Just as all eyes are on Bethesda resident Katie Ledecky this year, in 1972 another local teen took the Olympics by storm. At just 15 years old, Melissa Belote won gold in the Women’s 100 m and 200 m backstroke, as well as the Women’s 4 x 100 m medley relay. She set three world records. America was glued to their television sets for information on the young athlete.
Of course, to the Northern Virginia swim scene, Melissa Belote was already a household name. She started swimming at age eight at Springfield Swim and Racquet Club. At age nine, longtime local coach Ed Solotar spotted Belote’s potential and she began swimming competitively.
Belote had a mix of natural talent, dedication, and love of swimming. She prided herself in being the first person in the pool each morning and the last to leave at night.
After sweeping local and regional swim meets, Belote set her sights on the twentieth Olympiad.
When she arrived at the Chicago trials, she set a world record for the 200 m backstroke, 2:20.06. But that wasn’t even her best time of the games. After swimming an Olympic-record 1:06.10 in the semi-finals, Belote clinched her first gold medal in the 100 m backstroke with a new record, 1:05.78.
The next day, Belote was part of the women’s 4 x 100 m medley relay. With Belote’s backstroke of 1:06:24, team USA set a new world record of 4:20.75. Belote was now two for three on gold medals.
As amazed as America was by Belote’s talent, they were also incredulous of her age. Reporters remarked as the “blond and bespectacled” Belote reportedly held up her lucky beanbag fish alongside her gold medals. She was relaxed going into the third race, saying making it in the trials had been tougher than the final Olympic race.
Despite Belote’s calm demeanor, the rest of the nation anxiously watched to see if Belote could match her world record.
She did and then some: Belote won with a time of 2:19.20, almost a full second faster than at trials. There’s been a considerable amount of time shaved off that record since 1972. The current time, 2:04.06, is held by another Melissa – Missy Franklin.
“This has been more than I could have hoped for,” Belote said after winning her third medal. “It took a lot of work, but I plan to keep swimming and hope to make it back again in 1976.”
Swimming events concluded on September 4th. That same night, the Olympic village went into lockdown as members of the terrorist group Black September took hostage and killed eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team. Belote was not in the Olympic village at the time and was flown back to the United States after the memorial service. She recalled being overwhelmed with questions about the massacre at a local press conference when she returned home.
After the Olympics, Belote was eager to get back to school – she had already missed the first three weeks of her sophomore year at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield. She quickly discovered she couldn’t simply slip back into relative anonymity. A crowd of 3,000 people welcomed Belote, complete with brass bands, cheerleaders, and a police escort from her house to the high school football field, where she was given a key to the city of Springfield.
Belote seemed more nervous at the local reception than at the Olympics. “I’m just a normal person,” she said.
Between press conferences and post-Olympic ceremonies, Belote was always in the press. “Watergate was going on, and here I am on the front page of the Washington Post,” she recalled.
Belote’s feat captured the attention of President Nixon, who invited her to a private dinner at the White House. According to Belote, Mrs. Nixon cooked “some sort of goulash. It was wonderful.” She also met Ethel Kennedy, widow of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, at the Watergate Hotel.
Belote continued to swim, but her focus the next few years was finishing high school. Although she qualified for the 1976 Montreal Olympics and set an American record in the 200 m backstroke, Belote failed to repeat her 1972 sweep and finished fifth overall. As a student at Arizona State University, Belote was on the two-time national championship team.
At just 22 years old, Belote retired in 1979, wanting to “go out with [her] team,” the Sun Devils. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1983. Today, Melissa Belote (now Belote-Ripley) is a high school swim coach in Arizona. We know she’ll be watching with the rest of America as the next generation of Olympic champions takes its marks.
- ^ "Going for the Gold," in Out of the Past.,WTOP-TV, 2008.
- ^ Sun Staff Correspondent, “Melissa Belote Takes Third Gold,” The Sun, September 5, 1972.
- ^ Sun Staff Correspondent, “Melissa Belote snaps her own backstroke record,” The Sun, September 03, 1972.
- ^ William Gildea, “Two Down, One to Go For Melissa Belote,” The Washington Post, September 04, 1972.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Sun Staff Correspondent, “Melissa Belote Takes Third Gold.”
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Scott Bordow, “Former Swimmer Relives Terror of 1972 Olympic Attacks," Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, November 17, 2003.
- ^ Leonard Shapiro and Paul Attner, “Rain Can’t Dampen Welcome for Missy: Thousands Cheer Melissa,” The Washington Post, September 15, 1972.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ "Going for the Gold," in Out of the Past.
- ^ Scott Bordow, “Former Swimmer Relives Terror of 1972 Olympic Attacks."
- ^ John Dougherty, “Olympic Champion Belote to Retire from Swimming,” The Washington Post, March 17, 1979.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ "Melissa Belote," International Swimming Hall of Fame, accessed August 03, 2016, http://www.ishof.org/melisa-belote.html.