wrestled the majority of the match while suffering through triple-vision.

Following two surgeries and two rehabilitations, Saddoris tried to make things right at the 2016 Olympic Trials in April. But, as the No. 1 seed, he lost a quarterfinals match on criteria, 4-4, against Michael Hooker of the Army team. For now, Saddoris’ Olympic dream is on hold. He is still dealing with vision issues.

“It’s one of those things,” said Saddoris, the 2015 USMC Male Athlete of the Year, who was trying to become the first Marine to wrestle in the Olympics since Keaser in 1976. “Everything has to align [to make the Olympics], and that includes your health, which had never been an issue for me. It just goes to show you how hard it is to make an Olympic team.”

The medal winners in Navy’s Olympic past will never take their huge accomplishments for granted. Not even Robinson, who, after winning the bronze in 1988, was part of the teams that more than lived up to their heavily favored status while taking home the gold in back-to-back Olympic Games.

The “Dream Team,” which included future Hall of Famers Robinson, Michael Jordan and John Stockton, smashed all eight of its opponents in 1992. The U.S. averaged 117.3 points per game and won its eight games by an average of 44 points.

Etched into Robinson’s memory is the scene on the medal stand, where he said the American players felt a sense of overwhelming emotion.

“I don’t care how big of a star you were. You dreamed about standing up there, getting a medal. Everyone felt the gravity of that moment,” Robinson said. “It was a surreal experience.”

Source: July-August 2016 Shipmate

In Breaking News

On 21 June, it was announced that Edward King ’11 would represent the United States in the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a member of lightweight men’s four crew. King will become the first rower from Navy to compete in the Olympics since 1988 when three graduates—Commander Dan Lyons ’81, USNR (Ret.); Greg Montesi ’82 and John Walters ’84—represented the United States in the Seoul Olympics.

Also in late June, 11 midshipmen and alumni headed to U.S. Olympic Trials to compete in swimming including Midshipmen Charlotte Meyer ’17, Marlin Brutkiewicz ’17, Brayden Lauffer ’19, Luke Nelson ’19, Lauren Barber ’19 and Ethan King ’17 as well as Captain Thuy-Mi Dinh ’10, USMC; Ensign Kenzie Margroum ’13, USN; Ensign Luke Hoffer ’14, USN; Ensign Ellen Bradford ’16, USN; and Ensign David Carlson ’16, USN.

Also in June, Brad Snyder ’06 competed in swimming in the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Charlotte, NC. Good luck to those competing—hope to see all of them compete in Rio!


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