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Harold Connolly
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The Journey for Olympic Gold
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Olga Fikotova and Harold Connolly. Picture from http://www.sportline.it/sydney2000.nsf/refstorie/1956_5
Chapter Twenty-five
On Saturday, following our return to Germany, Bob and I were invited to a track
meet held the next day in a small town south of Frankfurt, where we were to meet another
of the great men of German athletics, the 1952 Olympic silver medal winner Karl Storch.
At thirty-eight, he was the oldest man to ever win an Olympic track and field medal. We
arrived late at night, were met by two officials of the local club and taken directly to the
town’s only hotel.
Tired after the six-hour train trip, I soon retired into the cumulus of feather filled,
freshly fluffed pillows and comforters on an old, creaking, four- poster bed, where I slept
until the first rays of sunshine awoke the neighboring rooster. It was Sunday morning.
The brisk bite in the September morning air invited a walk; I decided to get
dressed and go to church. Out on the cobblestone street, I set on a course toward a crosspinnacled
steeple protruding above the housetops. The hotel clerk told me it was a
Catholic Church. I hoped to reach it in time for the 7 a.m. Mass.
Nearly two hours later, after the Mass in an old gray stone church with a small
adjoining graveyard, I found my way back to the hotel and headed to breakfast. Just as I
was about to enter the dining room, a heavy arm landed across my shoulders. “You must
be der boy who paid his vay from Amerika to learn die hammer technik.”
I turned to see a bear like man with bulging, energetic black eyes, staring from a
bald head framed by long, dark brown hair hanging over his ears and down the back of
his head. “I am Storch, Karl Storch from Fulda. Ist you Backus or Connolly?” He spoke
loudly, extending his hand towards mine.
“Hello. I’m Connolly, Harold Connolly. We arrived last night,” I replied, as his
hand enclosed mine like a vice. Storch had a dominating presence: huge, powerful chest
and wide, steeply sloping shoulders that gave his arms the appearance of reaching down
to his knees.
“Velcome. So you come all the vay from Amerika. One day I must see the USA. -
-Connolly, you are Irish? Maybe you are ein Katolik. Komm vit me unt Hans here. Ve
go to church.” He waved at his waiting companion to come closer. “A fast walk is goot
before the meeting.”
The tone of Storch’s voice indicated he was used to having his way. Uneasily, I
tried to excuse myself. “I’m sorry, Karl, but I just came back from church. I think I’ll
have some breakfast now.”
Storch shrugged his shoulders. “Gut, gut, very good. I see you later.” Just as
suddenly as he had appeared, the famous hammer thrower stormed away. There was no
doubt this veteran, still regarded as one of the leading German athletes, was his own boss.
The next time I saw Karl was at the afternoon competition. He arrived dressed in
loose, old fashioned, nearly knee length, black cotton shorts, and a well-worn white tank
top with deep openings around his neck and under his arms. After few minutes of speedy
calisthenics, and once up and back on the football field passing the ball with a couple of
his cohorts, he announced he was ready and the contest began. Storch moved
vehemently, swinging the hammer up with determined strokes, holding his breath during
all three turns, and at the release with a violent jerk of his upper body, he let out a
resounding “Eeh!” On one of his six throws, clearly one of his best, he brushed the top of
the rim of the circle with his heel. When the official called a foul, Storch gave him a
savage look.
“Was ist los?” He halted the progress of the event and demanded to know what
was wrong. Finally he called at me. “Harold, come hier. Vas dat a foul?”
I said, “ Yes, it did look like one to me.” Storch seemed placated.
“Ich bin uebergetreten.” He confirmed the official's decision.
The veteran champion adopted me like a son. During my throws he showed signs
of impatience, mumbling to himself and shaking his head as he studied my every move.
After easily beating Bob and me, he grabbed my elbow with an imperative gesture:
“Com vit me.” He introduced me to his old friend and early coach, Sepp Christmann, the
most famous German throwing coach. “Sepp, dis boy needs much help. All he has ist a
pair of goot legs. He has ein problem vit der arm, unt he knows nothing of hammer
technik. I believe ve should take him unt his comrade for a couple of days to Fulda for
some goot German bread unt beer unt give dem a better start.”
Sepp Christmann agreed with the proposal, and Karl, with a friendly slap on my
back that for an instant cut off my breathing, invited the coach, Bob and me to his hometown.
That same afternoon we sped in Karl’s Opel along the Bavarian countryside with
Sepp in his black Mercedes following us with the rest of Storch’s entourage.
After about an hour of driving, Karl bought the car to a stop. “Time for Essen.
Over der is a very goot place. Come on, schnell, schnell,” he waved to all to follow him
into a restaurant, where Karl was obviously very popular. In the window next to the main
entrance was a large, autographed action photo of him throwing the hammer. This sight, I
learned soon afterwards, was not uncommon. Storch, besides being a popular athlete was
also a prominent business man, owner of a large sport shop and clothing store, a regional
director for the soccer lottery, well known for his straight-forwardness and honesty and
liked by all. Many shops and cafes around Fulda were proud to display the picture of the
town’s first ever Olympic medallist. Karl’s deep voice reached the dining room and
prodded the owner to spurt out with outstretched arms and a hearty welcome. “Hallo,
Karl, alter Knabe, wie gehts?
The waiter appeared in an instant, shaking hands with Storch and quickly
counting his party. Asking for no instructions, he left to return few minutes later with a
large tray loaded with pitchers of beer overflowing with foam and a smaller tray carrying
a battle-line of Schnapps. He quickly placed the beers and jiggers in front of us with the
speed and accuracy of a Las Vegas craps dealer.
Karl cleared his throat and rose to make a short speech, including something
about American hammer throwers that made his German entourage laugh. He concluded
in English. “You must trink beer, Bob unt Harold. Right here, in dis fresh thick foam lies
der secret of many meters.” He held his beer high until he saw everyone else joined his
For the next two and half hours we ate our snack: Schnapps and sausage,
Schnapps and soup, black bread with salt and Schnapps and beer--all topped by a glass of
wine proffered by the proprietor to honor the visiting Americans.
Finally, schnell, schnell, Karl stood up announcing we were off to complete our
journey. Composed and without wavering, he directed our unsteady procession to the cars
and down the weaving road towards home. With his left arm and shoulder hanging out
the open window and his expansive girth barely fitting the front seat, Karl bellowed brave
tunes worthy of the occasion. All our voices contributed to the choral, the cadence of
which increased with Karl’s pressure on the accelerator, as we sped across the rolling
German countryside.
When we arrived at the hotel on the main street in Fulda, Karl introduced us to the
clerk and helped us to fill out the hotel registration cards. Then, at length, he instructed
the clerk to give us the best rooms in the house. Weary from the drinks and the ride, Bob
and I rejoiced at the prospect of rest, but somewhat prematurely--Karl only pushed our
bags towards the bellboy and turned to us with, “Ve go to Fredi’s.” I was reluctant to
“Should we tell him we’d rather stay here?” I whispered to Bob.
“I guess we could,” he answered hesitantly, “But then again he’s trying so hard to
be nice --”
Karl noticed our uneasiness. “Was ist Los?” Something wrong vit you? Are you
tired? Impossible. No atleten tire so easy. Dis vill be a goot dinner, you must believe me.
Fredi makes prima Schnitzels. You boys must meet my friend, come, ve vill valk,
schnell.” He walked out with Bob trailing and smiling at me over his shoulder.
“Brother, they’ll kill us with hospitality,” I whispered to Bob.
Stifling our yawns and suppressing all signs of fatigue, we fell in with the others and
followed Karl.
“Gut, sehr gut, dis vill work up big appetite,” he said leading us like a
Ten minutes later we entered “Fredi’s Place” the brightly lighted, smoke filled,
beer garden restaurant. A short, heavy set man with a ruddy face, smiling from a bald
head, Fredi himself, greeted us and helped get us seated at the table reserved for nine,
where some other Fulda athletes and a newspaperman already waited. The table stood
next to a wood-paneled wall, which supported long rows of shelves, lined with
collections of beer steins, crests and shields. On the wall across the expansive room was a
display of photographs of celebrated Germans, among which were German athletes, with
Karl in a prominent place of honor. The room was crowded with long, cloth-covered
tables, and every stiff-backed wooden chair and bench was occupied, mostly by men,
eating schnitzels and sausages, washing them down with beer, everyone talking to
everyone else in an incomprehensible cacophony of sounds. On a small platform in the
corner, a short red-faced man squirmed and stretched as he played an accordion.
Waiting next to our table to make a last second, personal examination of our large
platter of schnitzels, Mr. Fredi eloquently gesticulated to his headwaiter to serve Bob and
me good-sized portions. With his huge soft hand he directed our attention to a faded
photograph near the corner of the wall. “Dat ist I unt my Frau on our vedding day.”
“It’s a beautiful picture,” said Bob.
Ya, der Bilder ist zehr schon, Fredi,” I attempted in the awkward German I was
beginning to pick up.
Karl overheard us, and with a loud laugh he slapped Fredi on his massive, apronembraced
belly: “Ya, Dat vas many kilos ago!” Everyone roared, but loudest of all, our
jolly host. The dome of his baldhead lighted up as the blood rushed to his face. Every part
of his three-hundred-pound body shook as he laughed.
After Bob and I assessed Fredi’s schnitzels to be “Der best schnitzels in der ganz
Welt,” the restaurant owner, a pleased grin across his face, bowed in acknowledgment of
the praise, then left to greet his other guests.
About eleven o’clock the hubbub of shouts, laughter, and activity reached its
zenith. The accordionist, who had spent the previous hour dining, returned to the stage
and, with a schooner of beer at his side, resumed playing familiar melodies. The patrons
joined in singing one number after another, until the musician suddenly switched to the
prelude of something special that elicited from Karl and his friends at our table the cry:
“Fredi! Wo ist Fredi?”
It was immediately joined by a unanimous chant from all: “Fredi tanz! Fredi
tanz!” With a satisfied wink, through the smoke of his thick cigar, Storch leaned over and
whispered to Bob and me, “I told him to play dis--der music for Fredi’s dance.”
The proprietor did not need much coaxing. Having hesitated only that strategical
moment to be sure of having everybody’s undistracted attention, he walked into the
middle of the room, accepted one of the readily offered long-stemmed glasses, filled it
with wine and very carefully balanced it on the tope of his head. The accordion player
eased off on the tempo to allow the innkeeper a warm up with a few cautious turns. Fredi
suddenly crouched and the pitch of the music rose. He slapped his thighs, lifted himself
onto his toes and made series of graceful pirouettes. Throughout his gyrations the glass
remained perfectly still, not a drop of wine overflowing.
“Bravo, Fredi! Bravo!” The expectations of the patrons exploded into delighted
cheers. The accordion player interjected a short fanfare during which Fredi stretched his
arms out to his sides and struck a mock ballerina pose. A second later he surged into a
capering gait, bounced from one end of the room to another, wove in between the tables
in a frolicking glide, then stepped onto an empty chair, and climbed to the top of a long
table. As he performed a series of almost weightless turns, it seemed that while his
rotund body twirled, the wineglass stayed motionless.
Then, with perspiration running profusely down his cheeks, the innkeeper
descended from the table to a chair and back to the floor. The enthralled spectators
accompanied Fredi by clapping in unison to the music and the rhythm of his steps as he
took a last swing around the room before returning to its center. There, he added a few
more incredibly light-footed spins, followed by a sudden jerk of his head that brought the
falling glass to his lips. Without spilling a drop, Fredi caught the glass ever so delicately
between his pudgy fingers and in a single gulp drank the entire contents. Amidst loud
cheers from every corner, he collapsed into the nearest chair, laughing, gasping for air
and basking in the ceaseless acclamation.
“Bravo, Fredi! Bravo!” “ Wunderbar!” “Auf Deine Gesundheit!”
I sat amazed by the transformation of the paunchy restaurant owner, and
flabbergasted by the whirlwind we had been on from the moment we met Karl Storch.
Amidst the din around me, I thought back through the expanse of experiences wondering
what would be the next extraordinary scene to unfold. Only five weeks before my whole
existence was tied to Boston College, Boston University, Commonwealth Avenue, the
corner drug store, evening television, the Boston Pop’s concerts on the Charles River
Esplanade, the occasional excursions to Nantasket Beach, and my primarily, solitary
training. Even after the landing of the S.S. Zuiderkruise in Holland, in spite of my
physical separation from my old realities, my emotions remained deeply anchored at
home, and I was unable to integrate my identity with my new surroundings.
In the midst of all the evening’s excitement at “Fedi’s” I felt as if I were having
an out of body experience, like a misty observer witnessing, but not really feeling
involved, incapable of crossing the ridge between home and the present reality.
Somehow I felt remote from the atmosphere of that evening.
“Harold, was ist los?? You ist sleeping!” Karl’s admonishing voice interrupted
my thoughts. “I vill take you to der hotel unt den come back for Bob.”
“No, I’m fine Karl. I’ll leave when everyone else does.”
“Fine, it ist goot. Fredi ist bringing a bottle of vine in your honor unt he vould be
disappointed if ve hurried out so early. Ve vill stay half hour more, goot?”
“Good, Karl, fine.”
The headwaiter brought a tray of new glasses just as the musician began to sing
In Fulda steht ein Hofbrauhaus” and was promptly joined by some three-dozen voices.
Karl grabbed my elbow and locked it in his. In surprise, quickly scanning the room, I
noticed that all were linking arms together and beginning to sway with the music from
side to side while still remaining in their chairs. With the tide of movement sweeping
towards us, Bob and I also quickly hooked arms and accompanied the rest by at least
humming the infectiously happy melody. While the last word still echoed, the accordion
player paused and reached for his beer, but someone in a corner had already begun
another of the variations of German drinking chorales, “Trink, Trink, Bruderlein Trink,”
and once more, without even waiting for the musical accompaniment, the inn resounded
with singing. During this time, however, Karl began taking Bob and me from one table to
another, introducing us to his acquaintances. Some of them tried for a word in English,
while others spoke only German, but all radiated genuine warmth in squeezing our hands
and wishing us the success we were hunting for.
At two o’clock in the morning as we negotiated along the undulating street to our
hotel, I still had sufficient command of my faculties to realize that my reserve and my
sense of being apart from everything had vanished--not merely temporarily washed away
by the streams of alcohol, but buried by the avalanche of camaraderie displayed among
those German sports fans even to an unknown beginner like me. Athletics mean more to
them than simply statistical results--it was an important part of their social life. My weird
form of athletic expression, hammer throwing, odd ball in the US, served here as an
immediate catalyst between me and the scores of strangers, with whom I could otherwise
have exchanged nothing more than the few greetings I had begun to memorize. I knew
most of my acquaintances here were not hammer throwing enthusiasts, but they all
seemed to genuinely appreciate and even admire the fact that two Americans would come
to Germany to train and improve themselves in sport.
The three days in Fulda passed like an instant. Each afternoon Sepp brought us
from the hotel to Karl’s sports shop, where we waited until he finished his work before
we all drove to the athletic field to meet the other local throwers. The two-hour training
sessions absorbed their personalities just as fully as the cafe singing and drinking. Our
workouts began with a fifteen-minute all-out round of soccer, which was followed by
calisthenics, a series of sprints and an hour and a half of hammer throwing under the
relentlessly observant eye of coach Christmann. A crowd of children, local runners,
farmers leading ox drawn carts, and grandmothers carrying big bundles of dandelions and
clover, gathered around us curiously drawn by the sight of Bob’s USA sweat shirt and
Sepp’s exuberant discourse on hammer throwing technique, even though he spoke in
“Before you leave here,” he continually reminded us, “order films of the Russian
and Hungarian throwers who have taken our style to the next level. Without studying
them you might miss important refinements. It hurts an athlete when he has not the
opportunity to compete with the best.”
On our last day in Fulda, this time with a touch of sentimental formality, Karl
presented us with a few “remembrances,” as he called them, of our stay.
“Here ist to take vit you,” he said and handed us each a precision made Berg
hammer, a beautiful training suit and an expensive suede and knit sweater-jacket. While
we were groping to find enough expressive words of thanks, he rolled right over the
situation with “All ist goot, now ve vill go to my house ver Mutti hast der dinner.”
In Storch’s home we re-lived his devoted preparations for the 1952 Olympics,
rewarded by the silver medal he had mounted over the fireplace in the place of honor
among his scores of other trophies. I thought how much I also would like to have such an
Olympic medal to put over my own fireplace. At eleven we left the Storch home, with
our host reminding us to be prepared for the ride to the Frankfurt train station at six in the
Bob and I, accompanied by Sepp Christmann, walked to our hotel. “It is still
early, why wouldn’t we stop for a glass of wine,” suggested the coach.
Bob sighed in desperation. “No, thanks, Herr Christmann, not for me. Six o’clock comes
too early.”
I also dreaded another night of minimal sleep, but seeing the coach’s
disappointment I told him, “I’ll join you Herr Christmann.”
“Good, Harold, we won’t be long. I’d be sorry if we didn’t visit my own favorite
place in Fulda. Bob, are you sure you won’t come?”
“Really, I’m beat. You two have a good time. I’ll see you in the morning.”
After saying “good night” to Bob, coach Christmann led me down a dark, side
alley and across a narrow cobblestone street to a gray stone building. A flight of stairs
descended directly from the sidewalk into what appeared to be a cellar. The small door
opened with the tinkle of a bell, that woke up an old man with thick white hair, who slept
at the nearest little table. With his arms still folded over his open newspaper, which lay in
front of him, the man’s heavy-lidded eyes glanced up to express yawning interest in us as
we walked by through the isolation of another four lonely guests. Then his head sagged
again, to its previous position.
A thin, short, bearded man dressed in black trousers and shoes and a long-sleeved
white shirt with a cork screw dangling from a chain around his neck, emerged from
behind a beaded portiere to the right of the bar. Recognizing coach Christmann, his face
lit up and he came forward with an outstretched hand. “Hallo, Herr Christmann, es freut
mich Sie wiederzusuhen. Willkommen in unserem Hause.”
They spoke for a while before the coach introduced me to the cafe owner and
said he could not let me leave Fulda without bringing me to his favorite cafe. Would we
be able to get a bottle of “Niersteiner Domtal?”
The waiter lifted his hand with thumb and index finger touching at their tips in a
gesture assuring satisfaction and replied that it was always ready for Herr Christmann.
Ein Augenblick, bitte. The beaded curtain swallowed the proprietor. We found a table
against the back wall.
“I have been coming for years to this wine cellar. Every time I visit Fulda I stop
here,” said Herr Christmann. For a while he rested submerged in his thoughts. Wondering
what he was thinking, I looked at him closely. Though the coach was in his late fifties
and despite the damage of an old injury, his features still bore much of their impressive
Teutonic sharpness. He had flowing, steel gray hair, and, behind the thick lenses of his
glasses part of his face was erased by paralysis. He had one glass eye, the aftermath of an
accident from being struck by a hammer that ripped out of the hands of a beginning pupil.
Despite its scar, the lines of deep character and strength made the coach’s face almost
The proprietor returned with a tall, slender, dark green bottle and two wineglasses,
and Herr Christmann resumed the conversation. “Harold, here they serve only
the finest Rhine wine, chilled to the perfect temperature. This one,” he lifted up the
opened bottle, “is the best Rhine of all--I was born almost in its vineyards.” He filled our
glasses and scrutinized with pleasure the wine’s clear, ripe sparkle.
“Harold, wine has to be drunk very slowly--you must not rush it. You must learn
to appraise the wine, allow it to mellow on your tongue and savor its bouquet and distinct
taste. Believe me, sitting over a glass of the best wine gives one time to think over many
important matters.”
For a while he elaborated on the art of making and appreciating fine wine; then
abruptly switched to sports. “Did you hear that the Soviet, Krivonsov, broke the world’s
hammer record with 63.34 meters?”
I mentally calculated the distance to be about 207 feet.
“No, I hadn’t. When did it happen?”
“Earlier today in Budapest” he responded.
“That’s a great throw.”
“Ya, it is far. But, Harold, I am going to tell you something you may not even
have in mind at this moment, but about which I am as sure as my sitting at this table. I
believe that you are the right man to defeat Krivonsov two years from now at the
Olympic Games in Australia. You can become the Olympic Champion.”
The coach’s statement stunned me. “Why do you think that, Herr Christmann?”
“Well, some people may judge you according to your comparatively small size, or
your handicap, and disregard you on that; but I have watched you now for days, and I feel
there is something in you that marks a champion. There are athletes like that. Who has
been in coaching as long as I, can sense them.”
My immediate, inner reaction to his extraordinarily encouraging words was the
influence of the exquisite wine, but never before had anyone but my father ever
expressed such absolute faith in my determination to succeed. That night I lay in bed for
hours thinking about Christmann’s words. The next day as we left Fulda, I knew I had
changed. I was charged with optimism and bound by the anxious intent not to let down
an old German coach who only four days before had been an absolute stranger.

Copyright © 1999-2002 Harold Connolly