Swim Fitness Articles
The Descent of an Olympic Champion
Jerry Heidenreich won four medals at the 1972 Munich Games, but he was haunted by the races he didn't win. One month ago, he killed himself, and left in his wake a trail of questions.
By Julia Keller
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published May 17, 2002
PARIS, Texas -- He kept the medals in a butter dish. Two gold, one silver, one bronze. Four medals from the 1972 Olympic Games, medals for which the world's best athletes have given up years of their lives, years of sacrifice and struggle and pain, and where did he keep them? In a butter dish.
But that was Jerry. That was Jerry all over, everybody said.
He didn't mean to be disrespectful -- Lord knows he was proud of his Olympic feats -- but he was also a joker, a tease, a guy who loved to laugh, and you can just see him, can't you, telling friends about where he decided to keep his Olympic medals? Not tucked away in a special box or hung with solemn ceremony on the wall, but right here in a good old butter dish, a round silver one.
The butter dish is on a bookshelf in the green-carpeted master bedroom of the house he bought last summer in Paris, a small town 93 miles northeast of Dallas.
Across the room from the bookshelf is the big double bed. This is the bed where, on the afternoon of April 18, Jerry Heidenreich, 52, swallowed what he had carefully calculated would be a lethal dose of prescription medication, pulled the covers up over his 6-foot frame, turned over on his right side and died.
He left a note on the kitchen counter to his fiance, Belinda Merriman, written in a hand made wobbly by a stroke suffered July 24. "Dear Belinda," the note read, in part. "I just can't take it anymore."
He left everybody wondering, this Olympic champion who put Southern Methodist University on the swimming map, this beloved swim teacher, this second-best swimmer in the '72 Olympics -- the best being a quiet, mustachioed fellow named Mark Spitz -- this life of the party who, the day before he committed suicide, mailed out hundreds of crisp brochures announcing his new swimming school for kids in Paris.
He left a 14-year-old son, Austin.
He left the medals.
He left the mystery.
Spitz and Heidenreich: They were born within six days of each other -- Heidenreich on Feb. 4, 1950, and Spitz on Feb. 10, 1950 -- and they were rivals throughout their collegiate swimming careers, going up against each other dozens of times, Spitz for Indiana University and Heidenreich for SMU. Both had intense, dominating fathers -- Arnold Spitz and Max Heidenreich -- who cajoled and goaded their sons from the time the boys were small.
Spitz and Heidenreich had known about each other long before they reached college, long before they met head-to-head. Competitive swimming at the highest levels is a tiny world, a world of intense, focused individuals who spend six to eight hours a day with their heads mostly underwater, a world of physical and psychological tedium, a world measured in sliced-up seconds.
A world where a hundredth of one of those seconds can mean the difference between first and second place, between fame and obscurity.
Both Heidenreich and Spitz were bright, handsome, superbly talented athletes, the very best of their generation of swimmers. What set them apart was the fact that both excelled in two strokes: the freestyle and the butterfly. Most world-class swimmers focus on one.
Their senior year in college was 1972, the year the Olympic Games were held in Munich. It was inevitable that Spitz and Heidrenreich would meet again for a final showdown.
You know the end of the story, but you probably don't know the story. Everybody in the world has heard of Spitz. But what few filed away in their memories after the Games, after Spitz draped those seven gold medals around his neck and squinted shyly into the endless starburst of flashbulbs, was how close Heidenreich had come to wrecking Spitz's still-unequaled perfection.
Heidenreich's life, you could argue, was determined in less than a second on the night of Sept. 3, 1972.
The trials for the '72 Olympics came just as Heidenreich, who had failed to qualify for the 1968 Games in Mexico City by a hundredth of a second, was peaking as a swimmer, recalls George McMillon, at that time head men's swimming coach at SMU. Heidenreich held the NCAA record in his specialty, the 200-meter freestyle. He, not Spitz, was the man to beat in that event.
But at the trials, which were held Aug. 2-6 in Chicago at the Portage Park pool, the unseasonably chilly weather seemed to constrict Heidenreich's movements in that specialty, McMillon says. He didn't finish with his usual strong kick -- and failed to even make the U.S. team in the 200-meter freestyle.
Another swimmer might have packed it in. Not Heidenreich. "He came to the room I was sharing with Coach McMillon," recalls Richard Quick, then assistant coach at SMU, "and he said, 'Let's go to the pool and start working on the butterfly.' Coach McMillon and I were disappointed, but Jerry had shifted gears and had a new plan and was ready to go."
Quick, now head men's swimming coach at Stanford University, adds, "This man was no quitter."
The next day, Heidenreich swam hard and made the cut to join the U.S. team in the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly, which also made him eligible to swim two team events, the medley relay and the freestyle relay.
Once in Munich, Heidenreich and Spitz both performed magnificently. Heidenreich won a gold medal in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, in which the stellar lap he turned in was pivotal. And he earned an individual bronze in the 100-meter butterfly.
Spitz, meanwhile, had racked up five gold medals and seemed a shoo-in for a sixth, since the last race was the 400-meter medley relay, in which the U.S. team was heavily favored. But for Spitz, the crucial individual race was the 100-meter freestyle, where he would face Heidenreich.
Spitz had ample reason to feel his medal sweep imperiled: In the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, Heidenreich swam his 100-meter lap a tenth of second faster than Spitz. Well on his way to finishing the Olympics undefeated, Spitz didn't want to risk a loss. He considered dropping out of the 100-meter freestyle, according to several Olympic historians.
But Sherm Chavoor, coach of the U.S. women's team and also Spitz's private coach, told his star pupil that if he pulled out, he'd be called -- and this is a cleaned-up version of the pep talk -- a chicken. Also, if Spitz bailed from the 100-meter freestyle, Chavoor warned, he would be scratched from the upcoming medley relay. He'd end up with five gold medals, not seven.
Not bad -- but not history-making, either.
So Spitz stayed in, and the videotape from the ABC telecast of the race that September night still is dramatic. Commentator Keith Jackson's voice rises with excitement. Spitz seems well ahead just after the turn, but then begins to fade as Heidenreich comes on strong. With perhaps a dozen yards to go, the race is up for grabs: It's Spitz -- no, Heidenreich -- Spitz -- Heidenreich --
It was heartbreakingly close: Heidenreich in 51:65 -- and Spitz in 51.22.
"Spitz beat him by half a forearm," said Jim Dolan, a Dallas psychotherapist and Heidenreich friend who has watched the tape over and over.
Spitz was heaped with Olympic glory for winning an unprecedented seven gold medals.
Heidenreich, with his silver in the 100-meter freestyle and gold in the 4x100-meter medley, took a total of four medals. But it was not enough to share the spotlight with Spitz.
In fairness, however, the two of them had spurred each other on, bringing out the best in one another. "In a way," Heidenreich said in a 1992 interview, "he [Spitz] always gave me something to chase and I always helped push him."
After Heidenreich's death, an anonymous editorial writer for the London Independent made the same point: "Behind every genius is a mortal who pushes them on to superhuman deeds. And behind Mark Spitz . . . was Jerry Heidenreich."
Two days after Spitz's triumph, the Munich Games were shattered by an attack that Arab terrorists launched against Israeli athletes, leaving 11 dead. Yet Spitz's fame would transcend even that crisis. Magazine covers, TV guest spots, endorsement deals -- Spitz got the works. In two years, according to published reports, he reaped $7 million. His poster -- the one where he's wearing a swimsuit and seven gold medals -- still is the best-selling Olympic souvenir of all time.
Heidenreich, meanwhile, went back to Dallas, where his father never let him forget. "Dad would bring it up all the time," said Heidenreich's brother Max. "`Don't you ever get tired of coming in second to Spitz?' Dad just didn't know when to quit."
"Swimming", Dolan observed, "is a cruel sport. Any other day, Jerry would've beaten Spitz."
Any other day. Just not that day.
They were swimmers, all four of them. Their parents, Max and Betty Heidenreich, moved to Texas from Terre Haute, Ind., in the late 1940s just so the kids could swim year-round. And swim they did, Max Jr., Krissy, Jerry and Eric.
They swam every day, summer and winter, at the outdoor pool at Preston Hollow Country Club just across the road from their north Dallas home. The Heidenreich kids, spaced four years apart, turned out to be terrific swimmers. Krissy would attend Texas Tech University on a swimming scholarship and marry a swimming coach, Chris MacCurdy; both of their daughters are, in turn, scholarship swimmers in college.
Jerry, however, was something special. "He had an extra gear," recalls his brother Max. It was clear from the time he was 6, his sister added: Jerry Heidenreich was a natural.
Years later, his coaches would call it a gift, a gift as rare and magical as musical talent or math ability. It was a kinship with the water that, no matter how hard the rest of us try, we'll never possess; on the other hand, just possessing it isn't enough. You have to work. And Jerry Heidenreich worked.
"He was an incredible swimmer," says Mike Forman, now a sports columnist at the Victoria Advocate in Victoria, Tex., who was a high school classmate.
Quick says, "What separated Jerry from other people with terrific talent was that he could tell you why he was swimming a certain way. He had an awesome appreciation for technique."
Along the way, he developed the classic swimmer's body: the long, almost gangling arms and legs and relatively short torso, the powerful shoulders tapering sharply into the small waist.
He developed something else as well: a dangerous way of coping with the pressure. Friends say he began smoking and drinking as a teenager, habits that may seem odd for a serious athlete in training but that seemed to calm the jittery, perpetually high-strung Jerry Heidenreich.
At Hillcrest High School, where all the Heidenreich kids went, he had a swimming stroke that was "a little wild," recalls McMillon, who recruited Heidenreich for SMU. "But in college, he got better every year."
By his senior year in '72, he was one of the country's fastest swimmers, even though the self-destructive behavior had intensified. He was, by all accounts, the most intense swimmer -- and the most intense reveler -- SMU had ever seen.
Then came the Olympics.
Then came the rest of his life.
"I really believe," Quick says, "that all athletic organizations need to work a good deal more helping people who reach the highest level of achievement. Many times, that's taken a dedication that borders on obsession. When that's no longer there, how do you direct your life?
"People say, `You have to be balanced.' Well, it's hard to be balanced if you want to be the best in the world."
Heidenreich's life after the Games wasn't quite as smooth as his swimming. He married an SMU classmate shortly after graduation, but that didn't last; neither did his next two marriages. He couldn't find a job he liked; he tried hawking life insurance, working for a radio station, peddling dye packets to banks, selling computer software.
Was he edgy, restless? Didn't seem to be. He shrugged and wisecracked his way through the difficult times. But then again, "You never really knew what he was feeling about anything," his sister says. "Never."
He was a charmer, a rogue, a practical joker, the kind of guy everybody liked to be around. He wore funny hats and concocted silly nicknames for his friends. "He was like a Pied Piper," Quick remembers. "People were fascinated by this guy."
But there was a dark side to the charm. The drinking grew worse in his post-Olympic life, when the days seemed to go on a little too long, the horizon seemed to shrink just a bit.
As novelist John Marquand once wrote, "Success is the end of hope." Heidenreich had had tremendous success -- even though he lost to Spitz, he had four Olympic medals, the first Dallas athlete to earn that many -- and his name still was magic in his hometown. "He never lost sight of the fact that he was a superstar," says his third wife, Sherry Hooper, who still lives in Dallas. "You knew when he entered a room."
She met Heidenreich in the early 1990s, when he was giving swimming lessons at Cooper Aerobics, a 30-acre private fitness complex in Dallas. That was where, at last, Heidenreich had found his niche: teaching the sport at which he excelled. Students say he was a natural at that too.
"He was the best coach I ever had," says Gigi Gartner, a Dallas resident. "He taught me so much about stroke, about the perfect stroke." Echoes fellow student Max Jaffe: "He made it a science. For instance, he'd watch me swim and tell me my wrists were too stiff."
Heidenreich taught classes at Cooper for almost a dozen years, building the program into a powerhouse. He also taught part time at a private school in Dallas. His annual income topped $200,000, a friend says. And, for a time, he stopped drinking and cut down on his smoking.
During this period McMillon, who had retired from coaching and was teaching a wellness class at SMU, often invited Heidenreich to speak to his classes about alcohol abuse. "I was really proud of him for kicking it," McMillon says. Throughout the '90s, he rarely, if ever, drank. And he kept swimming, with times that were phenomenal for his age group.
But some demons don't go away. They seem to go underground and regroup so that when they return, they're stronger than ever. There was the usual accumulation of sadnesses -- Heidenreich's father died of a brain aneurysm in 1985, his brother Eric died of pancreatic cancer in 1998, his mother died of emphysema in 2000, his divorce from his third wife was finalized in 2001 -- and the usual stresses, filtered through Heidenreich's moody, mercurial, high-pitched personality.
The reasons are complex or perhaps they're very simple -- depending, it may be, on your view of human nature and fate -- but Heidenreich was eventually back to his old habits, back to heavy drinking and chain-smoking.
And then, the one thing he could always count on to come through for him, even when the rest of the world didn't -- his magnificent swimmer's body -- turned on him too. Two years ago, he underwent surgery for the first of a pair of abdominal aneurysms. Shortly thereafter, he suffered a mild stroke at a friend's house.
After several days in the hospital -- days during which he sneaked out to buy the soft packs of Marlboros he craved, despite doctors' warnings that they could bring on another stroke -- he seemed to recover quickly. He could still walk, still drive a car. Casual observers wouldn't even know that anything had happened, but to Heidenreich, it must have felt like he was trapped in somebody else's body -- a body that lacked the strength and supple grace he'd always taken for granted. His left side was weakened, his peripheral vision affected.
His contract with Cooper Aerobics was not renewed, with the stroke cited as one of the reasons, sources said. Heidenreich was devastated. And worried, too, about making a living. He decided, just days after the stroke, to move to Paris, where he'd recently formed close friendships.
"I thought it was a bad idea, but you couldn't tell him no," says Max Heidenreich. "He had to prove you wrong."
Just weeks before the end, McMillon wrote Heidenreich a blunt letter about his drinking. "I really, really hated to see him get back on it," he says. Max Heidenreich, now a businessman in Tulsa, saw the same disintegration. "When he drank, he'd get belligerent. He lost jobs because of it."
So it was a different Jerry Heidenreich who moved to Paris from Dallas last summer. He was stroke-weakened, unemployed, depressed, frequently drinking "and really kind of lost," Max Heidenreich says.
It was three decades and a world away from the golden time just after the Olympics, his brother recalls. "Back then, he had his name on billboards. He could do no wrong."
Heidenreich's house in Paris, about an hour and a half drive from Dallas, is set back from the street in what looks like a nest of greenery. It's a large ranch, with spacious rooms and lots of windows and an open, airy feel, almost as if it's perched in a treetop.
He shared the house with Merriman, a soft-featured massage therapist who grew up in Paris, and her son Tyler, 13. The couple met shortly after he began visiting friends here in the spring of 2001. She was instantly smitten with the lanky, fun-loving guy who made her laugh, who didn't seem to have an "Off" switch.
He was almost intolerably hyperactive, MacCurdy agrees. "He had an addictive personality. He was very complex. I could never have lived with him. I would've strangled him," she adds with a sister's well-meaning exasperation.
It was MacCurdy who arranged the memorial service at the SMU pool a week after her brother's death, a service crowded with friends and former teammates. And it was MacCurdy who wondered aloud why the family hasn't heard from Spitz, now a businessman in Los Angeles.
Efforts to reach the reclusive Spitz for this story were unsuccessful. Phone numbers provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee were disconnected. But MacCurdy is sure he remembers her brother.
Because everyone remembers Jerry Heidenreich.
"I would say to him," Merriman confides, " `Slow down. Calm down.'" Her voice was wistful, almost dreamy, reflecting the bemused fondness of someone who still can't quite believe that he won't come walking through the door again 10 minutes from now. "He was up at 5 a.m. Couldn't sit still. It was go, go, go."
Others told the same story: Heidenreich never shut up and never shut down. He was always in motion, wanted to time everything, kept all the numbers in his head. He could tell you the official times for every race he ever cared about. He owned at least 15 stopwatches.
Frank Miller, whose home is a rolling, 55-acre ranch on the outskirts of Paris that he shares with his wife, Stacy, says his friend had a habit of impatiently tapping the face of his wristwatch.
"Time. Everything was time," Miller said.
Heidenreich cleared a trail in the nearby woods about six-tenths of a mile around for use as a racetrack. Gripping the handlebars of a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, he'd tear headlong across the bumpy, rutted path.
"He came in here one day," Miller says, "and he tapped his watch like he did and he said, `48 seconds. That'll stand.' Well, I've gone around that track myself plenty of times, and the best I can do is 1 minute, 3 seconds. That was his competitive nature."
So why would a guy who loved life as much as Heidenreich did, a guy who had a lot of people rooting for him, do what he did?
The stroke, Miller believes, left Heidenreich feeling useless and vulnerable. Even the prospect of opening a new swimming school in Paris couldn't pull him up.
"Finally," Miller said, "he found a race he couldn't win."
Margie Lyon, Merriman's mother, discovered the body. She can't talk about it without weeping, without adding a plaintive, "If only I'd come by half an hour earlier," in her pillow-soft, sweetly melodic Texas accent.
Merriman had taken Tyler to the Dallas airport earlier that afternoon to catch a flight to see his father. She called the house several times. No answer. Worried, she called her mother, who lives just a few streets over, at about 3:30 p.m. to check on Heidenreich.
Shortly thereafter, Merriman's cell phone rang and her life changed forever.
"I didn't want to tell her," Lyon recalls. "But I had to. I said, `He's gone.'"
Paris police have yet to release the toxicology report specifying what sort of medication Heidenreich took to end his life. Lt. Bob Hundley, a police spokesman, said it most likely will be four to six weeks before a final report is issued. But whatever it was, "he knew exactly what he was doing and how much he needed to take," says Max Heidenreich. "He researched everything."
Quick, among others, still can't believe it. "Jerry Heidenreich didn't commit suicide -- not the Jerry Heidenreich I knew."
Heidenreich's house, which is for sale, still seems to be waiting for his return. His clothes hang in the closet. His books are stacked on the coffee table in the living room. His white Dodge Durango is parked in the garage. His voice is still on the answering machine.
The pool in the back yard, the 40,000-gallon one with the eight-foot diving depth, is covered now with a beige tarp. It doesn't look right, somehow. You find yourself wanting to lift the tarp so you can look at the water. Just to get a sense of where he swam and where he hoped to teach the Paris kids to swim. You'd like to see the Texas sky reflected in that water one last time, to see the clouds moving across it.
You might find yourself confused for just a moment or two. You wouldn't be quite sure if you were looking up or looking down, if you were seeing the bottom of the pool or the top of the sky or if, in the end, there was really any difference.
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune
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