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Of Salad Bars, Tennis Grand Slams, and Breast Cancer

Norman Brinker never competed in the Olympic Games. However, he was on the US Olympic team in 1952 in show jumping, but only served as an alternate and never saw competition. It was only a prelude to an amazing life, whose tentacles within his families would reach multiple aspects of American life.

Brinker (far right) with the 1952 US Olympic Show Jumping Team

Brinker made the 1952 US Olympic team while a seaman in the US Navy, stationed in San Diego, where he also attended San Diego State University. A good athlete, he did compete at the 1954 World Modern Pentathlon Championships in Budapest. While Brinker was studying at San Diego State, he met a young tennis player named Maureen Connolly.

Maureen Connolly, often called “Little Mo”, is not well-remembered by today’s sports fans, or even tennis fans, yet she is one of the greatest female tennis players of all time. Little Mo won the US Open Championship, then called the US Championships, at the end of 1951, when she was only 16-years-old. She would retire in late summer 1954, before the US Championships, having won 9 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments that she played in, including the calender-year Grand Slam in 1953, the first woman to achieve that. In that Grand Slam, she lost 1 set. After her 1951 US Championship, there is no record that she was ever beaten again in a match.

Little Mo with a few of her trophies

Maureen Connolly retired before she turned 20-years-old. She had won Wimbledon and the US Championships in 1952, the Grand Slam in 1953, and the French and Wimbledon Championships in 1954 – she did not play the Australian that year. In late July 1954, she was riding a horse that threw her and broke her leg, sustaining an open fracture. She never played tennis competitively again, officially retiring in February 1955, when her leg had not healed well.

A few months after the accident, June 1955, Maureen Connolly and Norman Brinker married. They would have two daughters together, Cindy and Brenda.

Norman Brinker’s career was not overshadowed by his wife’s tennis feats. He helped start several restaurant chains, including Jack-in-the-Box, Chili’s, Bennigan’s, and Steak and Ale. His company, Brinker International, would later oversee all those restaurant chains, and also Burger King and Häagen-Dazs. Brinker is considered the father of the popular modern casual dining concept. He is also considered to have either invented, or at least, popularized the salad bar, that is now so ubiquitous in many restaurants.

Brinker and Little Mo were together for only 14 years, unfortunately. In 1966 Little Mo was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she died in June 1969, at only 34-years-old. A fleeting meteor in the sports world, who flamed out early, she also lost her life early, both times from instances beyond her control. Her story was told in a made-for-TV movie in the 1970s, “Little Mo,” starring Glynis O’Connor.

Norman Brinker went on. He re-married in 1971 but that marriage was short-lived. In 1981, he met and married Nancy Goodman, who had worked as a buyer for Neiman Marcus, and then with various public relation firms. They would remain married until 2000, when they divorced, although they stayed friends and worked together in the charity that Nancy would found.

Nancy Goodman had a sister, Susan Goodman. Both were born in Peoria, Illinois. In 1976, at age 33, Susan developed breast cancer and died in August 1980, at 37-years-old. By then married and named Susan G. Komen, Nancy Brinker vowed to her sister that she would fight the disease in her memory. Using some of Norman Brinker’s fortunes from his restaurant businesses, she formed the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 1982. In 2008 the foundation would change its name to the Susan G. Komen Fight for the Cure.

Brinker not only founded the Susan G. Komen Foundation, but eventually served as its CEO until 2012. It has become the largest and best-funded breast cancer organization in the world.

Promise Me – the book Nancy Brinker wrote about the promise to her sister

The Susan G. Komen Foundation was not Nancy Brinker’s only accomplishment in life. In 2001 she was named Ambassador to Hungary by George W. Bush and served in that role from 2001-03. She later was US Chief of Protocol under President Bush from 2007-09, holding the title of ambassador and assistant under-secretary of state in that role. Continuing her fight against cancer, Nancy Brinker later became the World Health Organization’s Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control.

Nancy Goodman Brinker

Norman Brinker, like his first wife, Little Mo, was badly injured in a riding accident in 1993, breaking multiple bones, residing in a coma, and ended up partially paralyzed. Still, he returned to his restaurant businesses six months later and would live until 2009. After their divorce in 2000, he and Nancy Brinker stayed close, and he remained on the board of the Susan G. Koman Foundation until his death. In his honor, the restaurant business gives out The Norman Award annually, to industry executives.

Norman Brinker – an Olympian and restaurant pioneer; Maureen Connolly – one of the greatest tennis players ever; Susan G. Komen – a breast cancer victim whose death spurred the greatest charitable breast cancer organization; and her sister, Nancy Brinker – who vowed that Susan’s death would not be in vain. A remarkable family touching so many aspects of American and world life. You should know about them.

 

Harihar Banerjee

Last week on Oldest Olympians, we looked at the case of British sport shooter Joe Wheater, a relatively famous sportsman in his time who died at some point in the 2000s, without any fanfare or so much as an obituary. Such an occurrence may seem rare but, as we have seen with many of our Olympic mysteries, it is not at all uncommon. Another case and point is that of the Olympian that we are blogging about today: India’s Harihar Banerjee, born March 1, 1918.

Banerjee competed in sport shooting at time when only the elite, or those with patrons, could take part. He soon rose to become India’s most prominent rifle shooter and captained the national team during the 1950s. In 1952 he became the first Indian to take part in the ISSF World Championships. A few weeks later, he earned the distinction of being the first Indian Olympic sport shooter, alongside Souren Choudhury, by competing in three events at the Helsinki Games: the Free Rifle, Three Positions, 300 metres; the Small-Bore Rifle, Three Positions, 50 metres; and the Small-Bore Rifle, Prone, 50 metres, where he placed 24th, 36th, and 29th respectively.

Banerjee also competed at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where he finished 35th in the Small-Bore Rifle, Three Positions, 50 metres event. Outside of sport, he was a physician who had trained at the Medical College and Hospital, Kolkata and had a long career in that city. After he died, an annual Memorial Air Weapon Shooting Championship was named in his honor.

The above would make it seem as if his life was wrapped into a nice biographical package, but there is one piece of information missing: his date of death. We had been paying attention to Banerjee for a while, as it seemed that he was still alive and active into his 90s, perhaps as late as 2011. We heard nothing definitive about him, however, until we discovered the Dr. Harihar Memorial Air Weapon Shooting Championship.

http://www.uniindia.com/150-shooters-from-bengal-bihar-take-part-in-3rd-dr-harihar-banerjee-shooting/sports/news/178345.html

The tournament was in its third edition in 2015, which would suggest that he died c. 2011 or 2012. No one we contacted responded to our inquiries, however, and we cannot be sure that it did not take many years after his death before a tournament in his memory was organized. Therefore, we are left with another Olympic mystery: a sportsman so well-known that they named an annual local tournament after him, but apparently not so well-known that his death, occurring in the internet era, merited mention in any papers that we were able to locate. It is very likely that his obituary was published somewhere but, until we find it, he, like Wheater, will remain an Olympic mystery.

Joe Wheater

Today on Oldest Olympians we are looking into the story of another Olympian who is certainly deceased, but for whom mystery nonetheless surrounds them: Joe Wheater, born October 6, 1918.

(Wheater, from a feature in Australian Clay Target Shooting News, August 2003, pg. 28-30)

Wheater came into competitive sport shooting somewhat later in life but, when he arrived, he wasted no time in demonstrating his prowess as being among Great Britain’s best. Over the course of his career, he won over 60 English titles, appeared in three editions of the Olympic trap shooting competition (1956, 1960, and 1964), and set a world record in clay target shooting in 1956. While his best finish at the Games was sixth in 1960, he earned several medals in the sport at the European Championships over the years.

One would assume that a sportsman with such a distinguished record would be among the last candidates for being involved with an “Olympic mystery” but, as we have seen, mysteries can occur in unexpected places. In Wheater’s case, there are numerous websites that continue to list him among the living, and thus for many years we made the assumption that he was still alive. One website, however, intrigued us, as it explicitly listed Wheater as deceased:

https://www.keithcoyle.com/about

We contacted the owner of the website, Keith Coyle, who informed us that Wheater had sold his shooting grounds in the late 1990s and then retired. While living abroad in 2009, Coyle was informed by friends that Wheater had died, but unfortunately could not locate any obituaries to confirm this fact. We passed this information on to the dedicated team of researchers at the OlyMADMen, but they were unable to come up with any records concerning his death. Earlier this year, one member did locate a probate record for a Joseph Wheater who died November 24, 2011 near Leeds, but unfortunately there was insufficient information to determine that this was the Olympian, and, moreover, it did not align with Coyle’s information.

Given all of this, we are left wondering: when did Joe Wheater die and how did such a notable sportsman manage to elude everyone’s attention when he did? Many sources still list him as being alive, or as having been alive more recently than 2009, which is not surprising given that one would assume that at least one obituary would have been published for him. Until we can locate additional information, Wheater will remain among our Olympic mysteries.

Leo Sylvestre

Today on Oldest Olympians we are focusing on the case of Canadian speed skater Leo Sylvestre, an athlete who is certainly deceased, but nonetheless presents a mystery worth raising here on our blog.

Sylvestre was relatively successful on the domestic scene, but had less luck when he represented his country at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. He was entered in all four speed skating events at the Games, but only started in the 500 metres, where he was eliminated in round one. He continued to compete at home, but eventually settled into a career as a coach and trainer in his sport of choice.

We here at Oldest Olympians believed that we had determined his fate nearly a decade ago when we discovered a report of a Mrs. Leo Sylvestre, who died while giving birth in January 1953. Mrs. Sylvestre had been in a car accident three months earlier that had taken the life of her husband. There was, however, nothing to suggest that the Leo Sylvestre mentioned in the report was the Olympian, as it was not an uncommon name.

When we shared this finding, however, Arild Gjerde, a Norwegian Olympic expert, related a story he had heard “about a Canadian speed skater […] who was killed in a car crash. His pregnant wife was severely injured and died some times later giving birth to her child.” This seemed to be confirmation that the Leo Sylvestre in the article was the Olympic speed skater.

https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=hNMwAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Ct8FAAAAIBAJ&pg=6370,4409496&dq=leo-sylvestre&hl=en

There was just one problem. According to the Quebec Death Index, as well as research conducted by other Olympic historians, the Leo Sylvestre who died in the car accident was born January 29, 1918. While it would not be impossible for a speed skater to compete at the Olympics at the age of 14, it seemed very unlikely.

Our theory was completely debunked by a solitary report that we uncovered many years later that listed Sylvestre as alive and working as a coach in his native Quebec. It remains the only evidence that we have located of his being alive after the other Leo Sylvestre died in the car accident:

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/22695872/sylvestre_alive/

Other researchers also discovered that the Olympic Sylvestre’s full name was Joseph Henry Léopold Sylvestre, and that he was born on December 14, 1912 in Montreal, Quebec. We have not been able to uncover any information about his death, although we know that he is deceased. Our research, therefore, continues, despite having uncovered enough Olympic mystery (or at least coincidence) for one speed skater’s lifetime.

Chai Hon Yam

Today on Oldest Olympians, we are going back to looking at just one individual: Chai Hon Yam. Chai was the lone member of Singapore’s field hockey squad at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics with Chinese ancestry. Despite winning two of its three matches in the preliminary round, the nation failed to advance to the semifinals because it was in the same pool as India, the upcoming gold medalists. They then lost all three of their classification round matches and placed eighth overall.

Chai was prominent in the region not only on the basis of his domestic field hockey performances, but also due to his notable career in the aviation industry. Working for Malayan Airlines (later Malaysian Airlines, after the company split to have separate airlines for Malaysia and Singapore), his contributions to engineering and technical services were key in the firm’s expansion, and he was later made an honorary member of the Association of Asian Aerospace Professionals.

(Chai, right, pictured at Red Sports)

Due to his notability, we know that he was alive at least as recently as 2014, when he was photographed at a banquet honoring sports pioneers. Therefore, he is well within the range of where we would list someone as being alive. Recently, however, we came across the obituary of a man by the same name who died December 7, 2017 at the age of 90:

His age in the obituary would make him one year older than the Olympian, but we know that it is customary in certain cultures to begin one’s age count at one rather than zero. Moreover, his name is relatively uncommon and the picture in the obituary seems to resemble the Olympian from the 2014 banquet. The complication, however, is that there is no smoking gun, such as a birthdate or explicit mention of his field hockey or aviation careers, and all of our contact leads came up empty. Given that he was living recently, we would hate to mistakenly list him as deceased, as we have had cases in the past where a surprising amount of similar information about an individual turned out to be merely a coincidence. For the time being, we have elected to leave him on the list of living Olympians, but we are posting this blog as a major caveat that he may very likely be deceased.

1929 Olympic Missing Links, Part 2

Today Oldest Olympians is bringing you part two of its coverage of Olympic missing links with 1929 births. Today we are looking at three more Olympians for whom we believed to have identified their date of death but, for whatever reason, we were unable to connect the information, such as obituary or public record, conclusively to the athlete.

(Screen capture of Zdravko Hlebanja from a 2016 interview)

Zdravko Hlebanja – Member of Yugoslavia’s cross-country skiing team at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Games

Zdravko Hlebanja, born October 15, 1929, was a well-known cross-country skier in Yugoslavia during the 1950s, but his most notable appearance came at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Olympics. There he finished 43rd and 42nd in the 15 and 30 km events respectively and was 13th with the national team in the 4×10 kilometers relay. Hlebanja gave an interview as recently as 2016, but the only notice of his death comes from the Slovenian Wikipedia, which lists it as March 9, 2018. Despite his recent activity, we have been unable to uncover further confirmation of this.

 

U Sang-Gwon – Member of South Korea’s football team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

U Sang-Gwon, born December 22, 1929, also known as Woo Sang-kwon, was a regular player with the South Korean national football team during the 1950s and the 1960s, making an appearance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in which his country was eliminated in the preliminary round. He also played in the 1954 World Cup, won Asian Cups in 1956 and 1960, and took home silver from the football tournament at the 1958 Asian Games. He later had a coaching career, including a brief stint with the South Korean national team from 1970 through 1971. Both the Korean and English Wikipedias list him as having been born February 2, 1926 and dying December 13, 1975, but we have found no reliable sources to verify this information.

 

Javier Souza – Member of Mexico’s track and field delegation to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics

Track and field athlete Javier Souza, born November 13, 1929, represented Mexico at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he was eliminated in the opening rounds of both the 100 and 400 metres events. He had more success at other tournaments, however, winning bronze medals in the 4×100 metres relay at both the 1954 Central American and Caribbean Games and the 1955 Pan American Games. We know less about his post-sporting life, although we did find a public record entry that lists a man with the athlete’s full name, Javier Souza Díaz, born c. 1930, dying on January 7, 2005. Without any additional details or an obituary, however, we cannot confirm that this record is for the Olympian.

 

And that is it for our quick look into Olympic missing links from 1929! Now that we are caught up with our blogging, we will be moving back to the once-a-week format, so tune in next week as we continue exploring Olympic mysteries; we hope you will join us!

1929 Olympic Missing Links, Part 1

We here at Oldest Olympians are a bit behind in our blogging schedule, so we are going to rectify that by presenting a two-part post this weekend on the subject of 1929 missing links. Approximately two months ago, we concluded our long-running series on Olympic missing links, which looked at cases for whom we believed to have identified their date of death but, for whatever reason, we were unable to connect the information, such as obituary or public record, conclusively to the athlete. Upon completing our review of Olympians born in 1929, we discovered that there were more uncertainties to report, and we present them here not only in the hopes of solving some of these cases, but to continue our commitment to transparency in our research.

 

Benik Amirian – Member of Iran’s alpine skiing delegation to the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Games

Alpine skiing, as one might imagine, is not a particular high-profile sport in Iran, and thus it is not surprising that we know little of Benik Amirian, born c. 1929, aside from his Olympic participation. At the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Games, he competed in all three events, placing 44th in the downhill and failing to finish either the slalom or the giant slalom. He had been a member of the national team since 1950 and continued competing at least through 1957. We located an entry in the Social Security Death Index for a Benik Amirians, born May 22, 1928, who died in Los Angeles on November 13, 2009, but there are no corroborating details to confirm that this is the Olympian.

 

Julienne Boudewijns – Member of Belgium’s women’s gymnastics team at the 1948 London Olympics

Julienne Boudewijns, born August 11, 1929, was a member of the Belgian women’s team that placed 11th and last in the all-around at the 1948 London Olympics. Like alpine skiing in Iran, gymnastics in Belgium is not a high-profile sport (the nation, for example, has not reached the Olympic podium in gymnastics since 1920) and thus her Olympic participation is the extent of what we know about Boudewijns. An individual by that name died March 12, 2014, but as the Olympian celebrated her 19th birthday during the Games, it is very much possible that she later married and changed her surname and thus, without additional details, we cannot confirm that the individual in the obituary is the same person as the Olympian.

http://regio.okra.be/file?fle=533850

(The Italian 1956 Olympic 4×100 metres relay squad)

Milena Greppi – Member of Italy’s track and field athletics delegation to the 1952 and 1956 Summer Olympics

Unlike many of the other Olympians we profile here, the career of Italian track and field athlete Milena Greppi, born July 8, 1929, is well-known. At the Olympics, she competed in both the 80 metres hurdles and the 4×100 metres relay at both the 1952 and 1956 Summer Olympics, but did not reach the podium. In-between, however, she took home a bronze medal as part of the Italian women’s 4×100 metres relay squad at the 1954 European Championships. She represented Italy abroad until 1958. Nationally, she won five consecutive 80 metres hurdles titles from 1952 through 1956, and also won 4×100 metres relay titles in 1953 and 1954. The Italian Wikipedia lists her as dying December 13, 2016 in Milano, but the cited obituary does not list any details connecting this individual to the Olympian, so we await further confirmation.

http://necrologi.corriere.it/defunti/milena-greppi-00001

 

These are the three names that we are covering today, but tune in tomorrow when we will post part two and feature three more missing links from 1929 (unless we happen to solve them in the meantime!). We hope that you will join us!

Matthew Best

It is a busy week here at Oldest Olympians, but we did not want to miss out on a quick blog post, so we decided to go a little outside of our usual field to bring you a rather unusual case. We always try to keep an eye on upcoming oldest Olympians, and in this instance something odd caught our attention. Our database indicated that Matthew Robert Best, a non-starter with the New Zealand field hockey team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics had recently turned 80… on February 29, 2019. As February 29, 2019 does not exist, and therefore neither does February 29, 1939, we figured that this must be a simple error and followed up with the Official Report… which also listed his date of birth as February 29, 1939.

(The 1964 New Zealand field hockey team in a match against Kenya, as pictured in the Official Report).

So too do the official entry lists for the Games list him with that date of birth, which leaves us with the question of what his actual birthday is. We did some searching, but unfortunately his name is so common that we were unable to find any information on him at all. Thus, while this is somewhat outside of our normal purview, we felt it to be a quirky little Olympic mystery, as well as reminder that no source, no matter how official, is infallible.

Bob Lymburne

Today on Olympic Mysteries, we are looking at an Olympian whose circumstances are truly deserving of the word “mystery”. Our subject for the day is Robert Samuel “Bob” Lymburne, who represented Canada in the ski jumping tournament at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. There, he placed 19th out of 34 starters in the normal hill.

Lymburne had begun competing at the national level in 1927, but he did not attract widespread attention until after his Olympic appearance. On March 13, 1932, a month after competing at the Games, he set a world ski jumping record of 82 metres (269 feet) with a jump in Revelstoke, British Columbia. Lymburne lost his record in less than a year, but regained it in March 1933 with a jump of 87.5 metres (287 feet), and this one lasted until March 25, 1934, when it was bested by Norwegian Olympic champion Birger Ruud.

Lymburne thus appeared to be a strong prospect for the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics, but it was not to be. Although some sources claimed that he qualified for these Games, in actuality he suffered a severe head injury while skiing in 1935 and never competed again. Although he returned to his career as a fireman, he never truly recovered and, according to the book Powder Pioneers:

“He is reported to have wandered off into the woods many years later and his body was never found.”

Thus, unlike all of our other Olympic Mysteries, precise information about Lymburne’s death is not just unknown to us, but it appears to be unknown to anyone. We do not know the origins of this story – the earliest version we could locate was in Powder Pioneers, written in 2005, and thus we do not even know when his disappearance is alleged to have occurred (some sources state 1936, although he seems to have been still alive after that) or which woods he vanished in (as he worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, it cannot even be assumed that it was in British Columbia). We have been waiting to regain our access to Newspapers.com, but it has not been forthcoming, and we wanted to get this blog post out today. We may, therefore, have an update on this story later this week if we are able to uncover more through a search of their news archives. For the time being, however, it remains a true Olympic Mystery.

Yevgeny Saltsyn

Today on Oldest Olympians we have another mystery concerning an Olympic medalist: Yevgeny Saltsyn. Saltsyn, born February 26, 1929, was a member of the Soviet water polo team that won a silver medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Saltsyn, however, played in only one of the team’s seven matches, their 8-2 victory over Brazil in the preliminary round. Although born in Crimea, Ukraine, he played for Caspian Flotilla’s Sports Club Baku, in what is today Azerbaijan, and, with them, won a bronze medal at the 1957 Soviet Championships. Beyond that, we do not know much about him, including whether or not he is still alive. This is likely a result of the limited time in which he actually played at the Games, as well as our own language barriers. Thus, we are reaching out to our readers with the intent of discovering more about this athlete.

(the 1960 Soviet water polo team, pictured at Water Polo Legends)

Hopefully this brief profile will be as fruitful as last week’s blog entry as, thanks to a comment we received on that post, we have learned that 1952 Olympic gymnastics medalist for Czechoslovakia Hana Bobková, born February 19, 1929, died in 2017.

https://www.olympic.cz/text/44–seznam-clenu-s-z

We want to extend our appreciation to Jack, who forwarded this link to us!