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Chris von Saltza Was Swimming’s Teenage Sensation At The 1960 Olympics In Rome

By Karen Price | Aug. 30, 2020, 9 a.m. (ET)

Chris von Saltza, left, and Ursel Brunner, right, after a preliminary 100m freestyle event where von Saltza set a new Olympic record at 1:10.9.


Watching Katie Ledecky’s record-setting swimming career since her international debut as a 15-year-old at the Olympic Games London 2012 has brought back so many memories for Chris Olmstead.

“It’s mind-boggling,” the 76-year-old said, laughing, when asked about some of Ledecky’s achievements, including becoming the first American woman to swim 400 meters in under four minutes.

Olmstead knows better than most what it’s like to be in Ledecky’s position. Heck, Olmstead was Ledecky back in the 1950s when she was Chris von Saltza, the teenage swimming sensation whom Sports Illustrated dubbed “the best freestyle swimmer ever developed in America” when she was just 14 years old. Two years later, von Saltza set the world record in the 400-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials and then won three gold medals and one silver medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

But at 17, the same age at which Ledecky dipped under four minutes in the 400-meter, Olmstead was already retired. In the era before Title IX, what limited opportunities there were for women in athletics during high school certainly didn’t extend into college. Olmstead knew she wanted to further her education, so her only choice was to leave swimming behind.

“In my mind the Olympics were going to be after my junior year of high school and I figured I’d swim through high school and that would be it,” said Olmstead, a 1966 inductee into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. “There was no way I was going to be able to continue with my coach and train after I went to college, even though I was hoping to go to Stanford and it wasn’t that far from my coach. The reality was that it wasn’t practical and nobody did it.”

Schools didn’t have girls ’sports when Olmstead was growing up in the Bay Area, but there were club teams for tennis, golf and swimming. When George Haines, the local high school boys ’swimming coach who would go on to a Hall of Fame career himself,

started a recreational team, Olmstead’s parents had Chris, then 11, and older sister Karen try out. Soon they were taking part in the burgeoning field of age-group swim meets.

Olmstead quickly stood out.

She tried out for the 1956 Olympic team at the age of 12 and just missed out, but the experience proved that with hard work she could make the 1960 team. By 13, she was working out before and after school, six days a week, with the Santa Clara Swim Club and Haines.

In the summer of 1958, at the age of 14, she set new American records in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter freestyle races within the span of the week, with the 100 and 400 coming on the same day. Sports Illustrated put the teenager on the cover that July, calling her the nation’s best swimmer.

Six members of the 1960 U.S. Olympic swim team came from the Santa Clara team: three men and three women. It was a 24-hour flight from New York to Rome on a propeller plane, Olmstead said, and once there they found the accommodations of the Olympic Village less than ideal.

“They put up these big cement buildings with beds, but they didn’t even have curtains on the windows and it was right by an elevated freeway,” she said. “It didn’t take us long to figure out why cars were stopped on the freeway and people had binoculars. We had to put up towels.”

Swimming was early in the Olympic program, and the U.S. topped the leaderboard with 15 medals over rival Australia with 13. Olmstead won gold in the 400-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter freestyle and medley relays, to go along with a silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle. Both relays set world records.
I’m just glad things have changed, that the whole spectrum of women’s opportunities are available at all levels starting in grade school.

Chris Olmstead

A year later, Olmstead started her freshman year at Stanford, where not only was there no women’s swim team but women weren’t even allowed in the men’s pool. It wasn’t until after the passage of Title IX in 1972 that women’s college athletics became widespread and the Stanford women’s swimming program would go on to capture a record 11 NCAA titles (including two with Ledecky, in 2017 and ’18).

“It bothers me sometimes, in old age, to think I wasn’t more aggressive in wanting to see (participation in college sports) happen, but I was a dumb 16-year-old,” Olmstead said. “I retired at 17. It was just the way it went. I went on to another life. I know some of the athletes who fought hard to get Title IX, but I was not one of them. I went on to college,

got married, started a career at IBM and otherwise redirected my energies, but I applaud those women in particular who took that on as a mission.”

Olmstead and Ledecky struck up a friendship prior to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, and Olmstead now thinks of her as family. It’s allowed her to go back and get more involved in the swimming world, Olmstead said, and to enjoy a lot of the things that she’d put to rest long ago.

“Just thinking back on it, reconnecting with friends, watching the competitions, all that sort of stuff,” she said. “It’s just been a real blessing. My relationship with her has allowed me to recapture a lot of the specialness of what happened to me and I’m very interested in her success at all levels.”

It’s also allowed Olmstead to see what she missed by not having the option of swimming in college. She doesn’t think she would have wanted to turn pro, she said, but it’s “hard to know because that wasn’t an opportunity.”

Had Olmstead not had the success she did at the Olympics in 1960, she said, maybe things would have been different. Maybe she would have kept swimming and tried to make the 1964 team. With her tremendous success in Rome, however, she was content to move on.

She has no regrets.

“I wish I had the opportunity to continue swimming in college; I do wish that would have been available to me,” she said. “But I don’t spend a lot of time obsessing or worrying over it because it wasn’t available for some time after I’d come and gone from college. I’m just glad things have changed, that the whole spectrum of women’s opportunities are available at all levels starting in grade school. My grandkids have so many opportunities, and none of that was available to me. For that I’m really glad.”

Karen Price

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.