Hidden Stories That Inspire Generations


Maybe even a gold medal story for the ages!

By Eric Peterschmidt

Has this happened to you? You show a family member an old family photo, and that photo triggers a memory and an amazing story. It proves something that we all know: That is, it is not the photo that is necessarily of value, but in fact, it is the story behind the photo that is precious. But what happens if nobody is around or alive to bring those hidden stories to light? I know I have found myself saying “if only that photo could talk – what a story it would tell.” Well, here is a story about one that did just that – it talked – and impacted me! Not a photo, but another kind of heirloom.

I wasn’t even born yet when my grandfather – my mom’s dad – said something that was a source of inspiration to me. Obviously, he wasn’t talking to me. I wasn’t even a gleam in anybody’s eye until about eight years later. The inspiration from what he said didn’t occur until more than five decades later.

My grandfather was a swimming coach. Not just any swimming coach – but a famous one. The story I am about to tell is not about his accolades, though there is much to say about him. Instead, the story is about one tiny sliver of who he was and the impact he had on his grandson.

His name was David Armbruster. He was the first swimming coach at the University of Iowa. Starting in 1918, he had an amazing 40-year career. He retired in 1958. He was appreciated, recognized, and respected. The University had a retirement event for him, attended by many of his former swimmers and colleagues. Years later I found out about the event, through some newspaper clippings, photos, and congratulatory letters he had received that were stashed away in a box. However, I really did not know much about the event itself. Knowing what “retirement parties” for people I worked with were like, I had assumed it was something similar.

An heirloom surfaced.

About 15 years ago, I was visiting my aunt. Her dad (my Grandpa) has passed 20 years prior. She was and still is the only surviving child. While there, she came out of her spare bedroom with two thin boxes that had been tucked away. She said they were her dad’s, but she did not know what they were. Each box had a reel-to-reel audio tape! There was no writing on the boxes, and nobody in my family had a player anymore. So to listen to them, I had them digitized. 

When I was able to listen to them, I was stunned. It was a recording of my Grandpa’s retirement event! The event was in the format of a TV show that was popular at that time – “This Is Your Life” — with many speakers spanning my Grandpa’s professional career. Each shared stories about their time with him.

One of the speakers was Wally Ris. Wally was one of Grandpa’s swimmers and a gold medalist in the 1948 Olympics. Wally explained to the audience how his coach prepared him for his race of a lifetime:

Enough can’t be said as far as giving Dave credit for my effort in the Olympics.

In 1947, Dave said to me “Wally, how are you going to swim the 100 in the finals”. He assumed I was going to make the team — enough to ask, “how are you going to swim the finals?”

I said “Dave, when that gun goes off, I am going to dive in. I am going to take one gulp of air, I am going to swim as fast as I can, make that turn and swim back faster”.

He said “yeah, that’s all right, Wally. That probably would be all right”. He was looking through a book on foreign swimmers and how they were rated. He said “Well, you know, Kadas will probably swim that way. The Egyptian will swim that way.” and he went right down the list. He was mentioning names that I didn’t realize even existed. And he said from their past efforts, that’s just exactly how they are going to swim this race.

He said “What do you think about a pace? Why don’t we learn a pace?”. Well I had never worked much with a pace. I was always get there the firstest with the mostest, and was lucky at it. 

He said “Wally – in two laps, 50 meters, if you can just get down there in 27 seconds and come back in 30, I think you would be the next Olympic champion”.

I said, “Dave, it looks awful good on paper!”

For the next 14 months, we paced. We paced nights. Days. Saturdays and Sundays. I never realized how demanding I was on David Armbruster while training for the Olympics. It’s rather hard for me to express. We would go to Cedar Rapids – we would travel anywhere at any time just to take workouts. 

And, after 14 months, when he primed me for my best effort, the finals – my biggest thrill in swimming – the Olympic finals, was, I think, my easiest race. There was nothing to it. All I did was stay with the letters of the coaching. 

And everything I have ever accomplished in the world of athletics, I owe to David Armbruster. 

Dave, may I personally think you for a wonderful, pleasant three years. God bless you.

At the time I heard Wally tell his story I was already well into my career. Much of my beliefs and principles had been established and were in practice. However, like many, I suffered from periodic self-doubt and even questioning things I was very passionate about – often because they were long-haul struggles and there was the temptation to “bag it.”

But then I heard my Grandpa’s words. They were speaking to me, through Wally. He was telling me to set a goal – a stretch one at that. Then, with a goal set, make a plan to achieve it. But a plan is nothing without execution, and that may take a massive amount of effort, but if the passion is there, which it was with me, then do it. That, as it turned out, was just the inspiration I needed.

I was very fortunate to have a David Armbruster as a Grandfather. However, you don’t need to descend from someone famous to find inspiration, as it can often be found in the stories of the most unlikely of ancestors. Who are yours? What are their stories? The stories of their challenges and successes can and will inspire, if they are brought to light and told. While not all heirlooms talk, the stories are often waiting to be discovered and just take a little research – and maybe a little luck – to find. 

What have your discoveries been? I would love to hear them – please share!

 

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