Dick Blick swims four or five times a week in the beautiful and still-new Fremont YMCA pool. At 79, the exercise keeps him fit, flexible, and strong, and he also touts the natural endorphins that help make aches and pains go away and keep him in a good mood.
“He has a strong presence at the facility and is a friend to all,” aquatic director Dian Christensen says. “He is one of the kindest people I know. He has been a mentor to me in my present position for the past year and a half. He has solid advice and vast experience, and is a great listener and fabulous storyteller.”
Christensen says Blick is “still a phenomenal swimmer,” too. “He knows how important it is to stay active, and it shows.” she adds. Blick would probably make quite a splash in a master’s competition, but he isn’t interested in competing.
“I did that,” Blick says.
Blick started a long way from Fremont, Nebraska, where he and his wife, Shirley, now live much of the year. The son of German immigrants, Blick grew up in Bakersfield, California, and discovered a talent for swimming as a schoolboy when he’d be awarded admission to a local pool by winning races. At his large high school (his graduating class had 900 people), swimming wasn’t a major sport, but it did have a swim team. “I could remember as a freshman that I beat the seniors,” Blick says.
Blick also competed in meets throughout the region through club swimming, but as with his high school team, the season was limited by unheated outdoor pools. In his senior year, he and two teammates decided to get an edge on the competition by starting their training in the wintertime.
“We went to a motel pool,” Blick says, with a chuckle. “That was the only heated pool in the area.”
The conditioning worked, and Blick became known in competitive swimming circles in the area. Then came his chance at world-renown. A college swimming coach from Illinois once stayed at the Blick family’s motel (not the motel where Blick and his teammates swam) and happened to notice a specific photo of Blick.
“My dad has the picture up on the wall of me winning the section meet, and he’s saying, ‘he’s the best’ in his broken English,” Blick says. Blick’s father talked to the coach, and it ended with an invite to a Midwestern college and the promise to facilitate a scholarship offer.
“I come walking back in at the end of summer thinking maybe I’ll go to community college and my dad said, ‘Got it all fixed. You’re going to go to North Central College near Chicago. You’re going to love it,” Blick says. “I had never been any further east than Nevada.”
Blick attended North Central College on a swimming scholarship, where “I was sort of a big fish in a small pool. I was in the right place at the right time.” He started college in 1959, declaring himself an education major and swimming as part of the team. That year he won National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championships for the 100-yard freestyle, 220-yard freestyle, and the 440-yard freestyle. The next year he won national championships in the 220-yard freestyle and the 440-yard freestyle.
He believes the 220-yard freestyle was his best individual event, and in fact, he was No. 1 in the nation in the 220-yard for two years in college.
Being a good swimmer in college opened other opportunities for him. As it happened, there was a swimming competition going on down the road—the 1959 Pan-American Games, a qualifier for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, and the first Pan-American Games to be held in the U.S. Blick was a gold medalist at those Pan-American Games in Chicago as part of the 4×200-meter freestyle relay and advanced to Rome the next year. At the 1960 Olympic Games, Blick was one of four members of the U.S. men’s team who won gold in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay and set a new world record. U.S. athletes took home 15 of the 45 medals (nine of those gold) awarded in swimming that Olympics, more than any other nation.
“What we did—not just the relay team but the whole men’s team, and the women’s team—we started the world domination in swimming by Americans,” he says.
That’s no exaggeration. Of the 1,022 gold medals the United States has won at the Olympic Games since 1896, almost 25% (246) of those have been for swimming.
The 1960 Olympics were also a turning point for Blick.
“When I picture me standing on the podium—the national anthem playing, with my teammates—I’ll never forget that,” he says. But there was more ahead for him. Blick was still a college student when he realized his Olympic dreams, and he emphasizes that his six decades since then have been wonderful as well.
After returning from the 1960 Olympics, he continued to swim on his college team. He won championships in the 100-yard freestyle, 220-yard freestyle, and 440-yard freestyle in 1961, beating his own scores in each event in 1962 and again winning the championships.
“As the only North Central College athlete to ever win an Olympic gold medal, Dick Blick owns a unique page in the college’s storied history, and particularly that of our athletic program,” the college’s vice president for institutional advancement, Rick Spencer, says. “Dick was the star athlete on two of North Central’s national championship swimming teams (1961 and 1962) and part of an era of Cardinal swimmers who won four national titles in a six-year period…In 2004, Dick was among the first class of inductees into the college’s Athletic Hall of Fame. He is a truly fantastic individual who remains engaged with the college, and is always generous with his time while enthusiastically sharing his historic gold medal with our students.”
Blick graduated from North Central in 1962, and prepared to attend graduate school at Indiana University on the way to becoming a teacher and coach. He also got married that same year—and he turned away from competitive swimming. His coaches were confident he could qualify for the 1964 Olympic Games, but he chose not to pursue it. Blick was in peak shape, but he was ready to move on.
“Once I made the decision, I never looked back with regret,” he says. “Once I left swimming, the ability to use my skill and to work hard did pay off. In years of coaching I would always tell the kids, ‘If I could give you a shortcut I would, but there is no shortcut. It’s working hard.’”
The Blicks moved to California, where Blick taught math and physical education in public schools, and coached swimming and water polo. His wife taught at the elementary level. The couple welcomed a son and daughter. Time moved forward, the children grew up, and the Blicks retired. Their daughter stayed in California but their son married a woman from Fremont and ended up in Nebraska. Dick and his wife live near their son and his family here, and part of the year they live in California to be near their daughter and her family.
“Family is important and we have the slogan ‘if you’re there, you have to be all there.’ So we’re not just visiting,” Blick says. Despite the winter weather, Blick likes Fremont, which he says reminds him of the farming communities where he grew up. The couple have many friends and participate in community events, including dressing up as Lord Richard and Lady Shirley every year to give out awards to students participating in the Fremont Chessfest, a scholastic chess tournament.
“I try to go four to five times a week to the new YMCA pool, we’re involved in church here, and there are the grandkids,” he says. “That’s really a big part of our lives, watching our grandkids grow.”
These days, Blick gets more questions about his association with the Dick Blick art supplies stores (not his enterprise and he’s no relation to the founder, but he handles the inquiries with good humor) than about his swimming accomplishments, and that’s okay by him.
“Dick is very unassuming and a person you would never know was a former Olympic swimmer unless you see him swim,” Christensen says, adding that when people at the Y make the discovery, Blick always shows grace and humility when answering their questions.
“Even though the record was broken and even for that time in history I was on top and I’ll never forget it, my life has never been the same,” he says. “I couldn’t have done what I did without telling you that God had given me the talent and I was grateful. He gave me the strength because I knew I couldn’t do it by myself.”
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.