I owe Roland Matthes to learn to swim. I hated everything about swimming pools, the chlorinated water, the showers, the cold, the lifeguards, who behaved in the early 1970s, as if little children were recruits that could be made to swim by snapping - but there was this Roland Matthes who slid on his back through the water as if it were nothing that "cuts the water like a razor blade", as "L'Equipe" wrote.
This elegant swimmer from the GDR, that far-away country with the quotation marks, about which people in the Paderborn Catholic back then talked rather in secret. That's how I wanted to be. And for that, I put up with everything, the chlorine, the roaring lifeguards. It was worth it.
Of course, everyone around me loved Mark Spitz, that swimmer from the USA who won the Olympic Games in Munich, where he competed. But I was spooked by Spitz, he was too powerful, that was intimidating. So I was glad that there were still a few swimming routes where others won, especially this Roland Matthes.
At 17 already double gold in Mexico
For years there was no one who controlled the back distance as the young man from Thuringia. As a 17-year-old he appeared at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968, when the GDR's great hope for swimming, it was the first summer games in which the GDR appeared as an independent sports nation. The ambitions were correspondingly high and he did not disappoint expectations. He brought home two gold medals, the successful US boys were defeated, Roland Matthes was the young hero of the young GDR. When he returned from Mexico, thousands flocked to the market square in Erfurt to receive the swimmer. Matthes' success was seen as proof that the GDR was able to achieve world-class sport.
When he stood on the balcony to receive the homage from the masses in Erfurt, he looked a bit overwhelmed, a 17-year-old who was supposed to meet the demands of an entire country. What a burden. Roland Matthes experienced on the GDR side what happened to another 17-year-old in the West years later when Boris Becker triumphed in Wimbledon.
Roland Matthes' swimming career was anything but sketchy. He was happy to tell the story of how he got into the indoor pools because there was no shower, just a sink at the Matthes' home, and water had to be put on the stove if you wanted it to be warm. In the bathrooms, on the other hand, there were hot showers, "I was a classic hot shower," Matthes later said.
Marlis Grohe recognized his talent
His talent was initially overlooked, only Marlis Grohe, swimming trainer in Erfurt, who looked closely and saw something in this young guy that others didn't see. "Without her, I would never have made it this far," he said in an interview with the "New Germany". "If I didn't want to do that during training because the water was too cold for me - and I was always freezing - then she grabbed me by the little girl and threw me into the water."
Matthes and Grohe, that became a combination of success, first at SC Turbine Erfurt, later in Europe and the world. Between 1967 and 1974 Matthes did not lose an important race over the back distance, he swam seven world records, collected four Olympic gold medals, world and European championship titles. And as if that weren't enough, he also married Kornelia Ender in 1978, alongside Katarina Witt perhaps the greatest sports star the GDR had, the super swimmer who had fished for Montreal gold at the 1976 games like Mark Spitz four years earlier.
Matthes and Ender - flattered by the SED leadership, a model dream couple of the GDR sport. He with his 1970s mustache, she with her messy blond, but the marriage lasted only four years. Swimming was their common basis, Matthes later said, when that foundation had broken, the common ground was over. The SED did not like that the perfect swimming idyll no longer existed, after which Matthes was considered politically unreliable, he later said.
In 1990 he was attacked
Seven years later, the GDR was also at an end, Matthes, who had studied medicine, went to the West, worked as a team doctor for the fencers in Tauberbischofsheim, and later took over a practice in Franconian. With the end of the GDR, allegations of doping also came up. Performance manipulation, they also reached Matthes. He always denied this with the indication that he had the advantage of training in Erfurt in a small group away from the military and police structures in which the GDR sport was otherwise involved, so doping was not an issue for him.
In any case, he always defended GDR sports against accusations that "black and white painting" was the only way to achieve success through doping. He told SPIEGEL in 1990: "Nobody wins a gold medal with such means alone; without talent, anabolic steroids are of no use either."
The fact that he was exposed to hostility in 1990, that he was privileged under the old system, that GDR sport was also considered to be discredited, was also one of the reasons why Matthes subsequently withdrew from the public and no longer wanted to make his expertise available to all-German swimming , His successors could have used a few tips from him. Never again in Germany could you see such a grace on the back distance, Matthes, who lay more on the water than in the water.
I only learned to swim much later, at the age of ten I passed the free swimmer test, the year when Roland Matthes ended his great career with bronze in Montreal. Somehow I felt that it belonged together.
Roland Matthes died on Saturday at the age of 69. In Erfurt they named a swimming pool after him. Hopefully the showers are nice and warm.