[ back ]
Olympic fantasy haunts former swimmer Solon graduate achieved dr
Olympic fantasy haunts former swimmer Solon graduate achieved dream, never lived it
By TONY LANGE
Every Olympic year, Kris Kirchner, a 1976 Solon High School graduate, relives a nightmare memory.
"It's something that didn't happen, that could have happened," he said.
Back in 1980, Kirchner achieved his dream but never lived it.
The world-class swimmer placed third in the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. team trials in Irvine, Calif. If the United States had sent athletes to the Moscow Olympics that year, he would have been a medal contender in that race and a shoo-in to win gold on the American 400-meter freestyle relay team.
Until 1984, each country was allowed to send three swimmers in each event to the Olympics, if they had qualifying cuts.
Then-President Jimmy Carter called for a boycott of the Olympic Games that year to protest the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. It left a whole generation of athletes who would not add an Olympics appearance to their list of sports accolades.
Imagine hitting a mega-millions jackpot but never collecting the winnings.
"It's definitely a nightmare memory," Kirchner said. "It's part of when I grew up and part of the times of politics that was going on. So it's been kind of tough to watch the Olympics ever since."
Ironically enough, the United States is now in its longest-lasting war with Afghanistan, Kirchner said.
"That is mind boggling. The whole issue was the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and we've been there, what, over a decade now," he said. "You would think learning from history that you would not mess with Afghanistan, because everyone who goes there, they bleed you to your knees. We're over there spending money and battling, and I'm not quite sure what we're doing over there. I'm against terrorism, but who knows why we're really over there?"
In an article published Sept. 4, 1980, in the Chagrin Valley Times and the Solon Times, Kirchner said, "When the final decision came, though, I accepted it. I'm an American before anything."
Growing up in Solon with his older brother, Kent, Kirchner said there weren't very many indoor pools around, and the Comets didn't even have a swim team back then.
His mother, Kay Kirchner, who died last summer, would drive him and his brother downtown to practice with the Cleveland Swim Club, a team Kirchner began swimming competitively with at age 6. He also recalled swimming at University School when its natatorium was first built.
Though Solon did not have a team, a teacher representative, Ted Burand, helped organize area swimmers to compete at the district and state meets, Kirchner said.
As a senior at Solon, he won the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events at districts. He took runner-up in the 50 and fourth in the 100 in Columbus, where the state meet was held.
"That's kind of ironic, because, in 1980, I made the Olympic team in the 100 free," Kirchner said.
Upon graduating from Solon, he followed his brother and swam at Cleveland State University for a year before transferring to the University of Texas, where he qualified for the Pan American Games 1979 and became a gold medalist on the four-by-200-meter relay.
"I truly always honestly believed that I was of Olympic caliber, but I was not on the radar map as far as international swimming until '79," Kirchner said. "That was a good year for me at the Pan-Am games, and then I realized I could make it to the Olympics."
Kirchner said he vividly remembers when President Carter announced the boycott of the Moscow Olympics the following spring.
"We had been watching the hockey team in the Winter Olympics in '80, and it was a really patriotic time when they beat the Russians, and we were all pumped," he said. "Then he announced that the United States was going to boycott the summer. It was devastating."
Until 1992, the Summer and Winter Olympics were held during the same year, at which time it was decided to stagger the two games because of television advertising and corporate sponsorship.
At the Moscow Olympics, only one swimmer posted a faster time in the 100-meter freestyle than Kirchner's trials swim, but the venue and atmosphere could have been the difference. The world will never know, he said.
"Our trials pool was outdoors. I could vividly remember swimming in the finals out there, and I was freezing," Kirchner said about the 60-degree California weather. "We were not in a good pool with a good design. We were comparing our times with the Moscow times, but it just wasn't the same."
The following year Kirchner became an NCAA champion in the 50-yard freestyle, clocking a 19.66.
At age 22, without the financial support present-day Olympians are afforded, Kirchner retired from swimming. He became an assistant coach at Texas until 1985, when he took a head coaching position at the University of South Carolina at age 25. At that time, he was the youngest head coach in collegiate sports.
From 1990 to 2002, he coached the Indiana University swimming program.
Kirchner now lives in Ellettsville, Ind., and has a 25-year-old daughter who is a professional equestrian.
In the end, the United States is the greatest country in the world, and Kirchner wouldn't trade living here for anything, he said.
"When I watch the Olympics, I definitely want the best for the United States," he said. "It's us, the U.S., against the world. We want to win."
[ back ]