Lessons from Legends: Mike Burton and Rick DeMont, Performance Greatness


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

Are you getting ready to swim in a championship competition? Want to learn from a legend?

Six-time Olympic Coach George Haines once called Mike Burton the “toughest man” ever to put on a swim suit. Here is an example of why the legendary coach would make such a statement.

For five years, Burton was the most outstanding male distance swimmer in the world. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, he won the 400-meter freestyle and then the 1500m freestyle. He dropped 37 seconds off the 1500 global standard over the course of four years.

In 1972, he was 24 years old – considered a veritable dinosaur at that time – and suffered through an illness during the winter. At the August Olympic Trials in Chicago, he failed to make the Olympic team in the 400 freestyle and then the 200 butterfly. On the next-to-last day of the Trials, he snuck into the finals of the 1500 when he finished eighth. In the finals, he managed to finish third place, which in 1972, slipped him onto the team. The winner of the 1500 at the Trials was 16-year old Rick DeMont, who established a new world record of 15:52.91.

One month later, at the Munich Games, DeMont’s explosion onto the world scene was overshadowed by Mark Spitz’s, “Phelpsean” performance of winning seven gold medals in seven world record-setting times. DeMont won the 400 freestyle gold medal and looked poised to win the 1500 as the swimming events came to a close. But the USA medical staff failed to make note of a banned asthma medication on his submitted medical record, causing the Olympic officials to strip DeMont of his gold medal and disqualify him from swimming the 1500 finals.

Mike Burton stepped up on his starting block while the American contingent hoped for any kind of medal.

Burton loved to start out fast and was the early leader even over Australian star Graham Windeatt. But Windeatt fought back and regained the lead. Iron Mike overtook him on the closing lengths, broke DeMont’s world record and won the gold medal for himself and the United States.

Who was the first person to greet Burton at poolside? Rick DeMont. A performance for the ages was met with selfless class oozing from the heart of 16-year old Rick DeMont.

This is performance greatness as an individual and as a teammate. If you’re getting ready for the big meet of your season, keep a few lessons from these two legends in mind: 

  • Even swimmers who set world records sometimes have terrible disappointments. Learn from them and move past them.
  • As Burton showed, and Yogi Berra said, “It’s never over till it’s over.” Most swim meets last several days and you will have lots of races. Keep racing until the last one is done. It may make the difference in feeling like you had a great season.
  • Be a great teammate. Even if everything is falling apart in your own performance, there are lots of ways you can help those around you. Remember Rick DeMont’s class and emulate it. When you are on fire, be a leader to your teammates and show them you believe in them. 

The following summer of 1973, Rick DeMont became the first swimmer to ever break 4:00 in the 400-meter freestyle, smashed Burton’s world record and battled the new upcoming Aussie distance star Stephen Holland in one of the most incredible 1500 races in history, when both swimmers raced 1650 meters before they were pulled from the pool.

IAnd Then They Won Gold (Small)n the last two weeks of March of 2013, coach Rick DeMont will be helping others learn from his own lessons. He will be coaching for the University of Arizona team where he is one of the most effective swimming coaches in the world.

For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.

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