How the Furniss Brothers – Steve and Bruce – Were Robbed Of An Epic Olympic Showdown
09 January 2024, 03:40am
How the Furniss Brothers – Steve and Bruce – Were Robbed Of An Epic Olympic Showdown
“The Missed Turn” is a regular Swimming World feature that examines overlooked athletes or stolen opportunities. In this installment, we highlight the Furniss Brothers, Steve and Bruce, who were denied the chance to duel in the 200 meter individual medley at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.
Even today, nearly 50 years after the 1976 Olympic flame was extinguished, Bruce Furniss can picture the scene. Just before the start of the final of the 200 meter individual medley at the Montreal Games, he catches a glimpse of his older brother standing behind his starting block.
Even today, almost a half-century after his Olympic career came to an end, Steve Furniss can picture the scene. To the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he stands on the medals podium at the 1976 Olympics, his younger brother also wearing a medal earned from the final of the 200 individual medley.
The Furniss Brothers are American swimming royalty. Their wide-ranging talent in the pool produced national titles, exceptional college careers at the University of Southern California and Olympian status.
Yet, a what-if cloud lingers—a stolen opportunity beyond their control. What would have happened if they had clashed for gold in the 200 IM at the 1976 Games. Would Steve have won? Would Bruce have prevailed? Would they each have earned a medal?
Of course, we’ll never know the answer—the 200 IM was eliminated from the 1976 program. What is inarguable, though, is this: It would have made for one hell of a storyline.
A FAMILIAL SPORT
Swimming has long been a familial sport. Parents who love the water get their children involved. An older sibling who dives into the pool is often followed by a little brother or sister. And so, it’s not surprising that, through the years, there have been numerous instances of world-class excellence emanating from the same family. There were the Kahanamoku brothers—Duke and Sam—in the early 20th century. There’s Gary Hall Sr., followed by his son, Gary Jr. There’s been the sister-brother tandems of Shirley and Jack Babashoff, and Laure and Florent Manaudou.
The Furniss Brothers, too, boast talented aquatic genes.
Like most brothers growing up, they tussled now and again. In the family room. In the backyard. On the basketball court. At practice. Some of the feuds were intense. Others were low-key. But more than anything—and it still rings true in their older years—they shared a deep respect and love, and were only a lane away with support when it was needed.
As Steve and Bruce embarked on their storied careers, they didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Their older brother, Chip, was an elite swimmer, gifted enough to take his skill set to USC. A blueprint existed for enduring family success, and Steve and Bruce were attentive to what worked.
More, the patriarch of the Furniss family, William, kept a logbook of times, numbers that proved to be checkpoints as the younger boys moved through the age-group ranks and beyond. For Bruce, who had two older brothers to follow, he holds a deep appreciation for the path worn ahead of him.
“A key for the family is when Chip went to USC,” Bruce said. “I think (our success) would have been less likely had he not gone there. That was the lynchpin. And for me, I could learn from my brothers.”
The focus of this piece is what could have been, that 200 individual medley that should have been a marquee event of the 1976 Olympics. But before we shift the attention to a moment that got away, we must look at the rich credentials of the Furniss boys.
International acclaim was first gathered by Steve Furniss at the 1971 Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia. Via titles in the 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley, Steve generated momentum heading into the 1972 Olympic campaign. At the Munich Games, he claimed the bronze medal in the 200 IM, finishing behind Sweden’s Gunnar Larsson and American Tim McKee, who also earned gold and silver in the 400 medley, Larsson’s triumph by 2-thousandths of a second!
Silver medals in the 200 backstroke and 400 IM followed for Steve at the 1973 World University Games, and gold-medal repeats in the medley events were registered at the 1975 edition of the Pan American Games. That year, Steve also picked up the silver medal in the 200 IM at the World Championships.
Four years younger than his brother, Bruce broke through on the global stage at the 1975 World Champs, where he was the silver medalist to United States teammate Tim Shaw in the 200 freestyle and 400 freestyle. Bruce also secured a gold medal as a member of the American 400 freestyle relay (coincidentally, the other event eliminated from the 1976 Olympic program) that shattered the world record and would have nabbed a fourth medal if not for his false start on the anchor leg of the world-record-setting 800 freestyle relay.
At the U.S. National Championships in August, Bruce snared the world record in the 200 medley in unique fashion. En route to a time of 2:06.08, Bruce not only defeated his brother, but lowered the global standard that was jointly held by Steve and Great Britain’s David Wilkie at 2:06.32.
“Honestly, I’m glad the record stayed in the family,” Steve recently said of his brother’s record-breaking effort. “It was still our last name. We were competitive with one another, but in the best way.”
While Bruce supplanted Steve’s world record in the 200 IM at the 1975 nationals and broke his own world mark for the third time that summer in the 200 freestyle, Bruce and Steve got the chance to work together on another global mark. Teaming with teammates Tim Shaw and Rex Favero in the 800 freestyle relay, the Furniss Brothers helped Long Beach Swim Club to a time of 7:30.54, an effort that sliced nearly three seconds off the previous world record, set by Team USA at the 1973 World Championships. It’s the last time a club team broke a world record.
The time spent in Long Beach produced more than positive results in the water. The car rides to practice allowed the Furniss Brothers to speak about their feelings, discuss concerns and offer confidence boosts.
“We spoke candidly on those drives,” Steve said. “We really supported each other.”
THE POLITICS OF 1976
Between the conclusion of the 1972 Games and the Trials for the 1976 Games, the International Olympic Committee announced that two swimming events, the 200 IM and 400 freestyle relay, were being eliminated from the Olympic program.
The 200 individual medley was introduced at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, but only endured two Olympiads before its removal. Reasons for the expulsion vary. One reason for the scaled-back program revolves around its significant expansion, moving from 15 events (male and female) in 1960 to 29 events by 1972.
Another theory surmises there were too many opportunities for multiple medals, prompted by the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz at the 1972 Games in Munich. An additional theory is that the events were eliminated as a tradeoff, the other option being a reduction in the number of athletes per event from three to two.
While swimming lost two events, the track and field program remained untouched, a fact that questions whether higher-ups in swimming did enough to protect the sport. Steve Furniss has long believed the individual medley events should have been branded like track and field’s decathlon, revered for their measure of all-around prowess.
“The stroke events were essentially protected,” Steve said. “Where swimming made a mistake was not marketing (the individual medley) properly. They never took the IM and marketed it as a true test of versatility and talent.”
Regardless of why the 200 IM was cut is ultimately inconsequential. Simply, it meant the Furniss Brothers’ long-envisioned dream of battling on the Olympic stage went up in bureaucratic flames. It also forced the siblings to adjust their programs.
Without the 200 medley, which was reinstated for the 1984 Games, Steve qualified for the 400 IM at the Montreal Games. By that time, however, he was dealing with a nagging ankle injury that required surgery, and his body was not as capable of handling eight laps as it was in the past. In the final of the 400 IM at the Olympics, Steve finished sixth, the gold going to Rod Strachan, and silver, for the second straight Games, to McKee.
The schedule in 1976 was more conducive to Bruce. In addition to capturing gold and setting a world record in the 200 freestyle, Bruce helped the United States to gold and a world record in the 800 freestyle relay. Still, he wanted that chance to race against his brother, to walk out of the ready room together and, potentially, stand side-by-side on the podium.
“That’s the vision I always thought it would be,” Bruce said. “In both of our minds, we view ourselves on top (of the podium). For me, I’m on top and he’s on the second step. It’s a picture we’ll take to the grave.”
As the Furniss Brothers answered questions on a Zoom call for this feature, they occasionally exchanged memories from their childhoods and competitive days. They also lauded one another’s ability. Everything was genuine, and an overwhelming theme hovered in the air: They succeeded because they had each other.
“We wanted to beat each other,” Bruce said. “But there was never a feeling of jealousy. We were always there with support.”
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN…
Had the 200 individual medley remained on the Olympic slate, how would the final have unfolded? For starters, the Furniss Brothers would have entered the race with Steve as the former world record holder and Bruce the current standard bearer. But they rightfully note the challenges that would have been posed by Wilkie and Canada’s Graham Smith, the previous and subsequent world record holders in the event, respectively. Wilkie shared the world record with Steve while Smith lowered Bruce’s world record in 1977. In Montreal, it could have been an epic four-way battle.
“All four of us were in the same place and time together, for a race that could have easily been conducted,” Bruce said. “I wish I had suggested the four of us just line up and race without spectators or officials.”
From a strategy standpoint, the Furniss Brothers both indicated a need to attack the front half of the race to build an advantage over the two breaststroke specialists. Heading into the closing freestyle leg, they would have been close, battling stroke for stroke to the wall, with Olympic and family bragging rights on the line.
Oh, it would have been special.
“We missed an opportunity we dreamed of,” Steve said. “It was always dinner-table fodder. We had great experiences in the sport, but that would have been the ultimate.”
For the Furniss Brothers…and the sport.