The Seaweed Streak

by Casey Barrett

In Praise of Murray Rose, Australia’s Original Thorpedo… 1939 – 2012, RIP

“Wow, he was handsome,” said my wife, taking a long look at a long ago cover of Sports Illustrated.

It was hard to disagree. The guy looked like a sun-baked superhero. See for yourself, right HERE: Rose as SI cover boy back on August 14, 1961, over half a century ago. Back then, Murray Rose was the greatest distance swimmer in history, the winner of four Olympic gold medals, a sporting icon Down Under whose fame at home was said to exceed Mickey Mantle’s in the States.

Rose died last Sunday, April 15, of leukemia. He was 73. Over the last few days, I’ve been reading his many obits. (Here’s a nice one in the New York Times.) The man had a story to tell, a life worth remembering…

First, his Olympic record: In 1956, at the Melbourne Olympics, 17-year-old Rose won gold in the 400, the 1500, and as a member of the Aussie’s winning 4 x 200 free relay. Four years later, now the team captain of the USC Trojans, Rose returned to the Games in Rome, where he defended his Olympic crown in the 400 free, added a silver in the mile, and a bronze on the 4 x 200 relay. It’s said that he would have added three more medals in those same events at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, but by that time, Rose was immersed in a Hollywood acting career.

Aside from those outsized Olympic achievements, Murray Rose had another claim to fame: his diet. See, Rose was a vegan, a proponent of raw foods and only organically grown fruits and vegetables. Goes without saying, he was a few decades ahead of the foodie curve. He dined on seaweed and sunflower seeds and produce grown out back where he could see it pulled from the earth. In the late 50’s after he’d exploded to prominence, his vegetarianism was the subject of countless articles. Indeed, he may have been the sporting world’s first celebrity to promote natural foods. But unlike so many of today’s fanatical holier-than-thou eaters, Rose was adamant about never pushing his dietary agenda on others. According to SI, he also had a “corresponding resentment of having others’ opinions forced on him.” In short, he made his own decisions and lived by his own set of values.

In that same SI story way back when, they called him “an Englishman by birth, an Australian by law, and an American by preference.” Some background: Rose was born at the dawn of World War II in Scotland. His parents wanted to emigrate to the States, but they had some difficulties with immigration. Instead, they made their way to Australia, moving young Murray out of harm’s way as the war intensified in Europe. The family settled within spitting distance of the Pacific, in an apartment overlooking Sydney harbor. Rose spent every day of his childhood with his toes in the water. He was “discovered” by a local swim coach when he was just 5-years-old. A dozen years later, he was the world’s greatest swimmer – and the biggest star in his land, when Australia hosted the 1956 Melbourne Games.

Then, he was off to USC, leading his parents’ long deferred American dream. His father, now a prominent advertising executive in Sydney, took a job in New York, while Murray settled into L.A. life as a Trojan. He swam for a young then-unproven coach named Peter Daland; Rose was soon elected SC’s team captain.

By all accounts, Murray was a supremely humble, honest soul. He had some decent success in Hollywood, with a few roles opposite stars of the day like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, but once admitted he lacked the passion to truly commit to acting. He never had that problem with swimming. In the pool, his commitment was complete.

Rose was known for his ability always to win the close one. He was a pure racer, a guy who lived to be tested in head-to-head competition. 43 years ago, Sports Illustrated produced one of the all-time great quotes from any Olympian, when they asked Rose about his ruthless racing instincts. Said Rose: “If you are racing a man the object is to break him. You can break the other man’s confidence by doing certain things. The big thing is to make him feel you are controlling the race.”

Safe to say Michael Phelps, and every other champion who’s come since, has shared that assassin’s sentiment. But Murray Rose wasn’t like the others. He had a perspective that transcended time and glory. Here were his parting words to Sports Illustrated back in that 1961 cover story:

“If you can concentrate so that time is meaningless, a race will give you complete pleasure and you will feel no pain.”