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Golden memory: Michigan skater wins Olympic medal, meets Beatles

By John Niyo / The Detroit News

Terry McDermott didn’t view himself as anyone all that special. And this mop-topped rock ‘n’ roll band from England? Well, he was only faintly aware of their budding stardom.

Yet, there they were together a half-century ago, backstage at “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Bashful Barber from Bay City and The Beatles — John, Paul, George and Ringo — making small talk and posing for a gag photo that’s now a treasured keepsake.

“To this day, I really don’t know how I got on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” chuckled McDermott, 73, and a resident of Bloomfield Hills.

But he knows why, of course. It’s because of the moment that changed his life 50 years ago today, as McDermott, a 23-year-old amateur speed skater from Essexville, became a celebrity overnight, winning the first — and only — gold medal for the United States at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

McDermott meets the Beatles

After the Olympics, McDermott met the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan.’
(Associated Press)

And, in the whirlwind of excitement that followed McDermott’s triumph — one that transcended sports as he stunned the two-time defending Olympic champ from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War — he and his wife, Virginia, stumbled from one historic event into another.

As the folks in Bay City scurried to plan a hero’s welcome, the newlywed McDermotts spent a weekend in New York celebrating a delayed honeymoon. With the Beatles, as luck would have it. McDermott was an in-studio guest the same night the group made its landmark live television debut in the U.S.

“We really didn’t know that much about them, didn’t know what to expect,” Virginia recalled last week from Fort Myers, Fla., where the retired couple spends its winters. “And it was amazing being there with the crowd — the young girls, especially — going crazy.

“At the time, it’s a bit surreal. But the memories are special, that’s for sure. We could always say, ‘We were there when. …’ ”

For that, Richard Terrence McDermott can blame his sister. Or one of them, at least. The youngest of seven children — and the only boy — born to Exora McDermott, Terry started skating with the Bay City Speed Skating Club as a youngster. The club’s founder, Dick Somalski, was his coach and soon enough, his brother-in-law, marrying Terry’s sister, Marilyn, in 1951.

By then, Terry, who won his first state title as an 8-year-old, was traveling with the club for weekend races all over mid-Michigan. That eventually led to competing at U.S. nationals and North American championships for McDermott, who also played halfback for Essexville St. John’s High, among other sports. And a few months after enrolling at Michigan Tech — on the Sault Ste. Marie campus that’s now Lake Superior State — McDermott dropped out to focus on his training for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif.

He qualified and finished tied for seventh in his lone event — the 500-meter sprint — then went on to win U.S. and North American indoor titles in 1960 and ’61. And by the time the Olympic Trials for the 1964 Games rolled around, he’d found a new job that allowed him to spend more time on his training. By day he cut hair in his uncle’s barbershop — “Bunny” Hebert’s place down on Columbus Street — and 4-5 nights a week after work he’d make the drive to Midland to run and lift weights.

Terry McDermott wins the first and only U.S. gold medal at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.  (Detroit News archives)

Terry McDermott wins the first and only U.S. gold medal at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. (Detroit News archives)

When the Olympic hopefuls gathered near Colorado Springs in December 1963, McDermott was one of the favorites. But after his skate broke — and a welder warped the blade trying to fix it — he had to compete at the Trials using a pair borrowed from coach Leo Freisinger. Best trade he ever made, as it turned out: McDermott blazed to an American record 39.6 seconds — aided by the high altitude — in his 500-meter specialty.

“And when I broke 40 seconds, (Freisinger) said ‘They’re yours,’ ” McDermott remembered with a laugh. “I still have them.”

‘Terry needs pressure’

He had them in Innsbruck, too, where he was viewed as a threat to medal in the 500 — McDermott was one of only three skaters in the world to break 40 seconds — but still a long shot to knock off Yevgeny Grishin, the world record holder. The 32-year-old Soviet star had won gold in the 500 and 1,500 at the previous two Olympics, and as McDermott says, “I figured he’d probably win again. He was a beautiful skater.”

McDermott, admittedly, was not. He was a sprinter who was more strength than style, more guts than glide. And the day of his event he was feeling the pressure in the pit of his stomach, especially after Freisinger opted to put him in the second starting group of 22 skaters. As the coach explained later, “Terry needs pressure; he needs someone to beat.”

“That’s the enjoyment of it, the competition,” McDermott explained. “You wouldn’t train four years for 40 seconds if you didn’t love it. … But I was anxious, I was nervous. I wanted to get it over with.”

He wasn’t the only one waiting, either. A full week into the 12-day Games, the Americans, who’d never left an Olympics without a gold medal, were without one. The roster had been decimated by a 1961 plane crash in Belgium that killed the entire 18-member figure skating team en route to the World Championships. And with the best alpine hopes fading, McDermott said, “We were all wondering where that gold medal would come from.”

Yet, after Grishin clocked a slower time of 40.6 in the early group — matched by Orlov and a Norwegian skater — Freisinger told McDermott he’d be the one to break through.

“I really felt there was an opening for me,” said McDermott, who posted a strong 100-meter split and knew he’d be in good shape if he could hold his form late.

Setting Olympic record

When he crossed the line and saw his time — an Olympic record of 40.1 seconds — “my arms went up, and the coach and the managers went crazy.”

Before too long, everyone in Michigan was doing the same.

“I woke up to the telephone that morning — probably 5:30 or 6 a.m. — with the Bay City Times (sports editor) saying that he had won,” Virginia said. “And it was a shock. But it was an incredible feeling.”

Terry McDermott was the Olympic 500-meter gold medalist at Innsbruck in 1964 and the silver medalist at Grenoble in 1968.

Terry McDermott was the Olympic 500-meter gold medalist at Innsbruck in 1964 and the silver medalist at Grenoble in 1968.

Somalski had a face full of shaving cream when he got word, and as he told a reporter from UPI an hour later, “I still haven’t wiped it off.” It was that kind of day.

Gov. George Romney sent McDermott a congratulatory telegram that said, “It took a Michigan man to crack the ice for the United States. All of Michigan is proud of its native son, the flashing barber of Essexville.” The mayor, Floyd Socia, and other civic leaders got busy planning a homecoming reception unlike any the town had ever seen.

Meanwhile, at McDermott’s parents’ home on Marshall Street, they’d gone out and rented a couple of extra TV sets for the gathering crowd to watch the ABC broadcast. Virginia finally got to speak with her husband on the phone, too, and he told her he planned to return to the U.S. rather than stay for the end of the Games or the upcoming World Cup events in Europe.

“I just wanted to go home,” he said. “I’d been gone for a while.”

Socia and the rest still needed time to prepare for his arrival, however, so they put Virginia on a flight to meet him in New York — she’d never flown before — and spend a few days in the Big Apple. And as requests came rolling in — “The Today Show” officials called, and so did the ones from “What’s My Line?” — they had plenty to do, including shopping.

But it all culminated in the trip to CBS Studio 50 on Broadway that Sunday, where Ed Sullivan would introduce McDermott to the crowd of 700-plus. And where he’d introduce “these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles” to a record-setting TV audience of more than 73 million.

First, though, Sullivan introduced them to each other before the show.

“I knew they were a singing group from England, but I didn’t know much about ’em — I don’t think I’d ever heard their music,” McDermott said, laughing.

Virginia, who was two months pregnant with the couple’s first child, remembers the Beatles as much for their civility — “They were so polite and so gentlemanly,” she says — as their celebrity.

From Beatles to barber

And they all had a good laugh together as Sullivan had them stage a photo with McDermott pretending to cut Paul McCartney’s hair while the rest of the band looked on in mock horror. (Later that night, Sullivan also jokingly threatened the shrieking girls in the studio, “If you don’t keep quiet, I’m going to send for a barber.”)

That photo — recently autographed by McCartney during a stop in Detroit — is now framed in the McDermotts home. The couple’s five children — spread out across the country from New Mexico to Washington D.C. — all have a copy.

 Terry McDermott today

Terry McDermott today. (Family photo)

Less than 48 hours after the show, McDermott returned home to a star-spangled celebration with a 200-car motorcade and a crowd of more than 50,000 cheering and waving signs. The parade route ended at his home — “I still remember George Romney coming and sitting in our tiny two-bedroom place,” Virginia says — where they’d painted the Olympic rings on the street.

After that, it was back to the barbershop for McDermott — “We had bills to pay,” he said — and Chair No. 3 became a very popular spot. For $1.75 a head, you got a trim from an Olympic gold medalist, “so we had a bunch of children getting their first haircuts,” he chuckled.

And the McDermotts were busy on the banquet circuit, making speeches and retelling his story again and again. The gold medal “has a lot of chicken grease on it,” Terry joked. “And the ribbon is worn out — it doesn’t look very good. But the medal is fine.”

It has company, too. As they started a family, McDermott took a job as a sales rep for an auto parts supplier. Years later, he’d start his own company in Auburn Hills — Champion Plastics, which is now run by his two sons. But in the interim, he also took another work sabbatical to compete in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, bringing home a silver, 0.2 seconds off the pace as the last skater to race — before retiring for good.

McDermott stayed heavily involved in the sport as a coach and administrator the next few decades — he was inducted into the U.S. Speed Skating Hall of Fame in 1977 — and this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi will be the first he’s missed since he was a competitor.

Still, to hear his kids talk — the McDermotts have 11 grandchildren — “he was just Dad,” not an Olympic hero.

“Teachers kind of made a big deal out of it,” said Mike McDermott, who joined the rest of the clan in Florida last fall to celebrate his parents 50th wedding anniversary. “I mean, show-and-tell with a gold and silver medal — not too many kids get to do that. But in our house, we never talked about it much. Other people would tell you how excited they were, and how special that event was.”

But for the Bashful Barber, as he was dubbed by Sports Illustrated?

“Well, I think there’s a great deal of satisfaction that something I worked very hard at I was able to achieve,” Terry McDermott said. “It’s rewarding when you can meet a goal. It’s an accomplishment.”

And 50 years later, it’s a golden memory.

>> Browse more photos of Michigan athletes in the Winter Olympics