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David Gillanders, in His Own words

Butterfly fan

David Gillanders | June 27, 2002

David Gillanders writes: "I took Red Cross swimming lessons and went to YMCA camp every summer for several years. I enjoyed the water, but did not catch on to the technique of breathing while swimming. I could swim under water or on the surface for as long as I could hold my breath. Finally some time at about junior high school age I caught on to the turn your head to the side and get a breath technique while at YMCA camp. I immediately moved from the sinkers group up to the floaters group (passed the 25-yard swim test). This allowed me to move into the second roped off swim area where the water was deeper and partially over my head. The next day I passed the 50-yard swim test and moved into the swimmers group. This allowed me to swim outside the roped off areas and out to the two rafts anchored out beyond the swimming dock. It also allowed me to boat and canoe farther out in the lake.

I didn't get into competitive swimming until my sophomore year in high school. I never cared too much for gym class so in ninth grade when we had a choice between swimming and gym I choose swimming. I was one of the better swimmers in the class but still quite a way behind the members of the swim team. I swam about 15 seconds for a 25 yard free compared to 11 seconds for the swim team members. The next fall (1954) in tenth grade the choice of swim or gym came up again. We were supposed to choose gym if we had already taken swimming, but I got in the swimming line anyway. They did not check on me and I got into the swim class again. The first time we were timed I swam a 13 second 25-yard free. This seemed close enough to the team members that I asked the coach if I could try out for the team. The next day at practice I was shocked when the coach told me to start out with a 20 length swim, having never swam more than one length of the pool at a time before. I found it was not as hard as I thought it would be and by the end of the week I was swimming about a mile a day with the rest of the team.

This first year on the team I was junior varsity 200 free swimmer. That year we won the conference championship and the coach gave letters to anyone who had scored any points during the year. I had beaten the time of one of the third place varsity swimmers in one of the meets so I was credited with one point and received a letter. That spring after the coach came back from the national coaches meeting, he called the team together and told us we had a new stroke to learn for the next year. The first week of attempting the butterfly I could not even make 25 yards. Then the coach told me to try two kicks per arm stroke. After that I picked up the technique faster than the rest of the team and became the butterflyer. My junior year (1955-56) the fly was permitted only on the medley relay and in the 150-yard IM. The 100 butterfly breaststroke still required the old breaststroke kick. I still have trouble with that. That year coach only gave letters to swimmers with ten or more points accumulated during the season; fortunately one point per swimmer for second place in the medley relay in ten league meets got me my second letter.

The following year the 100-yard butterfly breaststroke was replaced by the 100-yard butterfly in which you could use either kick with the over the water arm recovery and the 100-yard breaststroke with the under water arm recovery. This gave me an individual event in which I began to excel. During the second half of the season I and Mike Natelson from Jackson, Mich., began trading the state record back and forth each week. At the state championships we met for the first time. We each broke the previous state record in the prelim heats. He swam a 58.8 and I swam a 58.6, taking nine tenths of a second off my previous best time. As we sat on the ready bench before the finals I started thinking, this guy was only two tenths a second slower than me in the prelims. My heart started beating faster and by the time we got on the starting blocks I was so charged with adrenalin that I swam 1.1 seconds faster than my prelim time to win the state championship. My time of 57.5 was the fifth fastest high school time in the country that year.

The backstroker from my school also won his event in state record time. With two other swimmers we also won the medley relay, giving our team 28 points and fourth place in the state. The excitement about this in our hometown of Royal Oak prompted some of the local service clubs to raise the money to send the backstroker, Ralph Nutter, and myself to the 1957 National AAU indoor swimming championships (Now known as the USS short course nationals) in Florida the next month. I had never swam a 220-yard butterfly so my coach timed me one day and fudged a little to get me an entry time so I could enter both the 100 and 220 fly at the nationals. I qualified for the finals with sixth place in the prelims of both events. The indoor nationals that year were held in an outdoor eight lane pool. It rained during the finals of the 220 and I placed eighth. The next day I also placed eighth in the 100 finals. It was a great experience and we got to go deep sea fishing the next day.

I was recruited by Michigan State University and offered a swimming scholarship. I had always heard that the University of Michigan was a top engineering school and I knew they also had a good swim team. I asked my high school coach to see if they might be interested in me. He called me in the next week to tell me that Michigan would give the same scholarship as Michigan State. While my high school principal told my mother he didn't think I should go to Michigan because my 3.00 high school grade point average was not good enough for a tough school like Michigan. He did not look at how I got that GPA, A's in math and science and C's in English and social science, and what I intended to major in college, engineering. Both I and my cross state high school rival both eventually received PhD degrees in engineering from the University of Michigan. Who says athletes are dumb?

At that time freshmen were not allowed to compete in intercollegiate athletics. We were allowed to practice with the varsity, where I raced Tony Tashnick every day in practice. Tony became the NCAA butterfly champ in both the 100 and 200 fly that year. I swam in the indoor AAU nationals again that year (1958). This time I placed in both the 100 and 220 fly. The next year I was again racing the NCAA champ every day in practice. I only beat him once in competition during the dual meet season. That was at Wisconsin in their old above ground 20 yard narrow pool. Tony claims the reason I was able to beat him that time was that I got ahead of him on the dive and the pool was so narrow that there was not any room to pass. I placed second to him in most of the meets that year. At the Big Ten Championships I decided to try and stay with Tony the first 100 of the 200 fly. I did stay with him for a 56+ second first 100, but I died the second hundred and dropped to third behind Tony and Bill Barton of Indiana. My time was about 2:10. About a week before the 1959 NCAA Championships Coach Gus Stager had me swim a time trial in the pool by myself. I felt good but my pacing was too slow and I did a 2:12. The next week in Ithaca, N.Y., I told myself that I knew I could not stay with Tony on the first 100 and expect to have enough energy to swim fast on the last 100. I planned to try and be about a body length behind Tony at the 100 yard mark and then try to catch him on the second 100. I was and I did. Going out in about 58 seconds for the first 100 I was able to come back for a 2:02.5 NCAA record and the NCAA championship. The next day I also won the 100 fly title. I also swam the fly leg of our winning 400-yard medley relay. That relay was one of the most exciting races of my career. Michigan had long since wrapped up the championship so the relay was not important to the team standings for us, but it seemed that the entire crowd of spectators was cheering "Lets Go Blue." I was wondering at the time where all the Michigan fans had come from. After the race I was told that if we had not beaten Yale in that race that Yale would have gotten second in the meet and Ohio State would have been third. With us winning, Ohio State got second and Yale was third. It had been all the Big Ten teams cheering for us so that the Big Ten would have the first two team places. Actually, one of our sophomores refigured the scoring. According to his scoring, the Michigan sophomores won the NCAA Championship, the Michigan juniors and seniors were second, Ohio State third and Yale fourth.

That summer was the first time I actually swam competitively in the summer. Coach Gus Stager had several of us work out with him for the summer. We swam for the Detroit Athletic Club and they covered our travel expenses. I placed third in both the 100-, and 200-meter fly at my first outdoor championship. In both events I was in second place coming into the last few yards, and in both I tried to take a breath right in the middle of Mike Troy's wake. The resulting mouth full of water slowed me to third place. As a result I did not get to go on the trip to Japan, but instead stayed home and worked out for the Pan Am trials. I qualified for the 1959 Pan Am team along with Mike and Tony Tashnick. At the Pan American Games in Chicago I swam my best time and won the gold medal. This was the only time I ever beat Mike Troy in a 200 fly. Thus missing the Japan trip was actually beneficial to me, since I stayed home training while he traveled. I took a much longer trip to Japan a few years later with my wife.

In the 1959-60 college season I was second to Mike Troy in the Big Ten championship and did not do as well at the NCAA meet. During the summer of 1960 Coach Stager moved our training to an outdoor 40-yard pool as soon as it opened to start getting us used to the long course distance as soon as possible. Then when the Brennen pools in Detroit (site of the Olympic trials) opened we moved our training there. The water temperature was in the lower 60s the first day we swam there. A 1,000 meters and we were so cold that we got out, put on our heavy M-Club jackets and laid on the blacktop in the sun to warm up before going the next 1,000 meters. Fortunately a few days of sun warmed the water to a more comfortable temperature. Tony Tashnick's father owned a nursery a few miles from the pools with an apartment above the store. A few of us moved in there for the summer. The Detroit Athletic Club sponsored us again. The DAC team consisted of swimmers from both Michigan and Michigan State. That summer consisted of swimming eating and sleeping. At the long course nationals I placed third or fourth in the two butterfly events. At the U. S. Olympic trials I managed to place second to Mike Troy with a 2:14.0 in the 200-meter fly. There was no 100 fly in the Olympics back then (1960). The listed world record at that time was Bill Yorzak's 2:16.4 from the 1956 Olympics. Tony Tashnick and a 16 year old high school boy named Carl Robie also swam under that record time, but that year only two swimmers per individual event were included on the team. I have never been so excited about anything in my life than I was that night. My Michigan coach Gus Stager was the Olympic Coach that year so the training between the trials and the Olympics was similar to what I had been doing.

The trip to Rome was a 21 hour flight on a turbo-prop plane with one stop in Shannon Ireland. Since it was a charter flight, we got away with a few things that would have not been allowed on a regular commercial flight. We removed the arm rests between the seats and then took turns sleeping across the seats and sleeping on the floor. The Olympic Village consisted of a set of new apartment buildings enclosed by a fence. There was a central service complex with about four cafeteria style dinning rooms and a recreation center for the athletes. There were TV sets mounted everywhere so we could keep up with what was going on at the Games. The Olympic pool was new and was placed right next to a beautiful pre WWII indoor 50 meter pool that was decorated with marble statues. This was the first meet I had attended where we had to swim three times, prelims, semifinals, and finals. I easily won my prelim and semifinal heats and got the second seed for the finals. The finals were at night and while there were lights suspended above every lane the visibility was only about 6 feet. I could see Mike Troy beside me for the first two lengths, then he pulled too far ahead to see. I finished hard as I usually did, but I had to ask the officials what place I got. My 2:15.5 got me the bronze medal. I was quite disappointed at swimming 1.5 seconds slower than my trials time.

A day or two later I swam on the medley relay team for the prelims. We took about four seconds off the world record. We got a good laugh when the reporters asked us if we thought we could go faster in the finals and we told them that we were the second string and would not be swimming in the finals. The first string team took another four seconds off the record in the finals.

I stayed in Europe traveling during the fall, but returned in time to get back in condition for the spring semester. I placed second to Mike Troy in the 200-yard fly at the Big Ten Championships, but touched him out in the 100 fly. Indiana was on probation due to their football team that year and could not go to the 1961 NCAA championships. I won both the 100 and 200 fly there. My NCAA championship record time of 52.9 was two tenths of a second slower than a high school swimmer named Fred Schmidt swam in the Illinois state high school championship that same day. I decided it was probably a good time to retire.

I continued to do a few laps in the pool and started playing water polo with a faculty group during grad school. I continued to swim laps several days a week when I started teaching at Texas A&I University in 1973. I had heard of Masters swimming, but did not learn of any meets near me until I turned 35. I have been swimming Masters ever since, with a couple of short layoffs due to injuries.

I have been in the top ten of my age group for the butterfly events almost every year that I have swum. I won the 200-, and 100-meter fly at the long course nationals at Canton, Ohio. I think that was in 1981. A few years later in the next higher age group I swam about the same time and got third in the 100. The competition is getting faster as I get older. At least I have a couple of years in each age group when Jeff Farrell is in the next higher age group and Graham Johnston is always an age group or two above me. My last number one times were in 1995 and 1996 in the 100-meter fly. I am finally getting back in shape after my shoulder operation in 1997. Maybe I can do it again, but last years number one time in the 60-64 age group was only 0.01 seconds slower than my number one time for the 55-59 age group in 1995. Some of these swimmers just keep getting faster."

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