Mano a Mano with John Ferris
In 1964, I became coach of Shasta High School and the Redding Swim Club in Redding, California. It was a fun place to coach. We started the high school season on January 3 one year, and we had a snow ball fight on the deck.
During the summer, the air temperature at the noon workout in the 55 yard pool by the Sacramento River was usually over 100 degrees. We used no lane lines so the ten-and-unders (10Us) would go widths while the older age groups went lengths.
In the spring we attended the Pacific Association Short Course Junior Olympic Championships, which were always held at the Arden Hills Country Club in Sacramento. Sherm Chavoor owned the club, and was also the coach of Arden Hills Swim Team. The main pool was in a grassy swale with a hill on the right side.
That first year I watched Susan Pederson become the first 10U to break a minute for the 100 yard freestyle. It helped that she was about 5’6” tall and weighed over 130 pounds. In Sherm’s book, The 50 Meter Jungle, he comments that he nearly came to blows with a swim team mother who was bigger than he was. That was Susan Pederson’s mother.
Chavoor was the coach of Debbie Meyer, who won three gold medals in the 1968 Olympics in the 200, 400, and 800 freestyles, and of John Ferris, third in both the 200 IM and 200 fly in Mexico City. Mark Spitz finished last in the finals of the second event after being favored.
The rivalry between Ferris and Spitz, however, had started much earlier than Mexico City. In 1966 it came to a head at the SC JOs at Arden Hills.
Since the JOs were a spring event, both Ferris and Spitz were 16, as Ferris didn’t turn 17 until July. Spitz, by this time had already transferred to Santa Clara Swim Club, and he and Ferris were entered in the same three events – 50 Fly, 100 Fly and the 200 IM.
In the course of the meet, Spitz had touched out Ferris in both butterfly events. Ferris always took an early lead as, I believe, he was the originator of the starting dive we all use now. You know, the one where you are supposed to go in the air as far as you can and then punch a hole in the water with your hands that the rest of your body is supposed to follow.
Before Ferris, we were told by coaches to skim the surface of the water on the start so we could begin to swim as soon as possible. We never considered that surface tension would slow us down and that it was faster to stay underwater.
With his start, John Ferris always had a lead after 25 yards fly. Mark Spitz, however, ran him down, even in the 50, looking for Ferris all the way. Then came the 200 IM.
Ferris qualified 4th and Spitz 2nd in the prelims, just what Ferris wanted: someone between him and Spitz to make it harder for Spitz to keep track of where Ferris was in the race.
Again, at the start Ferris was ahead at the 25 and this time kept his lead for the 50 fly. I don’t know what the split was, but I’d guess it was close to being 23 something, an amazing time for 16 year-olds in 1966.
Ferris held the lead in backstroke and breaststroke, hammering the turns and using his superior underwater technique to stay ahead of Spitz. As we all know, it’s hard to keep track of another backstroker anyway, and there was a swimmer between the two to obscure Spitz’s view.
Breaststroke was Spitz’s worst stroke in the IM, and Ferris knew that, and knew he had to have a lead going into free. He did, and held it all the way to the finish. The crowd on the hill, I among them, was going bananas, and when Ferris won in his home pool, the roar was tremendous. He had beaten Mark Spitz and set a new national JO record in the 200 IM for 15-16 boys.
Then Ferris’ younger brother jumped in the pool to celebrate with his sibling before the last swimmer in the race finished. Ferris was disqualified.
During the awards ceremony for the IM a curious thing happened. Mark Spitz refused to mount the top platform to get the gold medal for the race. I was about 20 feet away from the ceremony, and I am sure to this day, from his body language and, perhaps, from what I thought Spitz said to the swimmer who was next to him, that Spitz felt he didn’t deserve first place. He didn’t win the race, Ferris did, and Spitz would not accept the gold medal.
Humility is not often associated with Mark Spitz but, though he was a very precocious 16 year-old, I think I saw it in him that day.