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A day in McDermott's life: On Sullivan with Beatles

Olympic gold medalist speed skater appeared on same show as Fab Four
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Terry McDermott picked an amazing night to appear on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' -courtesy of Brad Lamb

Terry McDermott was the only American to leave the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, with an Olympic gold medal.

Yet the speed skater has another -- and perhaps even more prized souvenir -- in his Michigan home: a photo of himself with the Beatles.

That's because one of the perks of winning the gold medal was that McDermott got to make an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show as part of his Olympic victory tour. McDermott wound up appearing on the variety program on Feb. 9, 1964, the same night the band from Liverpool was making its historic American television debut.

"I think a lot more people are actually more excited about the fact that I was on the show with the Beatles than they are about me winning the gold medal," McDermott said with a laugh.

In fact, a lot of Americans remember that episode from nearly 50 years ago, as 73 million viewers tuned in to watch. But unlike the folks who watched it all on TV or the many female fans who screamed with delight at the sight of the Fab Four, McDermott had behind-the-scenes access to one of the most memorable nights in television history.

McDermott's wife, Virginia, was also able to be there in New York. The couple had just married in September 1963 and now had even more to celebrate.    

"I came on the show as Ed Sullivan's 'Person of the Week,'" McDermott said. "I didn't even know who the Beatles were. But we took photos with them and got to meet them all."

That night, the Beatles performed five songs, including "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You," which both became huge hits in the States.

After that now-famous night, McDermott, like the rest of the country, got caught up in that sensation that quickly swept the nation: Beatlemania. One of his photos with the Beatles is hanging in his family room today. As for his Olympic gold medal (and the silver medal he earned four years later in 1968), they're tucked away nicely in a drawer and only taken out for special occasions.

Years later, in the summer of 2011, Paul McCartney came to Detroit's Comerica Park for a concert. A family friend who works for Olympia Entertainment took the photo and had McCartney autograph it.

"Pretty cool," wrote McDermott's son, Mike, in an email. "Mr. McCartney stated he remembered that day very well. I'm sure … so do a lot of people."

One of the most memorable aspects of the Beatles -- besides, of course, their music -- was their haircuts. Back in 1964, McDermott couldn't accept money to pay for his training, so he had to get a job to cover his costs. Where did he work? In his uncle's barber shop.

"We took many pictures of me [pretending] to cut their hair," McDermott said.

Fifty years later, the memories from 1964 continue to be fresh in McDermott's mind, especially the ones on the ice. McDermott was not deemed a gold-medal threat in Innsbruck, mainly because he had not competed at the world championships leading up to the 1964 Winter Games.

He didn't travel to the world championships for mainly financal reasons, but also because back in the day, the world championships were designed for skaters competing in several events, especially ones at longer distances.

McDermott made his Olympic debut in 1960 and placed seventh in the 500 meters in Squaw Valley, Calif. The top contender for the gold medal four years later in Innsbruck was a skater named Yevgeny Grishin, a Russian who had won the 500 in 1956 and 1960. Most observers pegged Grishin to win a third time in Innsbruck, but McDermott had other ideas.  

McDermott, who was 23 when he competed in the Winter Games in 1964, not only won the gold medal but also set an Olympic record in the 500 of 40.1 seconds. Grishin was part of the three-way tie for the silver medal, clocking in at 40.6 seconds.

"Winning the gold medal really is something special," McDermott said. "At least at that time, you're the best in the world, and when the national anthem plays, you are very proud."

McDermott continued to skate after winning the gold but didn't really train until two years after those Winter Games in Innsbruck. Then, he went full force again and qualified for his third Winter Games in 1968, and he earned a silver medal. (Erhard Keller of Germany took the gold.)

McDermott went to every Winter Games in a variety of roles with U.S. Speedskating through 2006. He worked in TV and radio and as a team manager for the sport. He was the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble, France, and when the Winter Games were held in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, he was asked to read the Olympic oath.

He remained active in the sport and served on the board of directors for U.S. Speedskating for nearly 30 years. For his accomplishments, McDermott was inducted into the U.S Speedskating Hall of Fame in 1977.

Following his skating career, McDermott worked as a representative in the automotive business and later started his own business, appropriately named Champion Plastics.

Over the years, McDermott's kids got a taste of having an Olympic champion for a dad. Mike McDermott said he got a chance to mingle with celebrities when his father was invited to various golf events.

"I got to meet Al Kaline and Gordie Howe," Mike McDermott said of the Detroit Tigers Hall of fame outfielder and hockey legend, respectively. "And I met Dan Jansen, too. You find out pretty quickly that all these guys are just normal people.

"The neat thing I got was hearing from people about how they respected my dad and hearing the stories from his skating friends. I remember dad telling stories about the opening ceremonies and things like that, but really, it was just a part of his life, and he can go a very long time without talking about medals and the races."

Terry McDermott, now 73, lives in Michigan, although he spends time in Florida in the winter. And he continues to skate. Although none of his five children, nor any of his 11 grandchildren, became competitive speed skaters, skating continues to be part of his family life. Typically, the family gathers together at Christmas to go skating together.

"My dad has always had an incredible balance with his marriage, his work and his skating," Mike McDermott said. "Everything he does, he does very well and with a special dedication."