Dick Roth: The teenager who conquered pain to win gold

The Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. U.S. athlete Dick Roth fell ill just hours later, and his participation in the Games was in doubt.
The Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. U.S. athlete Dick Roth fell ill just hours later, and his participation in the Games was in doubt.

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at William Richard ‘Dick’ Roth's remarkable battle for gold.

The background

Other than being a life changing experience, the pressure of the Olympics can be extremely daunting for athletes, particularly young debutantes.

At the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, an American teenager named Dick Roth went on to achieve greatness not just because of the spectacular skill he displayed, but also the sheer willpower he demonstrated by swimming through pain and adversity.

At just 17, Roth was among the youngest members of the U.S. Olympic contingent and was scheduled to swim the 400m individual medley. However, the night after the Opening Ceremony, Roth experienced severe stomach pain and couldn't sleep at all.

The medical staff in the Athletes' Village took him to a treatment facility to diagnose the reason behind his pain. He was then sent to a U.S. Military Hospital, which was located just a few hours away. It was there where Roth heard the worst possible news from the doctors: his appendix needed to be operated on, jeopardising his participation in the Games.

Speaking to InMenlo.com, Roth recalled the moment he was informed about a possible surgery.

"The diagnosis was acute appendicitis, but I said ‘no way I am having surgery’. Being just 17, I didn’t have the final say. I was kept in the hospital and prepped for surgery. They brought in someone from the Olympic Committee and went looking for my parents, who were enjoying a day of sightseeing before the competition."

Roth was adamant he would participate in the competition - informing both the doctors and his parents about his willingness to swim through the pain.

After some debate, Roth was finally allowed to take part in the competition, albeit with medical pre-requisites including regular blood tests and an agreement to not exercise other than during the race.

The moment

Despite suffering from acute pain, Roth readied himself to face the world’s best swimmers in the 400m individual medley.

It was during the qualification round that he felt the most pain but the teenager was undaunted by his predicament and rose to the occasion to qualify for the final.

"I was in a lot of pain and swam 15 seconds off my pace, but I qualified for the Olympics final," Roth recalled.

Spurred on by his first triumph, Roth prepared for the final, believing that mental strength would overcome physical pain.

But if he was to win gold, he would have to beat two of his biggest rivals: his compatriot Roy Saari and Germany’s former world record holder Gerhard Hetz.

Starting the race slowly in the butterfly and backstroke legs, Roth then came into his own and hit top speed in the freestyle stretch - clocking a time of 4:45.4 that not only saw him win the gold medal but also shatter the world record.

What happened next?

Roth’s exploits at Tokyo 1964 won him international fame and made him a hero back home.

During the next few years, he set several national records in the 200m individual medley and went on to win 11 AAU national titles along with three medals at the NCAA Championships.

In 1987, he was inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

"Winning the gold medal did change my life. It led to absolutely amazing, wonderful things. But being only 17, I couldn’t help but think, ‘what’s next?’ It informed my life a lot. The drive I had to win gold has always been there to call on. But sometimes self-expectations are high,” he told InMenlo.com.

As Tokyo gears up to host the Olympics over half a century after the 1964 Games, the legacy of Roth’s once-in-a-lifetime swim still lives on.