FAREWELL TO A SWIMMING BUDDY
Double 1968 Gold Medal Olympic Champion Don McKenzie died on December 3, 2008 at age 61. A few weeks after his death, his wife Syd threw a wonderful party in honor of Don for all his friends and family. That’s what Don wanted.
Don was the master of masters swimming. His spirit embodied not only the undeterred will to compete but also his insatiable desire to have fun. If there was a party on the horizon, he was the first to be there. Syd was enlisted to make her famous no-bake brownies. Don brought the wine.
Don was many things to many people. His first and foremost love was his family. This was quite evident at the memorial party on the beaming, loving faces of his 5 children and the eloquent and heartfelt speech given by his wife.
How many of us, had we won not one but 2 Olympic gold medals, would have presented ourselves as so ordinary? At the party when we watched the televised replay of his 100M breaststroke and 400M freestyle relay at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the woman seated next to me leaned over and said, “I never realized he was an Olympian.” She knew him as a real estate agent and friend.
Don was never happier than when he was in the pool enjoying the give and take of all of us swimming with him. Cracking jokes and thinking up pranks to play on fellow swimmers interested him as much as swimming the sets. He worked hard and played hard. He was a come-from-behind breaststroker who thrilled us in races when he out touched a fellow breaststroker. Then he was the first to say, “Where’s the party?”
The last few years Don moved away from swimming and into car racing and selling real estate. The pictures of him sitting in a little BMW with helmet on and head poking into the roof of the car are sweet and comical and just like Don. He was out there to compete and have fun, win or lose.
In 1989 Don was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. An article about Don on the USMS website from 2000 says, “Swimming is supposed to be predictable, perhaps more predictable than any other sport but not so in the breaststroke at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. All four gold medal breaststroke winners were won by somebody other than the favorite. Hence, Sharon Wichman, USA and Djurdjica Bjedov, Yugoslavia won the women’s races, and Felipe Munoz, Mexico and Don McKenzie, USA won the men’s.
“Of all these up setters McKenzie was the least expected. McKenzie of Indiana had never won a national title and certainly never beaten the three USSR finalists including Mikolai Pankin, the world record holder. In fact, until the preliminaries, he had not beaten Ian O’Brian, Australia, Jose Fioli, Brazil, Vladimir Kosinsky, USSR or Dave Perkowski, USA, his teammate at Indiana. Only in the preliminaries had he shown he had a chance when he and Pankin tied for the second qualifier.
“Filled with the self confidence of an Olympic winner in the 100 meter breaststroke, McKenzie went on to a second gold in the world record medley setting relay. The next year he repeated two triumphs for Indiana at the NCAA Championships. McKenzie certainly showed that Golden Dreams can be for real.”
Watching the TV film of the 1968 races while attending the memorial party, we saw Don perform two memorable and amazing feats. And in real life we saw him perform even more amazing feats. He was an extraordinary man with many friends and a loving family. Because of this we all loved him and we will keep him in our hearts forever.