Monday, December 9, 2013
Richard Lucas stepped out of the water at East End Beach and into an embrace of noise and excitement. He had won the Peaks to Portland swim on that long-ago summer day. He was just 16 years old.
"Everywhere you looked, people were standing," said Phil Lucas, his brother. "It was packed. The race was a really big deal and for a local kid to win was something. (A friend) used to say Dick was the Pied Piper of Munjoy Hill after that."
World War II had ended only two years before. Radios and movie theaters and big events like a 2.4-mile race from an island in Casco Bay to the mainland were the main sources of entertainment. It was a very different world.
Saturday morning, more than 300 swimmers in this year's Peaks to Portland race will pause for a few moments before the start to remember Richard Lucas and Gordon Sellick and Jeff Armstrong. All three died over a four-month period this year. All were larger than life even as they thought of themselves as ordinary guys.
Lucas and Sellick were Portland High and Portland Boys Club teammates who might have been Olympians. Both held world records, Lucas in the 50-yard backstroke and Sellick in the 100-yard freestyle. They were part of two relay teams that set national records. At one point, Sellick was ranked No. 1 in the country in seven of the nine swimming events.
Sound incredible? This is swimming, where the stopwatch tells all. Sellick's times were the best. He was one of the first swimmers to break 50 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle sprint. In 1955 he swam 48.8 seconds for the world record.
Understand, too, that Sellick and Lucas swam for Coach Harold Paulsen, whose coaching methods were innovative for the era. He was a stickler for technique and time in the pool. His swimmers had to do a mile almost daily. That was 72 lengths of the Portland Boys Club's 25-yard pool. He also sat with his swimmers, asking what was in their minds and hearts.
"He was called the Socrates of the (pool) deck," said Phil Lucas. "He didn't try to make kids fast until they were ready. He did everything sequentially."
Sellick and Lucas were ready for the chance to make the U.S. Olympic team. It never came.
"It hurt me when I was told no one could find a sponsor for my brother," said Leigh Sellick, 86. "Can you imagine that? It's not like it is today."
Gordon Sellick was 10 years younger than his brother. Their father worked in a local bakery in the same neighborhood where they lived, within a block or two of Portland High and the Portland Boys Club. From a window in their home, they could see into the bakery and watch their father work.
Sellick swam at the University of Miami for a year before transferring to Springfield College. Money to train for the Olympics simply wasn't available.
Lucas, three years older than Gordon Sellick, earned a swimming scholarship to Indiana University but returned home after a year. He had married and was a new father.
"Swimming in the Olympics was beyond their scope," said Phil Lucas, about six years younger than his brother. "They hadn't been away from home before. They weren't thinking that far ahead.
"That he couldn't swim in the Olympics was my brother's biggest disappointment."
Lucas died at 81 and Sellick at 77. Armstrong was 67 and grew up in Cape Elizabeth. He had entered Peaks to Portland some 20 times. He didn't believe in wearing the wetsuit favored by many entrants today. He usually finished first among those not wearing wetsuits to insulate themselves from the cold water. He inspired younger Peaks to Portland swimmers, competing until he fell ill to cancer.
Richard Lucas, who probably used yellow axle grease or lanolin to keep his body warm, held the record as the Peaks to Portland's youngest swimmer until John Stevens won in 1994 at age 15. Gordon Sellick remains the youngest entrant at age 13. Both distinctions should stand: The Cumberland County YMCA, the race organizer, now stipulates a minimum age of 16.
The race starts at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The winner should be walking out of the water about 50 minutes later.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: