Olga Connolly: An Amazing Olympic -- and American -- Love Story | KCET
Olga Connolly: An Amazing Olympic -- and American -- Love Story
Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@losjeremy) asks, "How did you -- or your family before you -- wind up living in Los Angeles?"
Today, we hear from five-time Olympian Olga Connolly. She won a gold medal in the discus in 1956 for Czechoslovakia and then competed in 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972 for the United States -- the latter as the country's flag-bearer even as she criticized President Richard Nixon over his Vietnam policies.
Today, Connolly works as a personal trainer at the University of California, Irvine:
"I'm telling you this story while the London Olympics are taking place.
"If it wasn't for the Olympics -- the 1956 Melbourne games -- I would not be here, unless one day as a visitor.
"My story begins in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where I was born and raised and was attending Charles University School of Medicine and competing in track and field under my family's name, Olga Fikotová.
"My life story took unexpected turn in Melbourne, Australia, where I won the Olympic Championship for Czechoslovakia in the women's discus throw and met a lovely man and superb athlete, Harold Connolly. He won the Olympic competition in the hammer throw for the United States.
"This was 1956, during the Cold War. We fell in love through discovering that, in spite of having grown in antagonistic political systems, we held compatible sense of ethics, interests and curiosity about the world and life in general.
"It did not even occur to me then that our friendship would shock the Czechoslovak delegation leaders. In fact, we were introducing one another to the members and officials of both our teams.
"A year later we got married -- admittedly, it was unheard of that anyone would get across the Iron Curtain and get married, but after much verbal fighting with the administration in Prague, enthusiastic support from newspapers abroad, and approval by [US. Secretary of State] Mr. Dulles in the U.S.A. and President Zapotocky in Czechoslovakia we received permission.
"We planned a small and private wedding in Prague, but word got out and perhaps 30,000 people jammed the city's main square. It was an outpouring of not only acceptance of Harold and myself, but, perhaps mainly, of love towards America.
"My arrival story therefore includes a long boat travel from Melbourne across the Pacific Ocean to Vladivostok, by train across the then Soviet Union to Moscow, and finally plane home to Prague; Harold's visit; our wedding; and in 1957, my immigration to America.
"Our arrival in New York was considered big news. Having been embraced by Mr. Ed Sullivan who most warmly welcomed me at his Ed Sullivan Show, Mr. Louis Armstrong who gently kissed my cheek and on the stage sang a song dedicated to my welcome in the U.S.A., and having been surrounded by genuinely friendly reporters, I was awed by the free and uncensored atmosphere in my new homeland.
"We then spent a brief period in Harold's hometown, Boston. There, too, I was welcome in the State Senate, the magnificent Boston City Public Library, the Boston Globe writers, and many neighbors at Commonwealth Avenue. But, I was harshly frowned at by quite a few who condemned the marriage of Harold, Catholic, to me, a Protestant -- the ecumenical religious movement of Europe, the Vatican included, hadn't caught up there yet.
"I'm very happy to say that in 1959, we made the permanent move to Southern California. I loved instantly the casualness of outdoor living and passion for sports here. Harold and I were married for sixteen years and we have four children, now adults and exemplary citizens.
"In addition to training whenever I could for the 1960 (Rome), 1964 (Tokyo), 1968 (Mexico City) and 1972 (Munich) Games, I've also worked in educator positions for what's now Loyola Marymount University, USC, Toberman Settlement House in San Pedro, the National Football League Players' Association Youth Education projects, the California Conservation Corps and UCI.**
"Words cannot adequately express my gratitude to those serious institutions for how much intellectual and spiritual knowledge gifted me every single one.
"We lived in Santa Monica, on 20th Street, for three years and then moved to Culver City where I remained for the next forty-six years -- except for a couple of years accompanying Harold who received the Fulbright Grant to teach ESL in Finland during the `60s.
"Today, I live in Costa Mesa, closer to work and my daughters and their families.
"Now, because you are asking me, I will tell you more about the Olympic story that helped to open windows in the Iron Curtain of 1956.
"In Melbourne, in 1956, when Harold and I were just friends, seeing each other, some leaders and athletes on the CSR team started telling me that I am spending too much time with 'that American' and away from them.
"I kept saying, 'I'm sitting here in the stadium with everybody else. Just because you move away from us isn't my problem.'
"I competed the first day of track and field and won my event. Harold competed the second day and won his. We both were so very fortunate -- and, therefore, there was nothing more to accomplish.
"We took trips -- all of us did. Melbourne lived for the Olympics. You could go anywhere. And if you didn't have any money, the people there asked what you wanted and they gave it to you. It was like visiting relatives.
"So we went places and, in spite of my only rudimentary knowledge of English, we dialogued more and more. I fascinated Harold because he never could imagine a communist -- which I was not -- being so free.
"He didn't know my dad was in jail and I was thrown out of school as being from a 'reactionary family.' Or, that when invited into the Communist Party I did not accept the invitation because of my religious reasons.
"Despite my, what some interpreted as rebellious, reputation, by some miracle -- probably because I held the third best mark in Europe -- I was allowed to compete in Melbourne. I had no desire to go anywhere afterward. All I wanted was to do well, go back home, and complete my M.D.
"And then I won the top Olympic honor. But instead of praise, the team leaders kept heaping on me criticism of my spending open-to-public, friendly times with Harold.
"Before the closing ceremony, the Americans had to go to Sydney for a Commonwealth Games track meet. So we said goodbye. Harold said, 'I'm going to come to Czechoslovakia and I want you to marry me.' And I said, 'I love you.'
"So, suddenly, the Consul General from Sydney comes. The Americans are gone. I'm supposed to carry the Czech flag in the closing ceremony. The Consul General invites me to go on a two-day visit to the consulate in Sydney.
"I said, 'Two days?' I did not want to go. And then I started thinking, 'Well, maybe I could see the track meet, I could see Harold once more.'
"But then I started thinking again, 'I don't want to go. We are all here together and we will fly back by plane together.' So I said, 'Thank you very much, but I don't want to go.'
"A few hours later I got called to the Czech Olympic Committee meeting. I walked into that room and everybody was stone-faced. I said, 'Good day, does anyone want to speak to me? What's the matter?" The delegation leader said, 'You got this invitation and we think you should go to Sydney.'
"I said again, 'Thank you very much, it's such a wonderful honor but I would rather stay here.' So the delegation leader straightened his back and issued a command, 'Comrade Fikotová, you are going to Sydney. Get out and pack.'
"So I went and packed, brought back my luggage. And now I was laughing inside thinking, 'Wouldn't it be funny if I saw Harold?'
"I knew the Americans were staying in a particular hotel -- Harold had written the name down for me. I couldn't easily get to a phone -- there were no cell phones then -- but did leave a message that I am going to be visiting Sydney.
"The next day I'm packed into the Consul's car and off we drove. The road led through a wondrously fragrant eucalyptus tree forest -- I began to be grateful for the excursion. But halfway to Sydney the car broke down and we got stuck in a small town.
"Well, okay, that was an unforgettable experience because I met kind and sturdy people there -- even though I only spoke only a little English. When we were finally ready to depart, the garage mechanic came to shake my hand because I was an Olympic champion.
"The car was a Mercedes. I asked the mechanic what was wrong, why did it take two days to repair? He said, something like, 'Oh, nothing much. If we had known you were in a hurry we could have made the repairs much faster'.
"I thought to myself, 'The Consul General has taken me from Melbourne so I would not run away with the Americans. Then he learned the Americans were in Sydney so now he kept me here'.
"The hotel manager in the town called Sydney and so I got to talk to Harold. I said, 'I am on the way to Sydney but I probably will not see you'. Which I did not. The hotel manager did not accept payment for the phone call. "It is my first wedding gift to the two of you," he said.
"The Consul General's Mercedes made it to Sydney and I had very nice two days there. The Americans had already gone but I did receive a letter from Harold -- a love letter he addressed to me c/o the Czechoslovak Consulate.
"The plane -- it was a French turbo jet -- that took the team home from Prague to Melbourne was supposed to land and pick me up in Sydney on the way back.
"The day it was supposed to arrive I got woken at four or five in the morning. The Consul General said, 'Get dressed; you have to go back to Melbourne.'
"I said, "What happened?' He said, 'Everybody is waiting for you.' I said, 'What about the plane?' He said, 'The plane broke down. So you have to go back to the team.'
"I got ready and went downstairs. There were two guys there. I said, 'Good morning.' They said, 'Good morning.' And one picked up my luggage. I turned to the Consul General, 'I'm supposed to go with them?' He said, "Yes. I am driving you to the airport".
"We go to the Melbourne airport, we got on the plane. These guys are wordlessly sitting there right next to me. I started to worry, 'What's going on?' I tried to speak with them. No answers. At landing in Melbourne a car was waiting next to the plane. Now I was really scared. We got to the car and I said, 'Look guys, where are we going?'
"One of them said, 'We are going to the boat.' They drove me to the harbor. Then, they finally spoke. 'Yes, comrade, the terrorists -- the boycotters -- they damaged the French plane because they wanted the plane to crash with you and everyone, and our Soviet brothers saved us by allowing us to travel back home by their ocean liner.'
"The boat was from the Black Sea and had a 70-year-old captain because he was the only guy who still remembered the outside oceans. At this point, they didn't have big steamers because [during World War II] the Axis had destroyed the Soviet fleet completely, there was nothing left.
"So before the Games, they took this boat with a capacity of 350 people and sent it from Vladivostok and then off to Melbourne with the rowing equipment and the rowing team.
"But now, what's coming back was almost the entire Soviet team. And the Czech team. And several Bulgarians and Poles. It turned into a ship of friendship that's going to make just a few little stops, like in Vladivostok and then hop across Siberia over to Moscow and to Prague. Also, of course, there were far more men than women on the teams.
"When I arrived at the boat, I said, 'Where will I stay?' They had me stay with the Russian policewomen. They didn't even save a place for me. They treated me like some kind of traitor. I felt really deeply hurt.
"The Russian women were okay, the policewomen. They said, 'Yeah, c'mon, sleep up there, just don't sit up straight or you'll hit your head on the slated ceiling.'
"The ship ran out of toilet paper. So all the unnecessary Russian novels were put to use. Then we ran low on fresh water so it was available only two hours in the morning and two hours at night. Only salt water showers from overhead buckets.
"It was very primitive, but then again, I had never seen flying fish before. I had never seen the winter lights on the Solomon Islands. And when we got to Vladivostok, close to New Year -- you can't imagine the incredible music and fanfare!
"The only problem was that we were dressed for the summer and it was about 50-below in Vladivostok. So the Russians loaned us jackets. Our guys were so excited, they said, 'Do you realize when you spit it freezes before it hits the ground?'
"After we disembarked from the boat, we traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Everything was snow contoured, really cold. The lakes were frozen. Every few hours we had to stop because each wagon had to be heated separately and the connectors in between them had to be checked and defrosted.
"Siberian women -- so many men were killed in the war -- they were outside on the tracks, wearing five layers of men's clothing. These women were clearing the rails of heavy snow so the train could come through.
"Now with the distance of fifty, sixty years, I can say this was an incredible adventure. And sure I had other plans -- I wanted to be home I wanted to get on with my studies. But then again, I appreciated the knowledge that I gained from it. I know the people who live there, what they went through.
"When we got finally to Prague, the sports establishment was rather nasty to me. I did get a watch for my Olympic performance -- it was a men's watch. And everybody used to get a little money reward -- the Olympic winners of the past collected 10,000 Korunas, but I got only 3,000.
"The worst thing, though, was what they said, 'We are proud of you because you won for us. But that's only 50 percent. In the other 50 percent, you embarrassed us -- by running around with an American fascist.'
"I was getting similar remarks all over from people -- not from all people, other people said, 'Hey good job! You showed them! Americans are great!'
"Meanwhile, Harold was traveling Europe as an ambassador of good will for the U.S. State Department. And he actually received a permit to visit Prague to do a sports clinic. So that's where we met again. He said, 'Let's get married.'
"You know, I was in love. I also loved my parents very much. I was 25-years-old. And today, I can't explain that I could leave. But I could. There was like a breakaway in time that somehow I could leave.
"Please keep in mind that I was a privileged athlete. I traveled. I was not persecuted. I was thrown out of school and things like that, but it was absolutely nothing compared to what other people faced who were sent to mines where there was radioactive uranium.
"But as I look back I think, 'How could I have left my parents, because it devastated
them? How could I have left Charles University -- that was my dream !?' I don't know how I could leave. But I left.
"My first visit to Los Angeles came during the spring of 1959.
"Harold and I were invited to the fabulous Coliseum Relays. This was a famous athletics meet held at the world-renowned Los Angeles landmark, the Coliseum.
"Harold was invited to participate and I was offered the opportunity to do an exhibition -- there were not a lot of women then who were throwing the discus.
"We took a plane across the country. We were met by Mr. Schroeder, a representative of our hosts, the Helms Athletic Foundation.
"This was probably the most-loving sports organization every put together. It was run by Mr. Helms, Sr. at first, and then by Paul Helms, Jr. The Helms Bakery used to be a big staple of Los Angeles. They made the most delicious and lovely looking breads and pastries! In Culver City, I'd see their little delivery vehicles all the time.
"The Helms Athletic Foundation had a museum and hospitality room and also they were involved in everything related to athletics, including the Coliseum Relays. [Editor's Note: See this Laws That Shaped LA column about the LA84 Foundation, which today possesses many of the Helms' items and this post about Helms]
"So we arrived on a plane and Mr. Schroeder welcomed us. We were staying at the Ambassador Hotel, the old hotel on Wilshire Boulevard that has since (mostly) been torn down. We walked into our room -- on the table stood a giant bowl -- I mean, it was truly giant. The bowl was filled with the most beautiful oranges I have ever seen. Talk about, 'Welcome to California!'
"At that time, they didn't have oranges in Europe that were so perfect. In Prague, we'd had access to Italian oranges, and they were nice but modest.
"Now the funniest thing about this story was that, years later, Mr. Schroeder told me that he couldn't get those beautiful oranges from around here. He said those were from Florida!
"While we were here for the Relays, we were welcomed by a wonderful track and field organization, the California Striders.
"Harold was a teacher, and the Striders told him if he would compete for their team, they would help him apply for job openings in Pasadena and Santa Monica. Harold got the job in Santa Monica and that's how I came to the area too.
"I still had that dream to finish medical school. I had a little book where I had all my educational credits listed. I went down to UCLA and presented it there. And you know what the man I met with told me? He said, 'You can't become a doctor. You are too pretty for it.' I insisted on taking the first comprehensive exam, nevertheless, but missed by some tenths of one percent the passing score.
"All my life, all I wanted was to be a doctor. And suddenly, the whole dream was blown apart. That's how things were then. The progress of women's status in society since then is enormous.
"In about 1970, I got a call from a professor who had talked to Harold who mentioned that I was looking for a job. He was the head of, if I remember correctly, the History department at Loyola University.
"He said at Marymount College -- they were not combined yet -- that they were looking for someone who can teach study skills. I was a good student. I was a writer, I wrote for Czech newspapers -- travels, sports and otherwise. Except, of course, I couldn't speak English all that well.
"I put together a resume. Now remember, I came from a socialist bloc country. We went to school for ten months and then had two months summer vacation. One of those months, you had to work doing physical labor.
"One of the jobs I had was building a railroad from Slovakia to Soviet Union. It was called Friendship Railroad. The terminus was in the city of Kosice.
"At that point, I was on the Czech junior national basketball team. I started out being on the national team in basketball and team handball and only later I ended up in track.
"So the whole basketball team was invited to train in Kosice with many other teams too. Because of regulations, we all could train half the day and the other half was spent in strength training by breaking rocks and moving them by wheelbarrows.
"Anyway, during my job interview all those years later at Marymount College, the Mother Superior is reading my resume and she comes to my experience. Building a railroad was listed as one of my experiences! And another was driving a tractor.
"She was just such a wonderful, educated, lady. She was very -- not stern -- but composed and disciplined. She looked at the resume and she started laughing and laughing -- she almost fell off her chair. She said, 'You know what, the job is yours. If you can build a railroad, you can help my students.' And I got hired.
"I threw myself at studying English. And of course I read every book on study skills. I got some pretty good results as a study skill counselor.
"I've always loved Los Angeles. The city has changed tremendously over the years, and that change is almost indescribable. First of all, it got of course more crowded. There are many more high-rise buildings, traffic and freeways.
"Some things have been lost, and I really think they should be repaired. Hollywood in particular -- tourists always want to see Hollywood and it should live up to the expectations that people from around the world have.
"I have to say that for a city as humongous as Los Angeles, it is exceptionally clean. There is even lots of greenery when you really look at it. One thing that I think is making it more spacious are the sport parks -- places where people can go and play soccer and run and have an afternoon picnic. The best one we have now is in Carson.
"I think that L.A. when compared to many other cities, is desirable to live here. My family is here. I have friends here. And the Pacific Ocean -- ever since I first saw it in Australia, I've always loved it.
"For a while after I first came to L.A. I worked at a laboratory at UCLA. Then, shortly after that I had Mark, my oldest son. I started drifting away from athletics. I'd wheel him in his stroller twenty blocks to the beach. That was much of my daily exercise.
"Still, in 1960, I made the U.S. Olympic team for Rome. I had promised the Czech president that I would represent Czechoslovakia -- that was part of the reason I had been allowed to leave. So I started working out pretty hard to do well again.
"But then I got a letter from the Czech Olympic committee that said, 'You are no longer considered a representative of this country so you can't compete for us.'
"My three years were up for U.S. citizenship, and I passed the exam. When I went to Rome, the Czech team didn't talk to me. One person actually spat in front of me and walked away.
"It turns out that the team and the country had been told that I was asked to represent Czechoslovakia and I refused. The opposite was true. I didn't learn about this until after 1968, after The [reformist Prague] Spring.
"Only then, in Mexico City, a small group of Czech athletes came to me and asked, 'What was the true story about you?' I told them. And they told me what they had been told.
"Eventually, I was asked to write a small book, which I did, in the Czech language. And the Czech Olympic Committee invited me for a visit in 2006, which turned out to be one of the loveliest times in my life -- a visit after almost fifty years of absence.
"My daughter Merja went with me. My book wasn't written yet. And only a couple of television documentary producers had come to California to speak with me a year before that invitation.
"So here Merja and I were in Prague, and we are sitting at this table with the President of the Czech Olympic Committee and five or so other Committee members. And we are all sitting here like this -- still, in silence, with hands crossed.
"Merja whispered across the table, in English, 'Hey mom, are we going to sit like this all evening?' Everybody started laughing.
"The president turned to me and said, 'You know, we are not sure how to start a conversation, because the government hurt you so much before you left.' And I just looked at him and I said, 'You gentlemen were probably in diapers or not even born then! You have nothing to do with those guys' behaviors!'
"Everybody drank some wine and we were all reminiscing and having a nice time. But it's so interesting -- it wasn't you who did that, it was somebody who is long gone. So why should we hold grudges?
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
** Jeremy Rosenberg is employed by USC and has written for LMU.
Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @losjeremy