TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Mary Lou Skok came across Adolf Hitler, she couldn't see evil. She couldn't see a man capable of murdering millions of Jews. She only saw a dictator.
"He was just like Charlie Chaplin," Skok recalled. "But he didn't twitch his mustache."
Skok went to the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin as an aspiring swimmer, with $75 in her pocket, with an uncomfortable suit that hardly created optimal performance, with the goal of redemption following retirement after she failed to compete in 1932 in Los Angeles.
She returned with $15, minus a medal, coming within 3.2 seconds of a bronze in the 400-meter freestyle, yet with the memories of the four golds won by the late Jesse Owens and with a new perspective of a Nazi regime advocating the superiority of the Aryan race.
The 96-year-old will be honored during the U.S. Olympic Assembly that begins Friday at the Antlers Hilton, for the 75th anniversary of the 1936 Olympics, where 358 Americans combined for 56 medals, including 24 golds, the second-most behind Germany. Not more than a dozen of her teammates are believed to be around, and she's near the head of a list of the country's oldest living Olympians -- at 104, shooter Walter Walsh tops the group.
Fallout from the Great Depression left Skok's family broke, so Skok, of Spokane, Wash., wasn't able to afford a jaunt to New York for the 1932 U.S. Olympic trials. She moved to Seattle to become a secretary, then revived her career, finishing second in the 400 at the 1936 Olympic trials to the late Lenore Kight-Wingard, the bronze medalist in Berlin.
Notions of a boycott in 1936 to express opposition to the anti-Semitism promoted by the Nazis were quashed initially by the late Avery Brundage, the former president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, later by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At 21, Skok, known then as Mary Lou Petty, boarded the S.S. Manhattan for an eight-day trip across the Atlantic. By the time she wearily arrived in Hamburg, she had more than enough stories to tell.
Skok spent a majority of her hours on the ship locked on a lower deck so the athletes couldn't mingle with first-class cruise passengers, trying not to grow seasick like most of the other American athletes. She trained in a small pool -- she dubbed it an "iron box" -- in the bowels of the ship, however, that didn't last long since swimmers typically slammed against the sides and the water became so nasty, it was deemed unsafe.
The volleyball net wasn't of much use either, as almost all the volleyballs the Americans had were errantly hit overboard within days of departing New York. Table tennis became the primary game, and Skok often took turns with Owens. "Ten of us played pingpong at the same time," Skok said from her retirement community in a Phoenix suburb. "We had two paddles, and the balls didn't last too long. You would hit it very easily and drop the paddle and move on. And you tried to keep it going. If you missed, you would go out."
Skok mainly hung around swimmers and track and field athletes, save for her roommate, the late Eleanor Holm, a 1932 Olympic gold medalist in the 100 backstroke who partied so frequently aboard the ship, Brundage kicked her off the team. She called Owens "just another guy," adding he "laughed a lot." Skin color never was an issue. "With the black boys there," Skok said, "there was no difference. We didn't pay any attention to it."
Distance runner Louis Zamperini, an eventual World War II prisoner of war survivor, had the attention of Skok, as he was a "good-looking kid," Skok said. "But I was engaged. I just looked." The U.S. boxers? No chance. "They came off the streets," Skok said, "and they were tough, little guys. There was no way I would even dance with them. They were all tough, little characters. And the wrestlers, I stayed away from them."
In Berlin, signs reading "Jews not wanted" were removed during the Olympics. At initial glance, an outsider was oblivious to all that was awry. Hitler was "just fascinating," Skok said. "You couldn't take your eyes off of him." She noted Hitler employed "tremendous power over so many people. They loved it. And they were happy. . . . Who on earth goes around killing people by the thousands? For heaven's sake. We just ignored it."
From the back row of a jam-packed convention hall, Skok listened to Hitler speak for 45 minutes. "We didn't know what he was saying," she said. "We didn't have any idea. His timing, it would be silent, and you could hear a pin drop. ... We sat there mesmerized." As the war started in 1939, "I was scared," Skok said. "I saw that military. The precision. The discipline. I had never seen anything like it. ... These people lived that way."
Male athletes were housed at the Olympic Village. The women stayed in a military-style dormitory -- double occupancy with narrow beds made of straw mattresses. Skok had to walk everywhere she went, about a half-mile to the swimming venue. The swimsuits that the Americans were provided by the USOC "were so high that we couldn't pull them on," Skok said. "We had to have a button on the shoulder to get them over our heads."
To make matters worse, Skok was saddled with food poisoning two days before she was scheduled to swim, she says from tainted veal. Still, "I swam within a second as good as I ever did," she said, "so I don't use it as an excuse." For Skok, the Olympics represented "the consummation of years and years of dreams. I wanted to win, of course. And I did everything I could. But I was not ever disappointed, because I did the best I could."