Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Before She Was Caitlyn

During the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when I was 17 and a young Decathlete, I hung out at the workout track behind the stadium. It was the best show in town and it was free. One day I talked to Rafer Johnson and grilled him about his training for about 20 minutes. What he ate. How he lifted. Did he sleep the nights before he won gold in Rome? Proud to say Rafer Johnson could not have been classier.

And I became friends with Fred Samara, one of the three US qualifiers in the Decathlon along with Fred Dixon and Nee Bruce Jenner. Fred was a smart and funny guy who had graduated from Penn. Fred was also an intellectual which is a bit unusual.

One day, I volunteered to rake the pit while Fred was working on the long jump. We talked for a while and when I told him Bruce Jenner was my hero, he sort of winced. At the time I marked it up to their competitive rivalry. Bruce was getting a lot of press, the two Freds, Samara and Dixon, were not. (Years later, I got to know Fred Dixon at UCSB while training with his younger brother, Dave. Both great guys) 

About an hour later, Fred Samara pointed to the discus ring about 50 yards away and said, “There’s your boy now.” It was an hour until sunset and Jenner was getting ready to work out for the discus with the eventual gold medal winner and Oregon Duck, Mac Wilkens. 

Excited as I could be, I ran over. Without saying a word, I retrieved their discuses saving them the 160 and 200 feet respective trips for each throw. Neither Jenner nor Wilkens said a word or even acknowledged me, let alone thanking me for helping. 

When Jenner was done at dusk, the sun setting over the stadium, he packed up his discs and was putting on his warm ups. That's when I politely asked, through the discus cage, if he had any advice for me, an Illinois boy headed to California to do the Decathlon in college?

Here was Jenner’s reply: Without looking at me - and in that oddly high-pitched voice for a guy 6.2, 220 - he sarcastically said, 

“Make sure you chew your food 20 times before swallowing.”

This resulted in loud mocking laughter from Mac Wilkens. Jenner laughed too. 

The next day, when I was talking to Fred Samara at the practice track, he asked, “So what did you think of your idol?” After a moment, I replied,

“What a dick.”

Fred had to sit down he was laughing so hard.