Sink or Swim: Legendary Olympic champion triumphs over rough waters   

Charley Daniels was 12 years old in 1897 when his father seized the moment to turn his scrawny little son into an athlete. Attaching the kid’s swim trunks to a line suspended from a fishing pole, he tossed the boy into the deep water of a New York natatorium and said, “Swim.” Kicking and flailing in an attempt to stay afloat while gulping more water than air, the only lesson the boy learned was what it feels like to drown. The only person more ashamed than Charley Daniels was his father.

Seven years later, in St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Daniels became the first American swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, taking home gold in both the 220- and 440-yard freestyle swimming events. Four years later, in London, he took gold in the 100-meter freestyle swim. After achieving a total of seven Olympic medals and setting two world records in freestyle swimming events, Daniels ultimately settled in mid-Carmel Valley, where he died, in 1973. He was 88.

But there’s more to the story. And author Michael Loynd learned and felt enough about it that he was inspired to write a book. “The Watermen,” published June 7 by Random House, chronicles the birth of American swimming, says Loynd, and one young man’s fight to capture Olympic gold. Early readers consider it a feel-good underdog story for anyone who felt their heart quicken and their perspective change while coursing through “Seabiscuit,” “The Boys in the Boat” or “Perfect Storm.”

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Loynd lives in St. Louis. Although Daniels ultimately lived out his post-Olympic life in Carmel, not far from the home where his beloved granddaughter, Mary Ellen McCormick lives today, his life and his story began in New York.

In the beginning, it seemed Charley Daniels’ repeated return to the water was a desperate attempt to prove his worth to his father, a naturally powerful athlete, and, perhaps, to himself. Yet in time, he found himself comfortable in the buoyancy of this other world, where he could float, weightless, flip underwater, feel strong and free and, in some way, connected to the man who had ultimately abandoned his mother and himself, leaving nothing but debt and scandal in his wake.

Inspired writing

Loynd had written and published a novel before. “All Things Irish” came out in 2008 and did some time on the Amazon bestseller list. He isn’t Irish, but his wife Katie is, and her tales of working in a Celtic store inspired the title and the yarn he wove into a really fun read. Moreover, the experience gave him a sense of how to explore, develop, and craft another one. Particularly when he found the premise so intriguing.

Competitive swimming in 1904 was akin to crisis. And that scrawny kid from New York didn’t win gold at the Olympics by developing enough brute force to push past the Europeans. Instead, he used finesse. Experimenting with his breathing, he took a breath, not with every stroke but after every two or three, with a quick turn of his head to the left, as his right arm came down, instead of lifting his head, facing front and stroking forward. With this, he was able to extend the reach of his arms.

“. . .rather than stabbing his fingers at a sharp downward angle, he discovered that an extended reach forward let him catch more water that he could pull back longer, generating greater propulsion.”

Loynd’s fascination with the man who perfected side breathing and the American crawl stroke inspired him to learn more about him. He wanted to explore enough of his story to understand who he was — his fears and struggles, his motivations and achievements — that he might bring him back, introduce him to a contemporary audience, and let readers imagine what it was like to swim in cold, unfiltered water, without goggles, dependent on muscle instead of method to reach the wall first.

At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, setting seven world-record times, all without wearing goggles, which were first allowed at the 1976 Games.

Michael Loynd did his research. Six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, ranked among the all-time greatest athletes in the heptathlon and the long jump, connected Loynd to three-time Olympic gold medalist and U.S. Olympic Hall of Famer, swimmer Rowdy Gaines, which led to a conversation with 11-time Olympic medalist swimmer Matt Biondi, as well as Mark Spitz.

“I asked what it was like to swim a 100-meter race, what they were feeling, and what they did, leading up to the race,” said Loynd. “Everyone was so knowledgeable and generous with their time and perspective and information.”

On dry land

After the 1908 London Olympics, from which Daniels brought home the gold in the 100-meter race, he married and began showing up at swimming pools and events, trying to promote the U.S. competitive swim program and groom the next generation of Olympic-level swimmers. Still at the top of his sport, he planned to compete in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm yet chose instead, to pass the torch to Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, later considered the “father of surfing,” who went on to become a five-time Olympic medalist during the next three Olympic Games.

“My grandfather eventually divorced, came to Carmel, and married a woman from South Carolina, who had a brother in Salinas,” said Mary Ellen McCormick, who first visited him in 1959 and moved to Carmel in 1995. “I think he also came here to play golf, in which he won two amateur tournaments in the ‘50s. I went over to Poppy Hills and found a trophy with his name on it.”

McCormick recalls that her grandfather, who’d built an Eichler house next to the Carmel River, when told to evacuate his home during a flood warning replied, “If I can’t swim my way out of this, the water can have me.”

“My grandfather would have swum anywhere, everywhere,” she said. “I remember, from a very young age, swimming on his back, holding on tight. Now, I swim in Pebble Beach, but I’m not going to set any records.”

Loynd, a frustrated swimmer who believes he was given the passion but not the genetics for it, also became a frustrated writer who ultimately turned to law, commencing with his Juris Doctorate from Washington University Law School in St. Louis. He has always maintained, if he ever became good enough or lucky enough, his writing career might resume. Perhaps it was a matter of finding the right story.

“This book has been a wonderfully fun ride,” he said. “I woke up excited to research it, to give meaning to what I found and when writing it, I was so excited to tell the story. I thank Laura Hillenbrand, whose ‘Seabiscuit’ cracked the mold for narrative nonfiction. I reverse-engineered it and learned everything I could from it to develop my own. I also appreciate the Olympic swimming community for their input, in particular, Charles Daniels.”

Inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honor Swimmer” in 1965, Charles Daniels died in Carmel in 1973, one year after Mark Spitz reportedly broke his record.

“The Watermen” is available at River House Books at The Crossroads Carmel and online. 

Contributed by local news sources

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