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.

CHUCK RIGGS: SWIM COACHING HALL OF FAME HONOR LONG OVERDUE?

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, 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

It’s a growing club, one that began assembling in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. beginning in 2002.

There’s Bob Bowman, the Arizona State University coach who helped guide Michael Phelps to a myriad of Olympic gold medals, who joined that exclusive list in 2010.

Add George Haines, who notched 26 women’s national AAU championships, plus another nine men’s titles at Northern California-based Santa Clara Swim Club before becoming head swimming coach at UCLA before heading off to Stanford.

Throw in Ron Ballatore, the five-time U.S. Olympic team coach who took over at UCLA upon Haines’ departure — 10 gold medalists amid a myriad of achievements that included 26 NCAA individual champions.

All three men, among a few dozen more, are part of the American Soccer Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame.

Redlands’ Chuck Riggs’ inclusion into ASCA’s Hall of Fame this year might be considered long overdue.

Chuck-Riggs
Chuck Riggs of Redlands will be inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Association on Sept. 6 (photo by ASCA).

Coming to Redlands as its club coach in the early 1980s, Riggs has a lifetime of swim-coaching achievements that keep adding up even at age 71.

Riggs, a diver during his competitive days in the midwest, is currently operating on the deck at Beaumont High School. That team, plus heading up the PASS Dolphins, is his latest test after spending a few years coaching at the University of Hawaii.

Beaumont was a nice landing spot — willing athletes and a nice facility.

“I’ll do it,” he said, “until I’m not having fun anymore.”

In his early coaching days, he took 11 Riverside Aquatics Association swimmers to the 1972 Olympic Trials.

Let’s see — 1972. Wasn’t that the year Robin Backhaus claimed a bronze medal at the Munich Olympics, better known as the Mark Spitz Swimming Invitational?

Riggs admits to a small role in Backhaus’ training.

Riggs met the Hall of Fame criteria long ago. Some criteria off that list:

  • Placing two teams in the Top 10 at the USA Swimming Nationals, or NCAA Division I (top 10), II or III (top 2).
  • Personal coach for two, or more years, of two individual USA summer national champions.
  • Personal coach for two years, or more, of two individual USA Olympic or World Championship (long course) medalists.
  • Personal coach for two, or more, years of two world record holders.

Around these parts, Riggs has made more than a contribution to swimming.

ASCA’s Hall of Fame missed selecting him for years.

“All it took,” he said, “was someone to nominate me.”

RIGGS, RST HAD QUITE A RUN

Riggs could be excused for wincing every so often over another top-flight swimmer — Shannon Cullen.

A likely Olympian, Cullen was a contemporary — an outright competitor — of multiple Olympic medalist Amanda Beard. On the road to an Olympic career out of Riggs’ Redlands Swim Team program, Cullen took off on a full-ride scholarship to swimming-rich USC.

That sport might’ve been awaiting a major showdown between the two medley specialists, Beard and Cullen. It couldn’t have been set up any better.

Beard went on to international acclaim. Cullen chose a different path.

“She got a boyfriend,” said Riggs, “who she later married.”

Some two decades later, Riggs was asked to reminisce about the fabulous Cullen.

“She’s still married to the same guy,” he said, “and they have three beautiful kids.”

Riggs’ RST club produced well — in the water and out.

Vicky West went to Northwestern.

Steve Messner went to Cal-Berkeley.

Alicia Wheelock? Arizona State.

Evan Castro showed up at Utah.

Temple Cowden splashed in at Fresno State.

Yale got Erin Carlstrom and Cole Heggi.

Auburn landed Heather Kemp and Karl Krug.

Speaking of Auburn, Ben Worby went to arch-rival Alabama.

Then there’s Krug.

Krug, along with another Redlands sprinter, Joey Hale, became the first prep tandem in history to record sub 20-second clockings in the 50-yard freestyle at a high school championship meet.

In 2008, Krug, Hale, Tyler Harp and Mike Perry combined for a 1:21.94 clocking in the boys 17-18 division at the U.S. National Championships.

Dozens of swimmers through the years reached U.S. Senior and Junior Nationals, plus the Olympic Trials.

SETTING UP CHAMPIONSHIP WORKOUTS

Then there’s Cynthia Woodhead, who’s known to the swimming world as “Sippy.” At one point, Woodhead held no less than 16 world records.

Woodhead would have been an Olympian in two Summer Games if not for the U.S. boycott of 1980 when she was just 16. By 1984, the Los Angeles Games, she was still in racing mode.

Sippy Woodhead
Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead in a familiar pose — winning a race. The onetime 16-event world record holder initially trained under Chuck Riggs, whose coaching career was just getting underway during his days as Riverside Aquatics Association coach (photo by Sippy Woodhead).

Woodhead won Olympic silver in the 200-meter freestyle.

There were seven world records, plus 18 American records.

Multiple medals at the 1978 World Championships, three gold and a silver.

Five gold medals at the 1979 Pan American Games.

In the 1983 Pan Am Games, Woodhead picked up a gold and silver medal.

There was a total of 18 U.S. national championships, ranging from the freestyle, medleys, butterfly and multiple relays.

Not all of Woodhead’s marks were associated with Riggs. She swam in Mission Viejo — Hall of Fame coach Mark Schubert — for a couple years before landing at USC.

Riggs, however, set up her initial path.

At age 11, Riggs had Woodhead in his senior group in 1975.

The plan was simple, yet complex. It was always early-morning workouts balanced by late-day sessions.

Riggs was stoking the fires of a 12-year-old Woodhead who set a U.S. record in the 1650-yard freestyle. Woodhead was a world record holder at age 14.

Workouts included 20,000 yards daily.

There were 11 workouts each week.

Throw in weight training.

At Christmas one year, she did 30,000 yards that week — 5 ½ miles in the water!

While the athletes log the workload, it’s the coach that sets the tone, schedules, outlines the pathway and formulates a motivational approach. Non-swimmers probably have no idea what it takes to become a swim champion.

Riggs, throughout his lengthy career, took notes all along the way.

Thirty-seven years in the classroom — Riverside Rubidoux High, mostly — as an English, history and philosophy teacher, Riggs coached two Pasadena City College divers to All-American status.

On Woodhead, said Riggs: “She never argued about the workouts. I sat down with her parents one time and we hashed out a plan when she was very young. She stuck to it.”

Riggs’ Hall of Fame induction, set for Sept. 6 at the World Clinic, scheduled for Anaheim. It’s an hour’s drive from Riggs’ Redlands home.