Remembering Bill Mulliken
August 27, 1939 - July 17, 2014
FORT LAUDERDALE - Sometimes it's not so much who you beat as when you beat them. That was the case for Bill Mulliken, who was credited by 196O U.S. Olympic coach, Gus Stager, with the surprise Olympic gold medal that inspired the U.S. team to beat the favored Australians.
Mulliken swam the breaststroke at Miami University of Ohio and only occasionally beat the beat the breaststrokers from Michigan and Indiana leading up to the 1959 U.S. National Championships, but when it counted you could count on Bill. As his coach at Miami, Raymond Ray, so proudly put it, "Bill has held, at one time or another, the National Collegiate 200-yard breaststroke record, the National Indoor 220-yard breaststroke record, the 1959 Pan-American 200-meter and the 1960 Olympic 200-meter breaststroke records." Ray might have added the U.S. Olympic trials, for without this one more unexpected win, Bill Mulliken would not have been in Rome to put Australia in his “Mulliken stew.”
In 1959 no American was ranked in the top 25 in the world in the 200 meter breaststroke, well below stars like Yoshihiko Osaki of Japan, Georgi Prokopenko of the Soviet Union, and the Australian world record holder, Terry Gathercole.
As a result, the U.S. Olympic Committee decided that the U.S. would send only one 200 meter breaststroker to Rome. At the 1960 Olympic Trials, Mulliken held off a stiff challenge from Chet Jastremski, an up-and-coming talent, and earned his ticket to Italy. Although his time of 2:40.9 established a new American record, it still only ranked him 17th in the world.
Even his father held out little hope for an Olympic medal, Mulliken told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2004.
“It was in the midst of the cold war and my dad had made this comment to me: ‘It really would be good if you could beat one Russian,’” he recalled.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound redhead usually preferred to race against man instead of the clock, but in the prelims Mulliken startled the swimming world by beating Prokopenko in an American record and top-seeded time of 2:38.0, only 1.5 seconds shy of the world record. The 21 year old then faced Osaki in the semi-finals. “We all kind of assumed that Osaki was going to rule the day,” Mulliken said. But again, he found added motivation from his father, who had fought against the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II.
"At the 150-meter mark during the semi-final, I was struck by the `light of Zeus'," Mulliken later recalled, and “went into the zone for sure.” He not only beat Osaki, but set new American and Olympic marks with a time of 2:37.2.
Mulliken's confidence was heightened while waiting in the "ready room" right before his final race. Terry Gathercole from Australia, the world record holder in his event at that time, approached Mulliken.
"He said, ‘You work your ass off for four years and it all comes down to two and a half minutes,'" Mulliken said. "It was a good sign. I thought, ‘Is HE trying to psych ME out?’"
Prior to mounting the blocks for the final, Mulliken recalled hearing Coach Peter Daland shouting, "Bill, you can do it"! This added confidence and he did. Although Osaki paced off Mulliken and made a last-50 surge, it wasn't enough to win.
Mulliken had traveled the journey from dark horse to thoroughbred champion in a few short weeks, winning the final in 2:37.4
So unexpected was the victory that on the night following the victory, Mulliken awakened during a dream in which he had lost his race. "My roommate told me that I went to the armoire in my room and opened it to make sure I had won the gold medal," he says. "Then I crawled back into bed and went to sleep.”
"They showed my race three times in a row on the Jack Paar Show (an NBC late night talk show)," he said. "It was uplifting because Russia really kicked us in the medal count in Rome."
Bill Mulliken was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1984. Active with United States Masters Swimming for many years, Bill made a special point to attend the induction of his old nemesis, Yoshihiko Osaki, into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame during the FINA World Masters Championships in Palo Alto, California, in 2006. Osaki was the founder of Masters Swimming in Japan and one of the world’s great masters swimmers. The old “adversaries” had a chance to compete again, “become friends” and realize that in spite of the hatred in the hearts of their fathers from the war, they had so much in common.
Bill maintained after competing against and getting to know his “adversaries,” from both Russia and Japan, “that (the Olympics) are the greatest movement for peace that mankind has ever known.”
William Danforth Mulliken was born on Aug. 27, 1939, in Urbana, Ill. He graduated from Miami in 1961 and received a law degree from Harvard and was a successful lawyer in Chicago. He passed away after having a stroke on July 17th, 2014. He was 74 years old. In addition to his wife, Lorna Filippini-Mulliken, he is survived by two daughters, Cynthia Lazzara and Julia DeNapoli, and a son, John, from his first marriage; a sister, Sallie Olsen; a brother, John; and six grandchildren.