50 Years Later
By: Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D.
As we celebrate the 50th
anniversary of the Yale 1956
Gold Medal Olympic crew this
year, I was asked to share my
reflections on the event and what
it has meant through the years.
The entire experience was further enriched when 5 of us returned as guests of
Australia in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Olympic Games.
The crew was comprised of 4 sophomores coxswain Bill Becklean, # 7 Rusty
Wailes, #8 Bob Morey, # 3 John Cooke 2 juniors, #4 Don Beer, #5 Charlie
Grimes, 3 seniors, #2 Dave Wight, Bow Captain Tom Charlton and # 6 yours
As the years have passed so seemingly has the heroic stature of the 4 races
we rowed on Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, Australia. We lost our opening race
by a hefty margin to Australia and Canada.
We were thunderstruck. Despite being the youngest crew, we knew we were
in the best of condition and had the finest coach, Jim Rathschmidt. It was
totally a matter of confidence.
We had not raced since June and it was then the end of November.
Fortunately the competition had not ended for us as all the losers of the first
day have the opportunity to climb back into the competition through an extra
race - the repechage – in French “to fish again.”
That evening of our opening loss it was up to coach Jim Rathschmidt, and he
used few words but the right words for his young crew. “You are the finest
crew here and I came to Australia for one reason – to bring home some gold!”
The next day we won the repechage race and were now scheduled to meet the
Australians again in the semifinal. We went all out and squeaked out a win by
about 12 feet.
Several of us threw up from the effort and were heavily criticized by the
Australian press for going all out when we merely had to come in second to
qualify for the final. By now we had regained much of our confidence heading
to the final, which was to be our 4th race in 4 days.
At this point Coach Jim Rathschmidt did some clandestine counseling with
Bob Morey our stroke and Bill Becklean our coxswain, which I did not learn
about until June 2006 – fifty years later.
Jim was not at all confident that we could row our usual race at 33 strokes per
minute and win the final. Our main competition would be Canada and
Australia, and he felt they were excellent crews, which in a final would be
going all out, and our 33 strokes per minute would not be enough.
He instructed our stroke Morey and coxswain Becklean to settle to 36 strokes
per minute following our racing start. Why was that so hush hush? We had
never rowed throughout a race at 36 strokes per minute and Jim must have
been concerned there would have been questions and self- doubt about our
capacity to sustain such an effort.
Yale's 1956 Olympic Gold Medal Eight
Just prior to the start of the final, sitting in our shell we performed our last
minute ritual “passing the shake.”
The cox shakes the hand of # 8, 8 shakes # 7, etc., for the length of the boat.
Halfway through this custom, Garth Manton, #5 of the Australian crew
bellowed out, “I say Charlie haven’t you met Don yet?”
Well, just who did he think he was to mock our pre race bonding? It was the
absolutely perfect last jibe to stir our adrenalin. Then it came, “Messeurs, etes
vous prez –partir!” - The universal international rowing start command.
As we were to learn at our 50th reunion with the Aussies, they had planned to
jump us at the start and hold a 20-30 foot lead for the body of the race and
extend it with their closing sprint.
However, our higher stroking foiled that plan because we did not fade early in
the race. We were slightly ahead by 10-12 feet at the halfway point, but our
crafty coxswain was telling us, “You’re pulling even.”
In my 1956 diary I wrote:
“At the halfway point my legs felt like they did at the finish, the higher stroke
was taking its toll physically. Immediately after the start Beck (Bill Becklean,
coxswain) began calling for power tens (all out effort for 10 strokes).
He certainly did not want them to gain too much on us. I was and I guess we all
were putting out too much this early in the race, but I had to know I’d given it all
Anyway by 500 meters according to Beck (everyone seems to have it
differently) we had just about moved up even with Canada and Australia. More
power tens, then Bill yelled, “You’ve got a man on them; you’re going to win
Those words were too delicious to believe, but we had not yet reached the
halfway mark. More power tens and we slowly seemed to eke out about a
canvas (10 feet) ahead. By 1000 meters (halfway) I was shot – my head cold
and the emotional pre race pressure had taken their toll but I still had the desire
and Bill held us together.
As I looked at Rusty’s head I could see it begin to weave a little with fatigue and
I recall murmuring, “Hang on, Rusty.” More power tens and Beck said we had a
bit more than a canvas on the Aussies but he seemed a little afraid of
something and asked us to take it up – 38 strokes per minute.
My legs were like crow- bars and I had to fight on the recovery to get up to full
reach let along drive with the legs. The last 500 meters are still a blank. I
remember the sunlight and hearing the Australian oars off to our left and
behind us a bit.
I remember concentrating on just trying to swing power on and gutting it
occasionally with what little I felt I had left. I pushed my hands to the edge of
the oar handle to maximize leverage.
The crowd roaring was unlike anything I had ever heard and then we took our
final sprint up to 40 strokes per minute and I’d sooner die than quit, but the pain
was god-awful. I was aware somehow of Canada closing ahead of the
Aussies. Suddenly we were over and had won. A nightmare was over.”
With the Australian loss the crowd was hushed and one familiar voice rang
out, “Es” It was Bob Kiphuth, Yale’s legendary swimming coach and a long
time family friend who had taken the train from Melbourne to Ballarat to see the
After tears and some vomiting off the victory platform, we returned to the
boathouse and Captain Tom Charlton declared, “We are the toughest crew
ever put together and we beat the finest”
It was my last race. I had taken so much time from medical school I decided to
repeat my first year and changed schools from Yale to Western Reserve
University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.
Following our victory, we have met every 5 years at the Yale-Harvard race. I’ve
never felt so bonded to a group of friends. Sadly the years are taking their toll
and three of us have died, Don Beer, # 4 in the 1990’s from a brain tumor, # 7
Rusty Wailes in 2002 from a cardiac arrest and #3 John Cooke in 2005 from a
liver malignancy. These are painful funerals.
Those of us who have survived had a glorious time at the 50th reunion in
Australia. The Australian crew were genuinely hospitable, friendly and
While we viewed them as the enemy in 1956, they were now rowing comrades
and wonderful people, as are all oarsmen. Brian Doyle, the Australian stroke
oar, on a night of speech making from all of us, said it most plainly, “The
reason we lost was that we ran into a bunch of Yanks who wanted it more than
How has the Olympics influenced my life since? For some athletes an Olympic
Gold Medal is the pinnacle of their life. I viewed it as a springboard. The
experience provided the utmost in confidence, belief in one’s self, the rewards
of total effort, personal courage, and most importantly persistence.
Following medical school I married Ann Crile and pursued a surgical
residency at the Cleveland Clinic and at St. George’s Hospital in London. I’d
no sooner finished my residency than I was in the Army with one year of my
two years tour of duty spent trying to mend the carnage in Vietnam.
In January 1969 I accepted a staff position in the department of general
surgery at the Cleveland Clinic where I remained for the next 31 years, retiring
Along the way honors and leadership responsibilities occurred such as a
Bronze Star in Vietnam, President of the Staff at the Cleveland Clinic, a member
of its Board of Governors, Chairman of the Clinic’s Breast Cancer Task Force,
and President of the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons.
It is difficult to evaluate the degree to which the Olympic Experience
contributed to these roles, but I am certain about one area of my life where it
has always impacted and continues to do so. That is my research.
By the early 1980’s I was increasingly disillusioned with the focus of the
medical profession. Epidemiological studies of non -western cultures, who
subsisted on plant based nutrition revealed an absence of strokes, coronary
heart diseases, hypertension, Type II diabetes, obesity, impotence, dementia,
colon, prostate and very little breast cancer.
By way of contrast, as the islands of Micronesia and Fiji became wealthy and
adapted a western diet, they developed an epidemic of these diseases.
The natural question was can you arrest and reverse these diseases
especially heart disease through restoring a totally plant based nutrition
eliminating all oils (even olive oil), dairy, meat, processed flour, and excess
In 1985 the Department of Cardiology sent me 24 patients severely ill with
coronary artery disease, a number of whom were not expected to live a year. I
saw each of them personally every 2 weeks for the first 5 years, every 4 weeks
until the 10th year and quarterly until the 12year. At each visit I checked their
diet diary, blood pressure, weight, and lipid (cholesterol) profile.
I reviewed their status last year (twenty years later) and all compliant patients
are living, even the ones expert cardiologists said had but a year remaining.
Their angina has disappeared, cholesterols plummeted, weight and blood
pressure normalized and most strikingly there are multiple examples of
disease reversal and widening of their narrowed coronary arteries. This has
all been written up in peer-reviewed journals. (See my web site,
I have recently summarized all this for the public in: “Prevent and Reverse
Heart Disease” 2007.
While I was not the first to demonstrate one could reverse coronary artery
disease, it would appear that my study, now beyond 21 years, is the longest of
its type. Just how does my Olympic experience play into all of this?
You would think there would be dancing in the streets. Cardiovascular
disease, which is the leading killer of men and women, can be eliminated
through plant-based nutrition.
The reason I am more passionate and determined than ever to get this
information to the public is the unbelievable resistance and apathy from
quarters you would least expect.
While cardiologists freely admit that coronary heart disease is caused by the
animal based western diet, one wonders why do they use as their focus for
therapy drugs and mechanical intervention like stents and bypass surgery,
which they freely acknowledge, is but a mere temporary patch job?
The answer sadly is money, huge guaranteed money for stents and
bypasses. For hospitals these procedures are their big winners. Almost all
cardiologists lack skill, interest, or training in counseling patients toward a
healthier lifestyle. They will say that patients won’t follow such a significant
nutrition change. That is simply NOT true.
There are still plant- based cultures across the globe through heritage and
tradition. My own research beyond 20 years and the hundreds I have
counseled outside of the research study cherish the idea that they have
become the focus of control of their disease.
Industry is of no help. Johnson and Johnson and Boston Scientific both
make drug-eluting stents for narrowed coronary arteries. It is annually a 6
billion dollar market. It has had a record meltdown.
These drug eluting stents require an anti clotting drug for at least 6-12 months
after insertion. There now appears to be unexpected clotting of the stent
when the anti-clotting drug is stopped.
When the stent clots half will have a heart attack and over half die. If you are
asked to continue the anti clotting drug indefinitely you are more prone to
develop bruising or serious gastrointestinal bleeding.
Worst of all there is the panic about stopping the drug when you need dental
work, hip replacement or a colonoscopy for fear of a heart attack or dying.
That has happened.
The elephant in the room here is that after stents and by pass, there is no
decrease in mortality or the incidence of new heart attacks. The drug industry
loves heart disease. The statin drugs are a 20 billion dollar annual market.
Pfizer just spent 800 million dollars on a “miracle” drug to raise HDL good
cholesterol. It raised the death rate so high the trial was canceled. The answer
to an epidemic is not drugs or procedures. The answer is life style.
Where does the government and the United States Department of Agriculture
fit into this picture? The USDA is a disaster. Its leadership is all a retread from
the food industry.
The USDA food pyramid is loaded with the very dairy, meats, oils, and refined
flour that will destroy you. Having the USDA design your food triangle is like
having Al Capone do your income tax.
At our class 50th reunion in June I was not surprised to see so many who
were overweight, even obese and diabetic. Many had had stents or a bypass.
There were others nursing an enlarged prostate or spoke of that gland now
missing. A few attended with dementia and there was a hushed epidemic of
Because of my research displayed in the Class of 1956 Sterling Library
exhibit; I was contacted by a number of classmates. My plea to them was to
consider going plant based. By age 85 years, 50% of Americans have
Alzheimer’s or dementia that is mostly vascular in origin and need not occur.
A strong argument can be made that chronic illness need never exist. There
are still third world and developing nations that consume plant-based nutrition
and avoid heart disease, strokes, diabetes, hypertension, obesity,
osteoporosis, the common western cancers of breast, prostate, colon,
endometrial, ovary as well as gall stones, diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease,
ulcerative colitis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis to mention a few.
Just as a subtle change in temperature from 33 degrees Fahrenheit to 32
degrees Fahrenheit can change water to ice, so can the barrage of free
radicals in the Western diet marinate within our cellular matrix producing
microscopic irreversible injury. These subtle injuries accumulate decade after
decade until we as physicians declare a diagnosis.
This endeavor has become my second Olympics. It is my dream that the
public will be made to understand the causation of chronic illness. How do I
answer my critics who say you can never change this much behavior?
Maybe that is true. Perhaps I cannot, but I am very optimistic. Look how
aware people are of the ravages of smoking. Also look at what happened last
year in my own counseling practice to arrest and reverse coronary heart
Two interventional cardiologists who had developed heart disease themselves
came knocking at my door. Hope springs eternal.
I would like to end by sharing with you the motto of our 1956 Olympic
Champion Crew- “Press on Regardless.”
By: Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D. www.heartattackproof.com
Article: Olympic Reflections: 50 Years Later