Essexville Rocket flies to speed skating gold

Picture by IOC

An explosive speed skater, Terry McDermott was known as the Essexville Rocket in his native Bay County, on the shores of Lake Michigan. The nickname was an appropriate one, given the American’s lightning speed over his favourite distance, the 500m.

Recounting how it all started, he said: “I joined the speed skating club and from there on we started skating in competitions around Michigan.” McDermott excelled in the “packstyle” format adopted for races in the USA, and at the age of 19 was called up to the team that would represent the country at Squaw Valley 1960, where competitors raced in pairs and against the clock, as per Olympic and international rules.

The young McDermott finished seventh in a competition dominated by the Soviet Union’s Yevgeny Grishin. “Grishin intimidated me,” recalled the American skater. “He intimidated everybody because he was winning all the events, the 500m and 1,500m. He was very strong.”

Still an unknown on the global scene, McDermott made a name for himself on the domestic front by winning a number of 500m races. He funded his amateur career by working as a barber at his uncle’s shop in Essexville and trained relentlessly in preparation for another crack at Olympic glory at Innsbruck 1964, though his challenge would suffer a blow before he even set off for Austria, with McDermott having to borrow a pair of skates from his coaches after breaking his own.

Without a medal in the first five days of the Games, the USA were hoping for better luck on day six, when McDermott took to the ice in the 500m. Grishin was strongly fancied to complete a hat-trick of gold medals following his successes at Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956 and Squaw Valley 1960. Setting off in pair two with Finland’s Rinne Simmo, the great Soviet skater left his opponent trailing in his wake and posted a solid time of 40.6 seconds.

His benchmark was then equalled by team-mate Vladimir Orlov and Norway’s Alv Gjestvang, with the trio still tied for gold by the time McDermott went out in pair 17 with France’s Andre Kouprianoff. Building up an impressive head of steam, the Essexville Rocket surged to a new Olympic record of 40.1 seconds to win his country’s one and only gold of the Games, while Grishin, Orlov and Gjestvang shared the silver.

“I was very thrilled and very happy at that, but the most exciting part of winning the gold medal was the evening of the presentation of the medal,” McDermott said. “When they put the Olympic medal around your neck and you're standing on that podium and they're playing our national anthem and the flag is being raised, it’s quite thrilling.”

On his return to the USA, on Sunday 9 February, McDermott made a beeline for New York to put in an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular TV programme of the day. As it turned out, the gold medallist just happened to be sharing the bill with four young men from Liverpool known as The Beatles, who were making their first appearance on American TV. It was the day that Beatlemania first gripped the States, with a record 73 million viewers tuning in to see the group perform five of their songs.

Sullivan arranged for McDermott to have his photo taken with the Fab Four backstage, with the speed skater standing behind Paul McCartney, pretending to cut his hair, as John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr look on. Over 50 years on, the world-famous snap still occupies pride of place in the McDermott lounge.

While The Beatles garnered further fame and fortune, McDermott went back to cutting people’s hair for a living and chose to take a two-year sabbatical from skating before resuming training in preparation for his 500m title defence at Grenoble 1968. Setting out in the 24th and final pair, he defied a melting track to skate 40.5 and share the silver with Norway’s Magne Thomassen. Germany’s Erhard Keller took gold in a time of 40.3, with the great Grishin missing out on a medal by a tenth of a second.

“It was a great challenge and I look upon that race as a magnificent achievement,” recalled McDermott. “Having not skated for a couple of years, it was so different. It was very rewarding to finish so close.”

The USA team’s flag bearer at Grenoble, McDermott has since maintained close ties with the Olympics. As well as holding a number of different positions at the US Speed Skating Association, he has also worked as a radio and TV commentator at 12 consecutive Winter Games, and gave the Olympic oath on behalf of the judges and referees at Lake Placid 1980. When asked in 2014 if appearing on TV with The Beatles was a bigger highlight was winning the gold medal, he replied: “I think winning the gold medal is a little bit better.”