“I knew I’d already won because of the way I felt. It was just a matter of when I wanted to start my kick to the wall.”
Russell ’70 and Lanny Bassham ’69 are the two University of Texas at Arlington alumni who have claimed Olympic gold. In addition to the 100-meter butterfly, Russell was part of the U.S. team that took first in the 400-meter individual medley relay.
Bassham shot his way to a gold medal in the small-bore rifle competition at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. A scoring controversy delayed the results for five hours, but officials eventually ruled Bassham the winner on a tiebreaker. During the medal ceremony, he invited runner-up Margaret Murdock, also of the United States, to join him on the gold medal podium. The gesture remains one of the most magnanimous in Olympic history.
This summer a new generation of Mavericks is working to bring home the gold, competing in Rio de Janeiro in August and September. As they take the Olympic stage, it’s worth looking back at Russell’s and Bassham’s victories and seeing how they are now helping others achieve their dreams.
RACING THE RIPPLES
Doug Russell’s swimming career began in the hot Midland summer. At age 8, he’d get to the city pool when it opened, pay his 15 cents, and race to be the first one on deck.
“When you jump in the swimming pool and you’re the first one, it sends ripples down the pool,” he says. “I used to race those ripples to the other end—that was kind of my competitive nature, I guess.”
One day a man asked Russell if he’d like to join the Midland Aquatic Club. He did, thus beginning a swimming career that eventually took him to Arlington State College (now UTA), where he swam for Don Easterling, a tough taskmaster who became like a second father.
In 1968, Russell made the Olympic team and packed his bags for Mexico City. There he’d face his archrival Mark Spitz in the 100-meter butterfly. Both swimmers had previously posted world record-setting times, but had different racing styles. Russell was a sprinter who would go out fast but fade by the 100-meter mark. Spitz, who would go on to win nine Olympic gold medals, came from a distance-racing background and had developed a come-from-behind kick.
“He’d always catch me at the wall,” Russell says. “I never felt like he respected me as a competitor because he’d beat me every time we swam.”
Preparing for the Olympics, Russell developed a new game plan. Instead of his natural inclination of racing all-out, he would hold back a bit the first 25 meters so he could have a powerful kick at the end. In the prelims, he kept to his old ways of going out hard and Spitz won at the wall.
“A lot of parents bring their kids to me not for my swimming knowledge, but for the discipline of the sport, how to deal with adversity and overcome failure.”
Doug Russell remains active in swimming and currently serves as coach of Austin’s Trinity Aquatic Club.
Then, in the final, Russell knew what he needed to do. As the gun sounded, he dove in and started taking his first stroke.
“I caught the top surface of the water a little bit and it calmed me,” Russell says. “It made me pause.”
Spitz was leading by half a body length at 50 meters, but Russell was comfortable: “I knew at the 50 he’d think, ‘I must be out really fast because I’m beating Russell.’”
Coming off the wall after the turn, Russell caught up with Spitz at 75 meters.
“I knew I’d already won because of the way I felt. It was just a matter of when I wanted to start my kick to the wall,” he says. “I was still accelerating when I touched the wall.”
After the Olympics, Russell graduated with a history degree. He took over as head swim coach at UTA after Easterling went to North Carolina State University. UTA eventually ended its swimming program, but Russell has remained active in the sport, coaching Austin’s Trinity Aquatic Club.
“I’m pretty old-school,” he says. “A lot of parents bring their kids to me not for my swimming knowledge, but for the discipline of the sport, how to deal with adversity and overcome failure. We do a lot of goal-setting and talk about how you get there.”
Today, one of his two medals is in the Texas Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame at UT Austin. He gave the other to Coach Easterling.
“He had an Olympic dream way before I figured it out,” Russell says. “We had our ups and downs, but we always worked it out.”
Photographs by Tim Manry (Russell)
Lanny Bassham remembers the day his sixth grade teacher told the class they would be studying the Olympics. She said anyone—even one of them—could work hard enough to one day compete in the games.
“I wonder who would have the best chance?” she asked.
One boy quickly quipped: “I don’t know who would have the best chance, but I know who would have the worst—Lanny.”
Bassham admits he was arguably the worst athlete in school, but he took the put-down as a challenge: “Either I bought that version of me, or I did something about it,” he says.
The following week a friend invited him to a meeting of the rifle club.
“I found out Olympic rifle shooting was a sport where you didn’t have to be tall or fast to be the best shooter in the world, you just had to make your body stop,” he says. “I went to the rifle club meeting and started to shoot, and I got hooked.”
By the time he graduated from Richland High School in 1965, he was a national junior champion and came to UTA, then known as Arlington State College, on an Army ROTC scholarship. He led the college’s shooting team to its first-ever Southwest Conference Championship.
“I was proud of my team,” he says. “We didn’t get any funding at all from the college. We actually funded ourselves by cleaning out the football stadium after games. We raised our own money to go to matches. When I took the trophy to campus, the athletic director didn’t know we had a shooting team.”
After graduating from UTA with a business degree, Bassham made the U.S. Olympic team in 1972 and traveled to Munich to compete.
“I choked and won the silver,” he says. “I realized that I didn’t have a good mental game. So I came home from the Olympics and looked for a course on how to manage the mind under pressure. I couldn’t find one, so I interviewed Olympic gold medalists for the next two years to find out what they were doing about the mental game. I got some incredible information and used it to create a system.”
After Munich, Bassham returned to the Army marksmanship unit he joined after graduation, and four years later headed to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics. In those days, men and women competed together. His teammate was Margaret Murdock, the first woman ever on the U.S. Olympic shooting team. The two tied for first place.
“The tiebreaking procedure back then was terrible,” Bassham says. “It was based on the order of the shots. My last 10 shots were higher than her last 10 shots and that’s the only reason I got the gold and she got the silver. All of us hated that rule.
“When we tied, I just couldn’t handle that,” he continues. “I couldn’t handle the fact that she would have to take home a silver when she shot the same score I shot. I said to our team manager, this would be the perfect time to award a duplicate medal, to be fair to her. This is crazy. She needs a gold medal. Our team manager immediately petitioned the U.S. Olympic Committee with this suggestion, but we were unsuccessful. I couldn’t get her the gold medal. I’m still trying. If there were ever a time when silver should be turned to gold, this was it.”
“If there were ever a time when silver should be turned to gold, this was it.”
During the medal ceremony, on the first note of the national anthem, Bassham pulled Murdock up to stand with him on the top gold medal podium. It was the first time that had ever happened in Olympic history.
After that year, the Olympics instituted a tiebreaking procedure for shooting, and men and women began competing separately in shooting events.
By the end of his shooting career, Bassham had won 22 world individual and team titles and set more than 35 national or world shooting records.
These days, Bassham is focused on his company, Mental Management Systems, described as “a premiere system for managing the mind under pressure.” His client roster includes Olympic shooters and archers, PGA golfers including Justin Leonard and Rory Sabbatini, Miss America contestants, and Navy SEALs. His book With Winning in Mind has sold more than 250,000 copies.
“The best thing in the world as a parent, teacher, or coach is when someone tells you that you have made a difference in his or her life,” he says. “We hear that all the time and it’s pretty cool.”