Thursday August 8, 2013Gator Great David Larson's 1984 Olympic Triumph Revisited
Former Gator great David Larson, a native of Jesup, Ga., will be inducted into the Georgia Aquatic Hall of Fame on Aug. 24, at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Georgia.
“I started my age-group swimming career in Georgia in 1963-64, and really, that’s where a lot of grassroots age-group swimming started,” Larson said. “To me it’s a great honor, it’s a great recognition and it’s a chance to get together with a lot of longtime friends of mine, many of whom are Gators who reside in the Atlanta metropolitan area. In my case, and I’m sure in many others, none of us are here because of our own individual accomplishments. It is because of our families, our coaches, our teammates and a big ecosystem of support that has allowed us to reach these levels of success.”
Larson, a member of the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, helped captivate the nation with his gold medal performance in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay at the 1984 Olympic in Los Angeles, Calif.
“David is one of those guys that his whole career, starting in high school, was one of the best all-around freestyle swimmers that I have ever seen,” University of Florida Head Coach Gregg Troy said. “He was an All-American here at Florida and a great international competitor. David Larson is one of the best middle distance swimmers ever to take the pool.
Here is his story
The 1984 Olympic United States Men’s 4x200-meter freestyle relay team had a sound strategy: build as big of a lead as humanly possible before the Albatross hits the pool. Mike Heath, David Larson and Jeff Float would build a nine-foot lead, but the Albatross, West Germany’s six-foot-seven swimming machine, would not be denied.
The Albatross was Michael Gross, the fastest man in the world in two events and winner of four medals, more than any other male swimmer in the ’84 Games. Gross made up the ground on American anchor Bruce Hayes after 750 meters in the pool, and appeared to have soiled the American’s dreams with 50, 30 and then 10 meters to go.
"I said to Mike, 'We're going to get the silver! That can't happen,’" Larson recalled later in a 1984 Sports Illustrated Article.
What ensued was one of the greatest finishes in swimming history. Hayes would out-touch Gross and his seven-foot-four wingspan for a gold medal in a world record time of 7:15.69. Video of the race. For Larson and 15 of his US teammates from the 1980 Olympic boycott squad, beating the West Germans and the Albatross meant one thing: redemption.
Larson’s journey began in the pool in his hometown of Jesup, Ga., and brought him to Jacksonville, Fla., where he attended the Bolles School. Immense success on the high school and club level earned Larson a scholarship to the University of Florida, coached by Randy Reese, then in his second season. Under Reese’s tutelage, Larson would reach the highest of peaks, including Larson’s 21 All-American honors and a pair of national championships in the 4x200 freestyle relay.
“We really began to set a foundation that Florida would be sustainable and competitive nationally and in the SEC year after year,” Larson said. “In addition, Randy ran a very successful program in the non-collegiate season where a lot of athletes from not just the United States, but from around the world, would come and train. Gainesville was rapidly becoming well-known for having a phenomenal program in swimming, and it was creating a lot of national and global champions.”
As Larson improved in the pool, his dreams were inching closer and closer to reality. The 1980 Olympics were to be held in Moscow, Russia. In the midst of the Cold War and a crisis between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter declared the US team would boycott the Olympics.
“It’s difficult for an athlete to comprehend why we got selected as the symbol of disagreement with the Soviet military,” Larson said. “I had to come up with ‘what do I do now?’”
Larson and athletes who were also about to finish their college eligibility were caught in a bind. Without the support that collegiate athletes receive, amateur athletes were tasked with supporting themselves at the same time as training for the highest level of competition. Larson recalls that there wasn’t the same corporate backing or professional opportunities within the sport that there is today.
“At the end of 1980, I had an unfulfilled gut feeling that I didn’t get to finish what I started,” Larson said. “Realistically, it was more of an emotional wrestling match with myself. At the end of the day I didn’t want to be watching the summer games in 1984 with the question of could I have done this or not.”
Without a road map of what to do next after having his dream snatched away by politics, Larson and a plethora of swimmers flocked to Gainesville to train with Reese, who tailored specific training for post-collegiate athletes and who would go on to serve as an assistant coach on the 1984 team. Following four years of training, Larson was able to reach his Olympic goal.
“For me, it was a great conclusion of my career. I have no regrets to it,” Larson said. “I have always felt strong about finishing what you start, and I’m glad it came to a successful conclusion. It is nice to have an Olympic gold medal. It puts you in a unique group of athletes.”
The inclusion into the exclusive fraternity brought Larson and his Olympic teammates on a cross country tour that began in Los Angeles. The national parade included a meeting with the president in Washington, D.C., a stop in New York for a ticker tape parade, a visit to Disney World and an introduction at halftime of a Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers preseason game.
However, the so called ‘real world’ was about to begin for the 1984 Olympic gold medalist. Rather than sit back and bask in the glory, only months after captivating the nation and four years after almost losing out on his dream altogether, Larson found himself seizing an opportunity.
The cross country celebration was put on by Southland Corporation, which at the time owned 7-Eleven. At the end of the parade, Larson met Dan Smith, a sports marketer. Previously having his interest sparked while working as an intern with the University of Florida athletic marketing department while he was training in Gainesville post-college, Larson and Smith began talking about the field, Smith offered Larson an opportunity to learn under him in New York. Larson’s early professional career was highlighted with dealings with agents, creating sponsorships in event and negotiating contracts for athletes.
“One thing led to another and I spent about the next 10 to 11 years of my career inside the eco-system of sports marketing,” Larson said. “I migrated into TV from there. I found television to be interesting. It is an aggressive business. With technology advancements and the Internet, you had to continue to evolve. It culminated with my last assignment working with NBC on the Olympics.”
At the end of the 2005 Winter Games, Larson decided that he wanted to spend more time with his wife Kitty, a lawyer in Miami for over 20 years, and son Jake, a soon to be freshman at Cal Tech. With his Olympic dream complete and his career a success, Larson does not doubt that the two were connected.
“Hopefully people and athletes convert these networking opportunities into career long opportunities,” Larson said. “Those are golden moments. You don’t get to meet with a lot of decision makers in the Fortune 500 world. They frequently come to these sporting events. You see and hear about a lot of athletes that may not go onto to being a Super Bowl MVP, but had a great career and met a lot of people in their sports and converted their education into career opportunities. Sports have a way of opening up doors like that.”