The Winter Olympics is one of my favorite sporting events. For some reason, there is always extraordinary drama. This year will be remembered for the death of a luge racer which will overshadow many team and individual performances. Some 30 years ago, in 1980, it was the miracle of the U.S. defeating the highly favored USSR team for the Gold Medal in hockey.Â (Correction: should’ve read: “on the way to winning the Gold Medal”). Kids from nowhere and old timers trying one last time for a medalÂ create legends in winter sports.Â Â The 1964 Innsbruck OlympicsÂ was no different.Â That year, a luge racer also died in a practice run and halfway through the Olympics the Soviet Union was kicking our butt. At every level and in every competition the Russians were having their way with us. That is, until a young 23 year old barber from my hometown and school in Essexville Michigan, using skates he had borrowed and skating on soft ice, set a world record on the way to winning the Gold Medal in the 500 meter speed skating competition. It would be the United Statesâ€™ only Gold Medal.Â Â
Just six month prior to the race of his lifetime against the reigning Olympic Champion, Terry McDermott, 23 was learning the barber trade at his uncleâ€™s barbershop with the decidedly un-Olympic name of Bunnyâ€™s. He was busy wielding sharp scissors rather than blades. Butches and flattops were $1.75.Â
Going into his event, the hometown barber seemed like an unlikely hero. Sports Illustrated called him the â€œbashful barberâ€. Back home he trained on the skating rink at the fairgrounds-there were no indoor rinks. On the inside of the rink teenagers holding hands would skate to the sounds of slow music while McDermott would push himself on the outside perimeter producing a distinctive back beat of whoosh, whoosh.Â
On the day of his race, despite the time difference, fans back home gathered around TV sets in the middle of the night to watch McDermott beat the Soviet skater by one-half second.
McDermott would return home to a heroâ€™s welcome and the biggest parade anyone had ever seen. Governor George Romney road along with Terry and his wife in a Chevrolet convertible and as they drove through town the car would slow down as it passed Bunnyâ€™s which was closed for the day. When Terry was led into our high school he gave a short but rousing speech, but the real noise came when Sister Allen, the principal, gave us a half-day off. Terry was really our hero. There was no mention made, but Terryâ€™s victory and visit to our school was a step in our schoolâ€™s recovery from a horrific accident the previous school year which took the lives of five of our nuns.Â
Prior to his homecoming, McDermott stopped off in New York City for an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show where old Ed thought it would be fun to pair the famous barber with the Fab Four, all needing what Sullivan thought was a haircut. Terry was doubly blessed that night, not only did he have the Gold he had his photograph taken with the Beatles.Â
For many years the border between Bay City and Essexville Michigan was marked with a sign: Essexville Home of 1964 Gold Medal Winner Terry McDermott. Itâ€™s gone now, replaced with one that recognizes several high school championships. Too bad there isnâ€™t room for Terry someplace on that sign.Â
Tomorrow: Michiganâ€™s first Olympic hero: The Michigan Mountain