Lake Forest Olympic gold medalist Henricks recalls life in the fast (swimming) lane
Lake Forest's Jon Henricks stands in front of all of his swim-related medals at home.
Who: Jon Henricks
Claim to fame: Star swimmer, Australian Olympic Gold Medalist in the 1956 Melbourne Games; first to shave body hair for swimming competition (at his father’s suggestion).
Hometown: Lake Forest
Quote: “It’s just astonishing how quickly [modern-day Olympians] swim.”
Updated: August 20, 2012 6:16AM
LAKE FOREST – Jon Henricks knows precisely where he will be during the swimming competitions of this summer’s Olympic Games in London – sitting in his Lake Forest home, his pale blue eyes focused on the big-screen TV.
“I’ll watch them,” the 1956 gold medalist said, “and like most of my friends, I’ll be glued.”
Henricks, 77, who grew up near Sydney, Australia, took gold medals in the men’s 100-meter freestyle and the 4-by-200-meter freestyle relay in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
He has been living with his wife, Bonnie Henricks, in Lake Forest for decades. He still works in the family business, DGI Supply – DoAll Co., and still swims 1,000 yards a day, either at the Lattof YMCA in Des Plaines or at the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest.
“For my health, I swim on a regular basis,” Henricks said, adding that he no longer churns through the water as if fire were nipping at his heels.
“Oh, gosh, no. Little girls go past me, and I don’t care,” he said with a smile.
But he remembers clearly his experiences at the height of his sport. His time for the 100-meter contest at the ’56 Games was 55.4 seconds, and his split in the 4-by-200 meters relay was 2.04.2.
“It’s funny how you remember these things,” said Henricks, who, swimming for his native Australia, was the dominant force in the three years leading up to the 1956 Summer Games in 100-meter and 200-meter events in the United States, Japan, and at the Commonwealth Games, according to the Mosman Sporting Wall of Fame.
Ill in Rome
Henricks, who attended the University of Southern California on a scholarship after his ‘56 showing, qualified for and attended the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but he fell ill there.
While at USC, Henricks’ roommate, also an accomplished swimmer, introduced Henricks to his sister, Bonnie Wilkie. The two hit it off. And although Henricks did not return to the United States from Rome with any more Olympic treasure, he did bring back a wife, with whom he now has four grown children.
“Half of the American team and half of the Australian team, those who weren’t [swimming] at the time, all showed up and made an honor guard for us,” he said. “It was very, very heartwarming.”
It also was a bit surreal, said John Devitt, a longtime friend of Henricks’ and a fellow competitor from Australia.
Just before the wedding, Devitt had made history in the annals of hotly debated finishes when he was declared the winner over U.S. swimmer Lance Larson. With Henricks sidelined, Devitt and Larson took first and second in the 100-meters freestyle in a finish that modern technological devices might have difficulty deciding.
Back then, stopwatches still were employed, but new electronic devices were being tested and were to have been relied upon in the event of a tie. Instead, a chief judge made the call, resulting in U.S. appeals of the decision and a feud that lives on in some circles.
“We gravitated to each other toward the 1960 Games,” Devitt said of Henricks in an email sent from his Sydney home. “In Rome, particularly when Jon took ill prior to the heats and could not compete to his best ability, his support for me was most encouraging.”
At Henricks’ wedding, Larson and Devitt embraced, and Henricks said that somewhere in his home, a photo bears the proof.
Devitt recalled another Kodak moment.
“Larson and I have never had a long talk about the race,” he wrote. “I have that photo of us at the wedding. There is an even better one of the Australian and U.S. teams forming a guard of honour for the bridal party. The looks could kill!”
Henricks said neither his nor Devitt’s times (in the mid 50-seconds range) would count for much against the times to beat in the men’s events today.
“It’s just astonishing how quickly they swim,” he said, noting hot times for the 100 meters currently are in the 47- and 48-second range. “It’s incredible. That’s almost 3 yards a second.”
During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Henricks showed his speed in another manner -- he was among runners carrying the Olympic torch on its final legs through the city.
“It was sort of a little story within a story,” he said. “The areas where you were to carry the torch were somewhat drawn out of a hat. I carried it from Darling Harbour to the Powerhouse Museum. That was the place where my father first worked. It wasn’t a museum then, it was a power house, and he was an engineer there.
“I had no idea that this was going to take place,” Henricks continued. “I remember as I set off with the torch, I ran down the hill, and as I got closer and closer to it … I realized that it was the place where my father had taken me when I was 8 years old for one of those little boys’ days at work. [The experience] was very much exciting. I had maybe 100 fans running with me, and after I ran with the torch, I rented a hotel ballroom and maybe 100 people had breakfast with me.”