Sharon Stouder won four Olympic medals as a 15-year-old swimmer in 1964

The TribuneAugust 27, 2004 

Three thousand people waited at Los Angeles International Airport to catch a glimpse of the 15-year-old getting off her flight from Tokyo. As she moved toward customs, the roar of the crowd and music from a band were nearly deafening.

"Do you hear that?" the customs agent asked the blond Southern Californian. "That's for you."

The fans were there to celebrate a teenager, Sharon Stouder, who had just won four medals, three of them gold, at the 1964 Olympics. Stouder's performance in Japan would later earn her titles such as "Miss Ideal Teen" and "Los Angeles Woman of the Year" at a time before Title IX made women and sports an acceptable pairing.

"It was a different era, " said Stouder, now of Grover Beach, 40 years after her Olympic triumphs. "It was still considered pretty strange (to be a female athlete). I was an exception."

That's why only 678 of the 5,151 athletes in Tokyo for the games were women.

Perception didn't stop Stouder from winning three gold medals and setting world records in the 100-meter butterfly, 4x100 freestyle relay and 4x100 medley relay at the '64 Olympics. She also won a silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle.

But uncomfortable being cast in the spotlight, and challenged by injuries, Stouder eventually left swimming. She did not compete in the 1968 Olympics, though she would have been just 19 years old and nearing the peak of her abilities.

Stouder is now an entrepreneur. She originally fell in love with the Central Coast while coaching in Santa Barbara in her 20s and decided to move here from Northern California to be closer to her children, who attend college in Southern California.

She said she tries to swim to stay in shape but will not compete.

When she did race, Stouder was special.

Bringing home the gold

Stouder did more than set records at the Olympics. She also disrupted the travel plans of a European prince.

Her best performance may have come in the 100-meter butterfly, where she beat former world record holder Ada Kok of the Netherlands.

Based on Kok's past performance, the Prince of the Netherlands seemed confident his countrywoman would win.

"He flew to the games to present her with the gold, " Stouder said, "but I guess I spoiled that."

While Stouder overshadowed Kok in the pool, the opposite was true on the medal stand.

"I have a picture of her hugging me, but you can't see me. She enveloped me, " Stouder said of the 6-foot, 1-inch, 205-pound swimmer from the Netherlands. Stouder was only 5-8 and 135 pounds. "She was taller than me even though she was standing in second place (on the podium)."

Another world record holder did get the best of Stouder in the 100-meter freestyle, Stouder's first event of the Olympics.

She went up against Australia's Dawn Fraser, who at the time was the only woman to complete the 100-meter freestyle in less than one minute. Stouder put up a stiff challenge, but her time of 59.9 seconds was not enough to beat the 27-year-old Fraser, who would go on to win eight Olympic medals in her career.

Stouder still became the second woman -- and first American -- to break one minute in the event.

"I missed my turn because I was watching her and trying to catch her, " Stouder said. "I lost a body length, but I (almost) caught up at the end."

Getting her start

During Stouder's youth in Glendora in Southern California, girls were usually not encouraged to compete in sports.

A fellow swimmer and Stouder's future roommate, Monica Little remembers being an outcast because of her athletic pursuits.

"Looking back on it, I stuck out like a sore thumb, " Little said. "I was the girl with the wet hair."

Stouder, in fact, probably never would have pursued swimming if it wasn't for supportive parents.

Her father, Galen, swam collegiately at UC Berkeley. He became the neighborhood swim instructor, teaching Stouder and several other local children. One of his students joined Stouder on the 1964 Olympic team, while another went on to win an NCAA swimming championship.

Stouder's affinity for the family's backyard pool is what led her father to enter her in her first race. Despite having never trained, the 8-year-old Stouder beat 250 other competitors in her age group.

By age 12, she owned 55 age-group national records.

"I thought, 'Well, this is fun, ' " she said. "I enjoyed racing, and it was reinforced because I was succeeding."

As Stouder improved, she needed to find an Olympic pool that could support her two-a-day training schedule. The best one was 50 miles away in Bell Gardens.

"I swam 10 miles a day and drove 200, " Stouder said about her practices. "My parents made an incredible sacrifice."

The Stouder family had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. so she could make practice before school started.

"I loved to train, " she said.

Teenage celebrity

Nothing about Stouder's appearance or personality gives away her golden past.

"It's not like she walks around wearing the medals, " Little said.

When Stouder was 15, though, she did not have to exhibit her gold to get recognized. In Tokyo, she and a friend had to be rescued by police after being mobbed by adoring fans at a department store.

Some of Stouder's experiences with fame were positive, like the invitation to the White House that she received shortly after returning home from the Olympics.

"When I opened the mailbox, I saw an envelope with 'The White House' on it, " she said. "I thought it was from a department store" in San Francisco with the same name.

It was actually an offer to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House.

A lot of the attention was excessive, though, she said.

"I wasn't in school for five consecutive days (the year after the Olympics), " she said. "I was always catching a flight to go somewhere ... ."

She wanted to "hang out like the rest of the kids" at her high school's homecoming football game. She did not know she would have to march on the field because the entire halftime celebration was dedicated to her.

Then there was a certain date at the movie theater.

Not knowing Stouder's Olympic past, her date took her to Bud Greenspan's film about the Tokyo Games. During the film, Stouder sank further and further into her seat until she confessed to her companion before her past was revealed on screen. The revelation, Stouder said, caused her date considerable embarrassment.

Stouder also was named female athlete of the year by several national organizations, and the Los Angeles Times chose her as 1965 Woman of the Year. There was also a Rose Parade float -- the Miss Ideal Teen -- dedicated to her.

Stouder hardly craved the publicity. She covers her eyes and shakes her head in embarrassment when recalling the awards and accolades.

"I didn't swim for the fame and glory, " Stouder said. "When I came home, it was a different story. I was very reticent (about the fame). I didn't feel like everyone had to (bow down to me). ... Did I invent penicillin? Did I do something really good for the world?"

She didn't want people to judge her based on her past performance, Little said.

"You can be a great person whether you are an athlete or not, " Little said. "She just wanted people to like her for who she was, and not what she had accomplished."

Stouder got so fed up with the "insincerity" surrounding fame, and the multitudes of people who wanted to be her friends because of her medals, that she turned down ad offers from Wheaties and Coca-Cola.

"It got to the point where if I answered the phone I would just say no, " Stouder said.

Burnout

It wasn't just the excessive attention that drove Stouder away from the pool, though. It was a lack of motivation.

"The motivation wasn't there, " she said. "I had achieved my goal. The goal was the Olympics. We hadn't thought beyond that. I had accomplished everything the sport had to offer. I didn't feel I had to achieve anymore. I didn't have to be competitive anymore."

There were other factors that kept Stouder from competing in a second Olympics.

Commitments, such as being a sports ambassador for the U.S. State Department and appearing at awards shows, parades and the like, kept Stouder from maintaining a normal training schedule during her first year back from Tokyo, she said.

Then injuries set in.

Stouder suffered a serious back injury when she started to prepare for the 1968 Olympics. When she returned, she tried to swim in the 1966 nationals but sprained her ankle. The injury forced her to swim "one-legged, " Stouder said.

By the time she recovered from those injuries, it was too late to prepare for the next Olympics, Stouder said, leaving her performance in Tokyo as the centerpiece of her legacy.

Current world records

* 100-meter butterfly: Time: 56.61 (set by Inge de Bruijn on Sept. 17, 2000, in Sydney)

* 4x100 freestyle relay: Time: 3:35.94 (set by Australia on Aug. 14 in Athens)

* Women's 4x100 medley relay: Time: 3:57.32 (set by Australia on Aug. 21 in Athens)

* 100-meter freestyle: Time: 53.52 (set by Australia's Jodie Henry on Aug. 18 in Athens)

Sharon Stouder's results from the 1964 Olympics

* 100-meter butterfly Time: 1:04.7 (gold medal, world record)

* 4x100 freestyle relay Time: 4:03.8 (gold medal, world record)

* 4x100 medley relay Time: 4:33.9 (gold medal, world record)

* 100-meter freestyle Time: 59.9 (silver medal)

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