Swimmer Spotlight: David Radcliff 2

David Radcliff

Workout Group: Tualatin Hills Barracudas (THB)

by Tom Walker of The Walker International Masters (TWIM), a team which is part of the Puget Sound Masters Club (PSM)
Used with permission


David Radcliff

David Radcliff after a hard swim. He “left it all in the pool”, following his coach’s instructions.

Man, this guy is Amazing!!!

So there’s this 82 year old guy down in Oregon who has got to be the Most Amazing Swimmer alive today or at the very least a very close 2nd!

This charming and erudite individual is none other than the Legendary Dave Radcliff.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  He’s got more USMS records than I feel comfortable talking about in public.

And in his spare time back in 1956 he represented the United States of America at the Olympics Down Under with his 2nd love- The 1500 M freestyle!  I say 2nd love because his 1st Love is Nancy, his beautiful wife!

Then just for kicks these days he is tackling Mega Swims around the world—No biggie for Brother Radcliff!

I had an opportunity to converse with Mr. Radcliff recently to do this interview and that conversation has happily become a dialogue.

TW: So tell us how it all began Dave.  What drew you to swimming?

DR: I went to San Diego High School.  My first year as a Sophomore I played basketball, and while it was fun, it certainly was not my sport, plus I was way too short.  So a friend and I decided to try swimming in our junior year.  He was more assertive than I was and he tried out for the City swim team during the summer.  He made the team and learned a lot about the sport.  In the fall when school started, he took me to the City team with him.  The Coach, Bill Lucas, took one look at me and told me to come back and try out again when I was a better swimmer.  He said their program was about to close down for the winter and there was not time for me to learn how to swim correctly.  My friend’s Dad was in the Navy and my friend took me to a Navy pool and taught me the things he had learned during the summer.  I still remember the first evening when everything clicked and I went 16 laps without stopping.  I had finally gotten the breathing correctly.  I made the High School team and joined the City Team and swimming became my life, my thing, my passion, my obsession.  I had found myself in swimming.  I was a small nerdy guy and swimming became my way of gaining acceptance and making many new friends, plus I just loved the training and everything about swimming.

TW: Yes indeed!  Tell us about your early training and perhaps a foundational moment for you in the beginning.

DR: My early training was all under Bill Lucas, the Coach of the San Diego Swimming Association.  Bill was an outstanding swimmer.  Everyone said he would have been on the 1940 Olympic team except for WWII.  Bill was a lifeguard for the City of San Diego.  Part of his job was coaching the city team.  We did not have to pay any fees for the team or for the use of the City pool.  Money was very tight for our family and being able to swim for free in a quality program made swimming possible for me.  I was very lucky.  Probably the foundational moment for me was after my first or second swim meet.  I climbed out of the pool and went up to Bill and asked how I had done.  He looked at me and said, “Were you able to climb out of the pool

after the race”?  I said yes and then he said, “if you can climb out of a pool after a race then you have not given 100%”.  Did Bill actually expect me to swim until I was unconscious?  I do not think so.  However, he saw in me the ability to be a distance swimmer and he knew this required an attitude and a mind set to swim through pain.  The 100% was a way of challenging me to swim harder and keep going.  It worked.  I started pushing myself and swimming harder.

TW: Looks like it worked!  Who were your early influencers?

DR: Number 1 was Bill Lucas.  The swimmer I became was because of his coaching and friendship.  Number 2 was the group of friends I made on the high school team and Association Team.  Being part of a team and having great friends was major.  Number 3 was my parents.  They were very supportive.  My Dad was a Minister and at first I was not allowed to swim on Sunday (think Chariots of Fire movie).  As I progressed and became a better swimmer I was needed on team relays.  So my Dad gave me permission to swim Relays.

Then he turned the decision of Sunday swimming over to me.  I decided that I wanted to swim on Sundays when there was an event.  My parents supported this decision and my Mom attended and my Dad would show up after Church.  This was special and a real learning situation for me.  I know that maybe I had not made the initial decision they were hoping I would make but then they supported me in the decision I had made.

TW: I think I speak for all Masters Swimmers when I say I’m very glad you made that particular decision.  What was the aquatic path that took you to the Olympics in 1956?

DR: Following my two years of swimming in High School, I knew that I wanted to swim in College.  Swimming scholarships were few and far between back then.  Because my Dad was a Minister, I received free tuition at a small college in Penn (Westminster).  I went there my freshman year.  I had a good year but it was too far from home.  For financial reasons I had to travel by Greyhound bus.  Three days to cross the country to get to college.  My good friend Bill Spore was going to Cal Berkeley and he asked me to transfer and attend Cal.  I thought that sounded great.  My Mom and I drove to Cal and met with the Coach, George Schroth, during the summer.  He arranged for Bill and I to get jobs “hashing” in a Sorority and in the fall, I headed off to Cal for my sophomore year.  I had to sit out actual competition that year because of the Transfer rule.  I was allowed to workout with the team.  I enjoyed the training and being with the team.  I swam for Cal during my Junior and Senior year.  I was All American in the 440 and 1500 meters both years.  I did not compete in the NCAAs because Cal’s swim season at that time was in the spring.  At the end of my senior year (1955) I figured that my swimming days were over.  Summer Nationals were in Los Angeles that year so I swam during the summer and competed in the Nationals.  In September I was drafted into the Army.  I said goodbye to swimming and headed off to be a soldier.

In my last week of basic training, I received a letter from the State Department and AAU.  I had been selected to be a member of a Goodwill Swim Tour to Southeast Asia.  This was all based on my performances at the Summer Nationals.  The Army gave me TDY (Temporary Duty) and I began a great adventure to Southeast Asia.  At the end of that trip I said goodbye to swimming again.  I was now in Engineering Company and was soon put on Orders to Europe.  Three days before I was due to leave I got called into the Captains Office and I was told that my Orders had been changed and I was being sent to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California to train for the Olympics.  Hello Swimming, I am back again.  I was part of the first group of Cold War athletes to be trained while in the Military Service.  This was in response to what Russia was doing.  There was no Army Coach just about a dozen former College Swimmers and we trained ourselves.  One of the Swimmers, Don Sonia from North Carolina, wanted to become a coach.  So soon he became our unofficial coach.  In August we went to Detroit for the trials.  I swam my best 1500 and qualified third.  Back then they took 3 swimmers for each event.  I was so lucky because now third place is the heartbreak place, as they only take two swimmers.

The big question at this point was, Now what is going to happen.  The Olympics were in Melbourne, Australia, and that meant the Seasons were reversed.  So the Summer Olympics were being held in late November and early December.  Back then there was no concept of a National Team or a training camp.  In Detroit we were told to go home and meet again in Los Angeles in November.  The Army came through big time for me at this point.  They kept Don Sonia as the coach and me as the swimmer at Fort MacArthur.  I trained in the morning at the Army pool, and then in the afternoon, the Army provided a car and we drove to USC and the 1932 Olympic Swim Stadium for a long course workout.  Don was on the cutting edge of the new techniques about interval training and I had great workouts at both pools.  I had no other responsibilities in the Army.  I only trained for the Olympics.

TW: That’s the way it really should be!  Describe the training techniques you used in the beginning to those of today.

DR: In the beginning, under Bill Lucas, we trained with a lot of straight swims, kicks and pulls.  Bill broke up our workouts with fun pursuit relays and stretch cords.  He had cut up old inner tubes and we would tie these around our waist and try to swim to the other side of the pool.  These swims and the relays were an early type of Interval training for me.

In College at Cal, it was more of the straight swims of half a mile to a mile.  There were also a lot of straight kicks and pulls.  At Cal we did not do Intervals but there were several other training techniques that in a way introduced the interval ideas.  I did a lot of slow / fast swims.  These swims varied from 1 lap slow / 1 lap fast to 25 slow / 25 fast and then 50 slow / 50 fast and up the ladder to 200 and back down.  So in a way I was getting a type of Interval training.  The other usual thing I did was swimming while tied to a rope around the Life guard tower.  The theory here was that I was pressing against “dead” water and that would increase my strength.

My Army Olympic training introduced me to Interval training.  My main memory of this was 30 x 50 on a minute in a LCM pool.  In Melbourne I actually got to train a few times with “Doc” Counsilman and George Breen.  I do not remember the actual workouts but I know we did Intervals.

Today in Masters, my workouts with the Barracudas are built around Interval training.

TW: I think I might die if I showed up next to you in a workout there!  So what important changes have you witnessed in Swimming?

DR: The training methods discussed in the last questions.  To me the use of goggles has been one of the biggest changes.  I do not miss those red, tearing, chlorine eyes from my early days of swimming.  The number of people swimming and how young they are when they begin.  The way the times have dropped is almost unbelievable.  I cannot believe how fast swimmers are now going.  I also think that swimming has always been a coed sport since my early days and has supported the growth of girls/women in sports.  I had girls on my high school team that I coached.  I was proud when some of these girls became the first to earn varsity letters in a so called boys sport.

TW: Yes!  Tell us how you found out about Masters swimming.

DR: I was visiting a friend on the USC campus in the late 70s or early 80s and there was a Masters swim meet going on.  I think that was the first time I had actually seen a meet with older swimmers.  I did not start Masters at that time but the thought was in my mind.  As I got ready to retire, I decided to get back in the pool and that swimming would be a wonderful retirement activity for me.  A friend who played senior tennis told me how great it was to travel to tournaments and play with players from all over the World.  Everyone had common interests, so there were great friendships and exercise.  I thought if it worked well for tennis, that it would work well for me in swimming.

TW: And it does!  What does Masters swimming mean to you and what has it done for you?

DR: Masters swimming has been the most important part of my retirement.  The exercise has helped to keep me healthy and when I have hit those “road bumps” (i.e.: prostate cancer, and major heart attack) I have been in condition to fight through them.  My wife and I have traveled to different parts of the World and USA for meets, and this has been very special.  Besides the health factors, you have to put friendships right up there at the top also.  We have met so many great people around the World and in our Country.  Social contact and exercise have made for a great retirement.

TW: You’ll have to pardon me on this one Dave- I can’t imagine you ever retiring from anything!  What motivates you on a daily basis to keep on swimming?

DR: I have always enjoyed the training aspect of swimming.  I like feeling that I am in shape.  I am not a couch potato.  I do not enjoy just sitting around.  I want to be doing something and swimming has given me the energy to stay active.  I also look forward to the social give and take at the pool with all of my friends.  It is fun!

TW: You have a huge amount of Masters Records.  What is your most important goal for the future?

DR: One of my goals is to always see how close I can stay to my times from the previous year.  It is my way of fighting old age.  A new goal has been to just enjoy the experience and even if my times are not as fast as I want them to be, to just enjoy the whole experience.  New experiences and or locations are also a goal.  The whole process leading up to the Catalina Channel swim last year was neat.  The cold water training, the night training, the Trans Tahoe Relay, and then we were successful.  What more could you ask for.

My number one goal for the future is to just keep on swimming and loving it.  Part of that Goal involves a trip this summer to Omaha for the Olympic Trials.  Older Olympians from previous teams are invited back to watch the Trials.  The 1956 Team that I was on is going to be one of the highlighted teams and will be introduced at the Trials.  Sixty years later, the Olympics are still creating memories for me.  How can you not love our Sport?

TW: Amen!

DR: Shortly after I returned from the Olympics my Mom said to me, “Treat your sport with the respect that it deserves”.  I thought about what she said to me a great deal during my coaching days and I think about it now during my Masters swimming days.  I love the concept of respect for our Sport of Swimming.  It is almost mystical to me how much swimming has done for me and how much it has influenced my life.  Yes, this interview we are having now is about me but the real credit belongs to our Sport.  Swimming is what has made it all possible for me.  To me, to give back to swimming and to treat it with respect means that I should always be available to help swimmers and in that way to help Swimming.

I am not a casual swimmer.  I am a very serious swimmer because the sport has given me so much.  I am paying it back with my respect by always trying to do my best.

TW: Spoken like the True Champion that you are Dave.  Thank you so much for sharing your incredible journey and your incredible attitude with us!  I can predict without fear of contradiction that you will be setting many more world and national records!

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