IT TOOK A WORLD RECORD TO KEEP BACKHAUS FROM OLYMPIC GOLD

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Today, August 28, 2018, is the 45th anniversary of an Olympic moment.

So much history was locked with in the 1972 Olympic Games.

Held in Munich, West Germany, who could forget the slaughter of Israeli athletes by Palestinians in one of the world’s greatest divides?

The U.S. men’s basketball team lost a gold medal that led to an international incident.

Meanwhile, American sprinters Rey Robinson and Eddie Hart, nowhere to be found in the 100 and 200 finals, missed their preliminary heats when they received the wrong starting times.

On the plus side, there was wrestler Dan Gable, marathoner Frank Shorter and half-miler Dave Wottle, who came from behind to win the 800.

At Schwimmhalle, the Olympic swim center at the Munich Olympic Park, an American swimmer was re-writing the record books.

A Redlands swimmer was hot on his trail.

Mark Spitz. Seven gold medals. An American legend.

An Australian teen, Shane Gould, made his own mark with three golds, plus a silver and bronze at age 15.

There was another teenage swimmer at The Games.

That teen, Robin Backhaus, was attending Redlands High School.

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Robin Backhaus, a 17-year-old swimmer at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, won a bronze medal in the butterfly (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Born in Nebraska. Attended Redlands High. His swim club was in Riverside. Wound up in Hawaii. Alabama. In Washington, the U.S. Northwest.

On Aug. 28, 1972, Backhaus won a bronze medal for his third-place performance in the men’s 200-meter butterfly. His time, 2:03.23, finished behind Spitz’s world record 2:00.70, with Gary Hall, Sr. (2:02.86) and Backhaus completing an American sweep.

Imagine that for a Redlands Connection!

A Redlands swimmer beaten only by a world record.

In that 200-fly finale, Backhaus outlasted Jose Delgado, Jr., of Ecuador, by over a second to grab that bronze medal.

Even the pathway to the championship race is littered with challenges.

Backhaus posted the fastest time in the heats leading up to the finals, beating West Germany’s Folkert Meeuw in 2:03.11. By heat four, Spitz won his race and stole away, however briefly, Backhaus’ Olympic record swim.

Spitz, who surpassed Backhaus’ 2:03.11 clocking with a 2:02.11 of his own, claimed the record in that semifinal heat.

The top two finishers from each heat qualified for the finals.

It took that world record swim from Spitz, his 2:00.70 outdueling Hall and Backhaus.

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From left to right, Gary Hall, Sr., Mark Spitz and Robin Backhaus, who swept the 200-meter butterfly event at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Spitz, who won seven gold medals, set a world record in the race (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Delgado, West Germany’s Hans Fassnacht, Hungary’s Andras Hargitay, East Germany’s Hartmut Flockner and Meeuw took fourth through eighth place in the overall outcome. Even Meeuw’s last place clocking, 2:05.57, was world class.

Backhaus was surrounded by superior talent on his U.S. Olympic team:

  • Jerry Heidenreich, two relay gold medals, part of six world records
  • John Murphy, a relay gold and bronze in the 100-back
  • Mike Stamm, silver medals in two backstroke events, plus a relay gold
  • Tom Bruce, former world record holder in 4 x 100 free
  • Steve Furniss, bronze, 100-individual medley
  • Gary Hall, Sr. – Two years before Munich, Hall set a world record in 200-fly
  • Mike Burton (3-time Olympic champion, former world record holder)
  • Steve Genter, gold medalist (silver in 100-free)
  • John Hencken, 13 world records, 21 American records
  • Doug Northway, like Backhaus, was 17, capturing bronze in the 1500-free
  • Tim McKee (3-time silver medalist)

A footnote to McKee: Swimming observers will recall a close finish – losing to Sweden’s Gunnar Larsson by two one-thousandths of a second in the 400-IM – in which the scoreboard reflected a dead heat at 4:31.98. In a controversial decision, event judges named Larsson the winner with a 4:31.981 to McKee’s 4:31.983.

Under new federation rules, timing to the thousandths of a second are now prohibited. It was that race which led to the change in rules.

The U.S. copped 43 medals, seven of its 17 gold medals won by Spitz, two shared in pair of relays.

Spitz, meanwhile, might’ve been caught up in the explosive nature of The Games. As a Jewish American, Spitz was asked to leave Germany before the closing ceremonies. The deaths of those Israeli athletes had left a trickle-down effect for the remainder of The Games.

POST-OLYMPIC CAREER

Domestically, Backhaus won three Amateur Athletic Union titles, at the indoor 200-yard butterfly in 1974, plus the 100-fly in 1973.

He also won NCAA title in the 200-fly in 1975.

His club was based in Riverside. One of his coaches was Chuck Riggs, who would help develop several future champions, including Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead. Riggs was voted into the Swim Coaches Hall of Fame in 2018.

Chuck-Riggs
Chuck Riggs, who was coaching for the Riverside Aquatics Association in the early 1970s, had a hand in coaching Robin Backhaus’ climb to the Olympics in 1972.

Backhaus’ college choice was Washington, later transferring to Alabama, which is where he graduated.

Backhaus, a teacher and swimming coach at Konawaena (Hawaii) High School, eventually surfaced as a swimming trainer in Texas and California for over 20 years.

A year after his Olympic exploits, Backhaus won a pair of gold medals, plus a bronze medal at the 1973 World Aquatics Championships in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

There was a win in his specialty, the 200-fly, plus his part in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay. In the 100-fly, Backhaus stroked home in third place.

Born on Feb. 12, 1955, Backhaus never swam competitively for Redlands High. He’s a Terrier Hall of Famer, though, in the school’s growing history of top-level athletes that includes that likes of NFL’s Brian Billick, Greg Horton, Patrick Johnson and Jim Weatherwax, track & field’s Karol Damon, soccer’s Heather Aldama, baseball’s Julio Cruz and volleyball’s Keri Nishimoto.

En route to the ’72 Olympics, swimmers had to qualify at the U.S. Trials at Portage Park in Chicago.

In the 200-fly, Spitz’s 2:01.53 outgunned Backhaus’ 2:03.39.

Backhaus’ only other hope for another Olympic event came in the 100-fly, but he was unable to qualify at the Trials.

Think of it this way: For a brief time, Backhaus held the Olympic record for that 200-meter butterfly. It took a world record swim, from Spitz of all people, to edge the Redlands teenager for the gold medal.

There would no Olympic Games for Backhaus in Montreal 1976.