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.


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:


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.


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:


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.