- Speed Skating
Terry McDermott, Beatles share American history
It was fifty years ago today. An unassuming speed skater and barber from Essexville, Mich., sat in a dressing room, and next to him were the most famous musicians in the world on one of the biggest nights in pop culture history.
“I discovered it when I got to Ed Sullivan’s dressing room, I didn’t realize the Beatles were on, I didn’t even know who they were till I met them,” Terry McDermott said.
It started five days earlier for McDermott, who finished first in the 500m on Feb. 4, 1964, earning the sole gold medal for the U.S. at the Innsbruck Games.
Less than a week later, on Feb. 9, 1964, the Michigan native had his spot in American culture immortalized.
Terry McDermott and his wife attended The Ed Sullivan Show the same night the Beatles made their live U.S. television debut to a shrieking crowd of crazed followers. It was a moment that will live in history, famously ushered in with Sullivan’s dramatic proclamation: “Ladies and gentleman…the Beatles!”
Terry and his wife went to New York after the Olympics while people back in Essexville prepared a homecoming. They were invited to several different programs, and one was The Ed Sullivan Show.
So before the show, McDermott hung out backstage with the Beatles and Sullivan.
“They were just outstanding gentleman, they congratulated me on the medals and we chatted,” Mcdermott said. “They were very, very polite and nice.”
Then came the photo.
McDermott, who worked at his uncle’s shop as a barber, pretended to cut Paul McCartney’s hair while the rest of the Beatles and Ed Sullivan observed in playful fear.
The perfect staging wasn’t McDermott’s doing.
“I think it was Ed Sullivan and at the time, I was a barber, and so he put me in with them and pretended to cut,” McDermott said.
During the show, McDermott and his wife watched the historic performance from the crowd. He said that he knew something magical was going on as he looked on with the audience.
“Yes, it was quite a scene and they certainly were well receipted by the Americans and by American television,” McDermott said.
But just days earlier, the humble and reserved McDermott made history of his own, taking down a dominant Russian opponent at a volatile time in U.S.-Soviet relations.
McDermott won his gold in the 500m, an event that had been dominated by Russia’s Yevgeny Grishin before ’64. Grishin had won the distance at the previous two Olympics in addition to two golds in the 1500m.
McDermott, meanwhile, had skated at the 1960 Olympics, which was his first major international competition, and finished seventh in the 500m.
“1960 I skated in the Olympics as a 19-year-old and was quite raw as far as speed skating was concerned,” McDermott said.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Terry Mcdermott through the years
Despite the disparity in results before ’64, McDermott didn’t see himself as an underdog. He says that he knew he could have a chance of medaling if he could just beat Grishin.
“We met up with him (Grishin) about a week before, a couple weeks before the Games, at a pre-Olympic meet and I did very well, I think I won the competition, and it gave me some confidence for when the Games came,” McDermott said.
McDermott also broke 40 seconds at Olympic Trials, which had only been done by him, Grishin, and fellow American Tom Gray.
1964 was a tense time between Russia and the United States, with the Olympics coming just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The athletes, including Grishin and McDermott, could sense the unease.
“We knew each other from 1960, but they stayed separate from us, they didn’t communicate with us too much except for the nodding, recognize him, shaking hands or something like that, but that’s as far as it went,” McDermott said.
Even with the lack of communication, McDermott says it was never hostile.
“No, there was nothing,” McDermott said. “I just wanted to beat the Russians at the time because they were so strong in 1956 and 1960 and they were pretty much taking over the sport of speed skating away from the Norwegians and the Dutch.”
So Mcdermott knew he was going up against a monster of an opponent, but he also knew he had a chance. And for Terry, an important factor was when he would race.
“Well, I never liked to skate early, I liked to skate in the middle of the pack,” McDermott said.
The top skaters generally skated first, but McDermott was given the second seed, getting his wish of skating towards the middle. It wasn’t a simple decision, though, because the ice was fastest early in the competition, and skating late meant risking the already poorly conditioned rink even worsening.
But Terry felt he was best suited going later. His propensity for starting races better than he finished would give whoever he was paired with a moving target to catch up to, which is a big advantage for the top skaters, so he aimed to get in the second seed where he would skate alone.
“I was very strong for the first 350m and not quite as strong in the last 150, so I didn’t want to skate with the first, the elite, because I figured I could only help them,” McDermott said.
He turned out to be right.
Terry McDermott won gold in the 500m in 40.1 seconds, an Olympic record at the time. The Russian Grishin tied for silver with a time of 40.6.
So there he stood, the small-town barber and lone gold medalist for the U.S. at the 1964 Games, atop the podium. The otherwise quiet McDermott doesn’t hesitate when asked if he remembers the national anthem playing.
“I sure do. That’s when I think you realize you won the gold medal, you get choked up and you think of the hard work you put in to it, you won a medal for the United States and your very proud of that,” McDermott said. “It’s quite emotional.”
McDermott was the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony at the 1968 Games in Grenoble, where he won a silver medal in the 500m.
He has stayed involved in U.S. speed skating since then, and Sochi will be the first Games he won’t have attended since winning his gold medal 50 years ago.
McDermott eventually started a plastic molding company, only to give it to his two sons when he retired.
It’s fitting that the unpretentious McDermott says he found the photograph of him and the Beatles by happenstance.
“Well, that picture actually was shown in one of the photographer’s travel shows, and a person from our hometown was at the show and saw that picture of me,” McDermott said.
And what did the barber do with a picture of him with the most famous rock group of all-time?
“So I called and I asked if I could get a copy of it and a copy for each of my five children.”