The 2012 London Summer Olympics remind Laurelhurst resident Walter Roubik of his own days as an Olympic athlete, rowing for his native Czechoslovakia in the 1948 Games, the last time London hosted the event.

Share story

If the soccer players in his hometown in Czechoslovakia had worn cleaner shirts, Walter Roubik might never have made it to the Olympics.

He might never have taken up rowing, the sport that not only led to his 1948 Olympic appearance but helped him stay fit through adult life.

And he might never have looked into the “nasty eyes” of Adolf Hitler.

As the Seattle man watches the London Olympics on TV, Roubik’s thoughts turn to two Olympics trips many decades ago: as a young observer in 1936, and as a member of a Czechoslovakian rowing team in 1948.

“Rowing has been a big part of my life,” said Roubik, who’ll turn 93 this month. As evidence, a sea of clippings, scrapbooks and photos spreads across the dining-room table at the Laurelhurst home of Roubik and his wife of 69 years, Lida.

“He’s the real deal,” said University of Washington rowing director Bob Ernst, who counts Roubik as a friend. “He’s serious about rowing and he knows what he’s talking about.”

In 1948 — the last time London hosted the Games — Roubik was on a four-man Czechoslovakia rowing team.

They were good, coming off a silver-medal finish at the 1947 European Championships in Switzerland.

But the joy of attaining an Olympic berth was dimmed by a dark cloud Roubik felt over his homeland, the tightening grip of Soviet communism.

Roubik had run afoul of the burgeoning movement for telling a reporter that he hoped the Czech president would quash the communists’ ambitions. After the comment was published, Roubik was not allowed to leave Czechoslovakia to train with his rowing teammates in Switzerland.

That lack of practice together doomed their chances, Roubik said. Although he was allowed to rejoin his teammates for the Games, they finished out of medal contention.

And about those dirty soccer shirts? That story goes back to Roubik’s youth, when at age 14 he was convinced he wanted to be a soccer star.

He remembers that his father, a Czech cabinet minister, came to a game one weekend, and saw that the players were putting on the same jerseys, still unwashed, that they had worn the week before.

“That didn’t seem right to him, so he didn’t think much of the sport,” Roubik said. Instead, his father introduced him to a crew coach. “Being an obedient child, I went,” he said.

Invited to Berlin games

Eventually, Roubik took to the sport, and became a standout. At 17, he was invited to go to the 1936 Berlin Olympics in a program for “future Olympians.” The youngsters didn’t compete, but could go just about anywhere the athletes did.

Those games, as well, had come at a difficult time for Czechoslovakia as the Nazi regime’s plans to dominate Central Europe and beyond became increasingly evident.

At one point during the Games, word came that Hitler wanted to greet some of the young athletes. Because Roubik was fluent in German, he was placed in the receiving line.

“There was no need to speak,” Roubik said.

Hitler passed by with a mere handshake for each person in line. But Roubik said he recalls the Fuhrer’s “nasty eyes … the look of an aggressor.”

By the end of the 1936 Games, Roubik had learned The Star Spangled Banner by heart, not because he knew he’d one day move to the U.S., but because it was played so often at medal ceremonies as Americans were second only to the host Germans in medals won.

Roubik remembers cheering for the eight-man U.S. crew team which narrowly defeated Germany and Italy in the gold-medal race. At the time, it meant nothing to him that the winning team was from the University of Washington in the faraway city of Seattle.

In the 12 years that passed before the London Olympics, Roubik became a lawyer, but continued his rowing.

For his homeland, the relief that came with the end of the Nazi empire was short-lived, as the communists, gradually gaining power and influence, tolerated no dissent. Roubik’s younger brother spent more than a decade in a work camp for running afoul of the regime.

The year after the London Olympics, Roubik and his wife fled Czechoslovakia, assisted in clandestine border crossings by foot — first into West Germany and then to Switzerland.

From laborer to exec

“We wanted to go to America,” Roubik said. “With communism coming, my wife did not want to raise a family in Europe.”

It took four years to get the necessary visas, but they succeeded. Settling in New Jersey, the couple raised a son and daughter.

Rather than pursue a law degree in the U.S., Roubik followed the suggestion of an acquaintance to take an entry-level job in an American company and work his way up. In more than 30 years with the Singer Sewing Machine Co., he rose from laborer to an executive.

Later in life, Roubik used his business acumen and his talent for languages — he spoke nine — in a public-relations job that involved setting up business meetings all over the world.

By 1988, the Roubiks grew tired of having to travel to see either of their children: Linda, an attorney in Seattle, or Anthony, a real-estate developer in Houston.

Seattle won out, and the couple bought a house in Laurelhurst, with an expansive view of Lake Washington and the Cascades.

Roubik soon stopped by the home of the UW crew program, where he met Ernst. Sometimes he’d borrow a one-man shell, sometimes he’d ride in a launch with Ernst to see UW rowers practice.

“If asked, he might give an observation,” Ernst said. “But he wasn’t trying to tell me how to do my job.”

One sight at the UW always touches Roubik’s heart: The eight-man shell of the victorious 1936 Olympians that hangs above the dining hall of the Conibear Shellhouse. None of the men who rowed it to a gold medal in Berlin are still living.

Roubik’s own rowing days were ended by a stroke in 2002. He subsequently suffered a heart attack, and more recently, a vertebra fracture has caused him to need a walker, but he said physical therapy is helping him heal and gain strength.

When he watches the Olympics now, Roubik hopes to see Americans do well. But more importantly, he wants to see effort rewarded. In rowing, he looks for preparation, strategy and technique.

At their best, Roubik said, sports aren’t about fame, fortune or medal counts. “It’s a way to learn discipline and perseverance,” he said. “A way to set goals and to follow through with them.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com