Q&A with Dr. Esselstyn
Olympic Reflections 50 Years Later
by Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD
This article originally appeared abridged in the Yale University Alumni Magazine
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Yale 1956 Gold Medal Olympic crew this year, I was asked to share my reflections on the event and what it has meant through the years. The entire experience was further enriched when 5 of us returned as guests of Australia in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Olympic Games.
The crew was comprised of 4 sophomores coxswain Bill Becklean, # 7 Rusty Wailes, #8 Bob Morey, # 3 John Cooke 2 juniors, #4 Don Beer, #5 Charlie Grimes, 3 seniors, #2 Dave Wight, Bow Captain Tom Charlton and # 6 yours truly.
As the years have passed so seemingly has the heroic stature of the 4 races we rowed on Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, Australia. We lost our opening race by a hefty margin to Australia and Canada. We were thunderstruck. Despite being the youngest crew, we knew we were in the best of condition and had the finest coach, Jim Rathschmidt. It was totally a matter of confidence. We had not raced since June and it was then the end of November. Fortunately the competition had not ended for us as all the losers of the first day have the opportunity to climb back into the competition through an extra race - the repechage – in French “to fish again.” That evening of our opening loss it was up to coach Jim Rathschmidt, and he used few words but the right words for his young crew. “You are the finest crew here and I came to Australia for one reason – to bring home some gold!”
The next day we won the repechage race and were now scheduled to meet the Australians again in the semifinal. We went all out and squeaked out a win by about 12 feet. Several of us threw up from the effort and were heavily criticized by the Australian press for going all out when we merely had to come in second to qualify for the final. By now we had regained much of our confidence heading to the final, which was to be our 4th race in 4 days.
At this point Coach Jim Rathschmidt did some clandestine counseling with Bob Morey our stroke and Bill Becklean our coxswain, which I did not learn about until June 2006 – fifty years later. Jim was not at all confident that we could row our usual race at 33 strokes per minute and win the final. Our main competition would be Canada and Australia, and he felt they were excellent crews which in a final would be going all out and our 33 strokes per minute would not be enough. He instructed our stroke Morey and coxswain Becklean to settle to 36 strokes per minute following our racing start. Why was that so hush hush? We had never rowed throughout a race at 36 strokes per minute and Jim must have been concerned there would have been questions and self- doubt about our capacity to sustain such an effort.
Yale's 1956 Olympic Gold Medal Eight
Just prior to the start of the final, sitting in our shell we performed our last minute ritual “passing the shake.” The cox shakes the hand of # 8, 8 shakes # 7, etc., for the length of the boat. Halfway through this custom, Garth Manton, #5 of the Australian crew bellowed out, “I say Charlie haven’t you met Don yet?” Well, just who did he think he was to mock our pre race bonding? It was the absolutely perfect last jibe to stir our adrenalin. Then it came, “Messeurs, etes vous prez –partir!” - The universal international rowing start command.
As we were to learn at our 50th reunion with the Aussies, they had planned to jump us at the start and hold a 20-30 foot lead for the body of the race and extend it with their closing sprint. However, our higher stroking foiled that plan because we did not fade early in the race. We were slightly ahead by 10-12 feet at the halfway point, but our crafty coxswain was telling us, “You’re pulling even!” In my 1956 diary I wrote, “At the halfway point my legs felt like they did at the finish, The higher stroke was taking its toll physically. Immediately after the start Beck (Bill Becklean, coxswain) began calling for power tens (all out effort for 10 strokes). He certainly did not want them to gain too much on us. I was and I guess we all were putting out too much this early in the race, but I had to know I’d given it all I had, Anyway by 500 meters according to Beck (everyone seems to have it differently) we had just about moved up even with Canada and Australia. More power tens, then Bill yelled, “You’ve got a man on them; you’re going to win it!” Those words were too delicious to believe, but we had not yet reached the halfway mark. More power tens and we slowly seemed to eke out about a canvas (10 feet) ahead. By 1000 meters (halfway) I was shot – my head cold and the emotional pre race pressure had taken their toll but I still had the desire and Bill held us together. As I looked at Rusty’s head I could see it begin to weave a little with fatigue and I recall murmuring, “Hang on, Rusty!” More power tens and Beck said we had a bit more than a canvas on the Aussies but he seemed a little afraid of something and asked us to take it up – 38 strokes per minute. My legs were like crow- bars and I had to fight on the recovery to get up to full reach let along drive with the legs. The last 500 meters are still a blank. I remember the sunlight and hearing the Australian oars off to our left and behind us a bit. I remember concentrating on just trying to swing power on and gutting it occasionally with what little I felt I had left. I pushed my hands to the edge of the oar handle to maximize leverage. The crowd roaring was unlike anything I had ever heard and then we took our final sprint up to 40 strokes per minute and I’d sooner die than quit, but the pain was god-awful. I was aware somehow of Canada closing ahead of the Aussies. Suddenly we were over and had won. A nightmare was over.”
With the Australian loss the crowd was hushed and one familiar voice rang out, “Es!” It was Bob Kiphuth, Yale’s legendary swimming coach and a long time family friend who had taken the train from Melbourne to Ballarat to see the race.
After tears and some vomiting off the victory platform, we returned to the boat house and Captain Tom Charlton declared, “We are the toughest crew ever put together and we beat the finest!”
It was my last race. I had taken so much time from medical school I decided to repeat my first year and changed schools from Yale to Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.
Following our victory, we have met every 5 years at the Yale-Harvard race. I’ve never felt so bonded to a group of friends. Sadly the years are taking their toll and three of us have died, Don Beer, # 4 in the 1990’s from a brain tumor, # 7 Rusty Wailes in 2002 from a cardiac arrest and #3 John Cooke in 2005 from a liver malignancy. These are painful funerals.
Those of us who have survived had a glorious time at the 50th reunion in Australia. The Australian crew were genuinely hospitable, friendly and engaging. While we viewed them as the enemy in 1956, they were now rowing comrades and wonderful people, as are all oarsmen. Brian Doyle, the Australian stroke oar, on a night of speech making from all of us, said it most plainly, “ The reason we lost was that we ran into a bunch of Yanks who wanted it more than we did.”
How has the Olympics influenced my life since? For some athletes an Olympic Gold Medal is the pinnacle of their life. I viewed it as a springboard. The experience provided the utmost in confidence, belief in one’s self, the rewards of total effort, personal courage, and most importantly persistence. Following medical school I married Ann Crile and pursued a surgical residency at the Cleveland Clinic and at St. George’s Hospital in London. I’d no sooner finished my residency than I was in the Army with one year of my two years tour of duty spent trying to mend the carnage in Vietnam. In January 1969 I accepted a staff position in the department of general surgery at the Cleveland Clinic where I remained for the next 31 years, retiring in 2000.
Along the way honors and leadership responsibilities occurred such as a Bronze Star in Vietnam, President of the Staff at the Cleveland Clinic, a member of its Board of Governors, Chairman of the Clinic’s Breast Cancer Task Force, and President of the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons. It is difficult to evaluate the degree to which the Olympic Experience contributed to these roles, but I am certain about one area of my life where it has always impacted and continues to do so. That is my research.
By the early 1980’s I was increasingly disillusioned with the focus of the medical profession. Epidemiological studies of non -western cultures, who subsisted on plant based nutrition revealed an absence of strokes, coronary heart diseases, hypertension, Type II diabetes, obesity, impotence, dementia, colon, prostate and very little breast cancer. By way of contrast, as the islands of Micronesia and Fiji became wealthy and adapted a western diet, they developed an epidemic of these diseases.
The natural question was can you arrest and reverse these diseases especially heart disease through restoring a totally plant based nutrition eliminating all oils (even olive oil), dairy, meat, processed flour, and excess sugar? In 1985 the Department of Cardiology sent me 24 patients severely ill with coronary artery disease, a number of whom were not expected to live a year. I saw each of them personally every 2 weeks for the first 5 years, every 4 weeks until the 10th year and quarterly until the 12year. At each visit I checked their diet diary, blood pressure, weight, and lipid (cholesterol) profile.
I reviewed their status last year (twenty years later) and all compliant patients are living, even the ones expert cardiologists said had but a year remaining. Their angina has disappeared, cholesterols plummeted, weight and blood pressure normalized and most strikingly there are multiple examples of disease reversal and widening of their narrowed coronary arteries. This has all been written up in peer reviewed journals. (See my web site, heartattackproof.com)
I have recently summarized all this for the public in “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Avery-Penguin, release date February 1, 2007. While I was not the first to demonstrate one could reverse coronary artery disease, it would appear that my study, now beyond 21 years, is the longest of its type. Just how does my Olympic experience play into all of this?
You would think there would be dancing in the streets. Cardiovascular disease, which is the leading killer of men and women, can be eliminated through plant-based nutrition. The reason I am more passionate and determined than ever to get this information to the public is the unbelievable resistance and apathy from quarters you would least expect.
While cardiologists freely admit that coronary heart disease is caused by the animal based western diet, one wonders why do they use as their focus for therapy drugs and mechanical intervention like stents and bypass surgery which they freely acknowledge is but a mere temporary patch job? The answer sadly is money, huge guaranteed money for stents and bypasses. For hospitals these procedures are their big winners. Almost all cardiologists lack skill, interest, or training in counseling patients toward a healthier lifestyle. They will say that patients won’t follow such a significant nutrition change. That is simply NOT true. There are still plant- based cultures across the globe through heritage and tradition. My own research beyond 20 years and the hundreds I have counseled outside of the research study cherish the idea that they have become the locus of control of their disease.
Industry is of no help. Johnson and Johnson and Boston Scientific both make drug eluting stents for narrowed coronary arteries. It is annually a 6 billion dollar market. It has had a record meltdown. These drug eluting stents require an anti clotting drug for at least 6-12 months after insertion. There now appears to be unexpected clotting of the stent when the anti-clotting drug is stopped. When the stent clots half will have a heart attack and over half die. If you are asked to continue the anti clotting drug indefinitely you are more prone to develop bruising or serious gastrointestinal bleeding. Worst of all there is the panic about stopping the drug when you need dental work, hip replacement or a colonoscopy for fear of a heart attack or dying. That has happened.
The elephant in the room here is that after stents and by pass, there is no decrease in mortality or the incidence of new heart attacks. The drug industry loves heart disease. The statin drugs are a 20 billion dollar annual market. Pfizer just spent 800 million dollars on a “miracle” drug to raise HDL good cholesterol. It raised the death rate so high the trial was canceled. The answer to an epidemic is not drugs or procedures. The answer is life style.
Where does the government and the United States Department of Agriculture fit into this picture? The USDA is a disaster. Its leadership is all a retread from the food industry. The USDA food pyramid is loaded with the very dairy, meats, oils, and refined flour that will destroy you. Having the USDA design your food triangle is like having Al Capone do your income tax.
At our class 50th reunion in June I was not surprised to see so many who were overweight, even obese and diabetic. Many had had stents or a bypass. There were others nursing an enlarged prostate or spoke of that gland now missing. A few attended with dementia and there was a hushed epidemic of erectile dysfunction.
Because of my research displayed in the Class of 1956 Sterling Library exhibit, I was contacted by a number of classmates. My plea to them was to consider going plant based. By age 85 years, 50% of Americans have Alzheimer’s or dementia that is mostly vascular in origin and need not occur.
A strong argument can be made that chronic illness need never exist. There are still third world and developing nations that consume plant-based nutrition and avoid heart disease, strokes, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, the common western cancers of breast, prostate, colon, endometrial, ovary as well as gall stones, diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis to mention a few.
Just as a subtle change in temperature from 33 degrees Fahrenheit to 32 degrees Fahrenheit can change water to ice, so can the barrage of free radicals in the Western diet marinate within our cellular matrix producing microscopic irreversible injury. These subtle injuries accumulate decade after decade until we as physicians declare a diagnosis.
This endeavor has become my second Olympics. It is my dream that the public will be made to understand the causation of chronic illness. How do I answer my critics who say you can never change this much behavior. Maybe that is true. Perhaps I can not, but I am very optimistic. Look how aware people are of the ravages of smoking. Also look at what happened last year in my own counseling practice to arrest and reverse coronary heart disease. Two interventional cardiologists who had developed heart disease themselves came knocking at my door. Hope springs eternal.
I would like to end sharing with you the motto of our 1956 Olympic Champion Crew- “Press on Regardless.”