Gold-medal standard

Chris von Saltza Olmstead

Photo By Kel munger

She’s a gracious, funny bookworm who’s absolutely crazy about her grandchildren. And she also set a world record in swimming before she hit her teens. Sacramento resident Chris von Saltza Olmstead was on the United States Olympic swim team in 1960, brought home three gold medals and a silver medal when she was just 16 and even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. We persuaded von Saltza Olmstead to talk to SN&R about her experiences as a world-class swimmer—and dug up a few secrets in the process, including she now stays far from the pool and whether it’s necessary to curtsy in her presence.

How did you get to the ’60 Olympics?

We lived in the San Jose-Saratoga area, and we’d go to the beach every summer from a time before I could walk. And I learned to swim in the ocean. I loved it, and I was good at it.

We got to the age that my mother started to worry about what I’d do after school—she didn’t want me just hanging around—and she’d heard about the Santa Clara Swim Club. I was 11, and my sister was 12 or 13, and so my mother decided she’d have us try out. I tried out, and I was obviously a very adept swimmer and took to the coaching.

When I was 12, I set my first world record, and later that year, I tried out for the ’56 Olympics and just missed making the team. … I’d only been swimming about nine months. That indicated to me that, if I’d work a bit, I might be able to make the team in 1960. That became my goal.

Fortunately, I did well on a regular basis. I kept improving and didn’t have any major problems. I went to the Pan American Games in 1959 and won everything I swam, which was a pretty good omen that I was going to do well. So by 1960, I had started thinking that not only was I a good candidate to make the team, but I might actually win something.

And you won medals?

I won three gold medals and a silver medal. I was second in the 100-meter freestyle to Dawn Fraser of Australia, and I won the 400-meter freestyle, which was always my best event. Then, I was the anchor leg on two winning relay teams. That was pretty exciting.

What happened after you got out of the pool?

The Olympics were the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, so I continued to swim for one more year, knowing that I would have to retire when I went to college. It was way before Title IX, so there were no athletic programs in any of the women’s sports. No scholarships, no competition, no nothing. At Stanford [University], they didn’t even have a regulation pool for women to swim in, so continuing to compete was not an option.

So I take it you’re a fan of Title IX?

Oh, absolutely, for all kinds of reasons.

You know, in my day, nobody even thought about it. You did it as a young teenager, and then you went on with your life. The average age on the Olympic team I was on was 15-and-a-half. And, of course, that’s very different today.

The expectation was, for women—not the men, because they had an NCAA swimming program for men—but for the women, the expectation was that it was over after high school. It was a different world.

Did you still swim for fun?

No, I kind of walked away from it. I love to swim in the ocean and in other bodies of water, but if I get into a pool, I start thinking about pace and stroke. It’s not something that I enjoy. I’m not interested anymore. I did it and moved on.

So what’s your favorite thing to do now?

Be with my grandchildren. And, actually, I went to my granddaughter’s swim lesson on Saturday, and she’s coming along.

But as with my own sons, I have no desire to push them into any particular athletic endeavor. I know how much it cost me. As wonderful as it was, it was a huge price to pay for being so committed to something, especially when you’re that young.

Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte?

Well, I think Phelps. He’s been an extraordinary athlete, but it’s almost as if he’s held on too long. … I think they’re both phenomenal athletes. And Ryan Lochte is so cute!

I’ve heard rumors that you’re royalty. Are you a princess?

No, ma’am. I’m not a princess, although my granddaughter would like to think she is. Yes, I am part of Swedish nobility, although nobility in Sweden no longer counts for anything. I’m a baroness.

Does that mean you know how to curtsy properly, should you ever meet the king of Sweden?

No, I don’t. I don’t know any of those techniques—the royal wave or any of it.