By J.R. De Groote - West Hawaii Today
The Olympics inevitably stir up old memories for Steve Borowski.
The Kona resident and Hawaii Waterman Hall of Famer had a one-of-a-kind experience during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where cowboy hats served as VIP badges and American legend Jesse Owens led the way as his chaperone.
Borowski was one of six fresh-faced teens from the Chicago area to go on the trip, but it was a battle to get one of the coveted spots as a youth ambassador. He said more than 200 students from the Chicago area were in the running, going through a gauntlet of formal interviews with local sports media.
To even be the single student-athlete selected from his school — the now-defunct Weber High — was rigorous. The swimming and water polo standout edged out the likes of Richard “Chico” Kurzawski, who became an all-Big Ten running back at Northwestern, and Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski, Duke’s famed basketball coach and Team USA’s current skipper.
Both were classmates and good friends of Borowski, who was frankly surprised he was the one who got the call to represent Weber.
“We used to eat lunch every day together,” Borowksi said. “I thought they might go with one of those guys, but the school chose me.”
Borowski — 17 years old at the time — soon found out he was heading to Japan as a U.S. youth ambassador, with Jesse Owens and his wife, Ruth, serving as the primary chaperones.
Owens’ Olympic legacy
Simply saying Owens is an Olympic legend is an understatement, not only because of his athletic accomplishments, but also because of the cultural implications of his success. He won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, which took place during the rule of Adolf Hitler.
Owens — an African American son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave — turned what was meant to be Hitler’s Games, showcasing the Aryan race as superior to all others, into a personal highlight reel of groundbreaking athletic achievement.
He won gold in the 100 meters, the 200, the 4x100 relay and the long jump, and managed to break or equal nine Olympic records while also setting three world records.
Not that Owens’ impeccable performance changed much in the U.S. after he returned victorious. America still had quite a long path to traverse toward a finish line of social equality — one it’s still travelling today.
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens said in an interview. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.”
On the long flight to Tokyo, Borowski sat next to Owens, conversing with the Olympic star on a variety of topics.
While he admits it was surreal at the time, it wasn’t until recently when he watched “Race” — a film about Owens’ life — that it gave the experience another layer of significance.
“We knew who Jesse was and what was going on at the time, but after reflecting on the movie and realizing the seriousness of everything he went through — it gave me chicken skin,” Borowski said. “There were a lot of specifics that I didn’t know about that the movie brought up. When you are a kid, you just don’t know about a lot of those things.”
Taking on Tokyo
Even though it had been nearly three decades since Owens owned the Olympic spotlight, it didn’t take long after getting to Tokyo to realize how big of a deal the track star was.
“When we were with him walking anywhere, everyone — young, old, coaches, athletes — would stop him,” Borowski said. “He couldn’t walk five feet without being talked to by someone or signing an autograph.”
Owens took the high schoolers to lunch in the Olympic Village. There, the teens mingled with the world’s best athletes.
“It was a bit of culture shock, coming from inner-city Chicago to Tokyo,” Borowski said. “There was so much interaction in the Olympic Village. Even if you couldn’t speak the same language, there was a common bond.”
Borowski said Owens largely let them roam the city and venues as they pleased, but not before gifting them with something significant.
“Lyndon B. Johnson was the president in 1964 and he was a Texas boy, so the U.S. team had these big cowboy hats. Jesse went and got us all one,” Borowski said. “When we (were) leaving the Olympic Village — with our cowboy hats on — the crowd swarmed us. People were asking us for autographs because they thought we were athletes. We tried to explain ourselves, but we eventually obliged and signed a bunch of them.”
The hats, combined with some teenage moxie, nearly landed Borowski and friends some of the best seats in the house for the Opening Ceremony.
“Security was good back then, but not how it is now. We got through the initial stops by just putting our heads down and walking. We saw some open seats and it was basically like sitting on the 50-yard line at a football game — just great seats,” Borowski said. “All of a sudden, some security comes and tells us we can’t sit there, because the seats were reserved for the emperor of Japan. They ended up putting us in the press seats, which were terrific as well.”
The trip also provided unparalleled access as a fan. Borowski remembers sitting court side with the eventual gold-medal-winning U.S. basketball team. Then, he had a front row seat in the dugout for the 100-meter race, where NFL wide receiver Bob Hayes won gold despite a slight mishap before the event.
“I remember Bob Hayes was running around and couldn’t find his shoes,” he said. “He found them, then went out and won the 100, running right by us. I was one of the first guys to shake his hand after he won.”
After his time in Tokyo was over, the group headed back to Chicago, but not before stopping in Hawaii for a few days.
“It was my first time in Hawaii. We surfed and swam in the ocean,” Borowski said. “I remember saying I want to come back here sometime.”
After high school, Borowski went on to swim at Indiana, where he was part of the school’s first two NCAA championship teams. He became an assistant coach for the Hoosiers, coaching and befriending another standout Olympian in Mark Spitz.
Eventually, Borowski did find his way back to the Aloha State. Among his many accomplishments in Hawaii, he coached the University of Hawaii men’s swimming team, led the Punahou boys and girls to 13 consecutive state championships and then Kealakehe’s swim team to the school’s only state championship.
Yet another Olympic link would come from his days at Punahou, where he coached Chris Woo, the youngest member of the 1976 Olympic Team. That summer in Montreal would be the only other Olympics Borowski attended in person, although he didn’t have quite the access he did back in 1964, wearing his cowboy hat and striding along Owens’ side.
From Krzyzewski to Spitz, Borowski has more than a few casual anecdotes about many sports figures most people will only read about. He has turned down a job from Alabama legend Bear Bryant and chatted with fellow Hawaii Hall of Fame Waterman Duke Kahanamoku.
But that Olympic summer will always be at the top of a lifelong resume in the world of sports.
“I’ve been really fortunate to meet these legends. It has been fun,” Borowski said. “But meeting Jesse, and spending some true time with him was something really special.”