“Once an Olympian, always an Olympian. Never ‘former’, never ‘past,’” are the words engraved on Billings resident Mike Burton’s keychain.
Athletically-inclined at an early age, the sky was the limit for Burton. That is, until a bicycle accident – more specifically a head-on collision with a furniture truck – at age 13 left him out of commission with a dislocated hip and torn ligaments in his knee.
Restricted from playing football and basketball due to the injuries he sustained, Burton fought his limitations once he recovered and instead focused on swimming. He soon excelled as a competitive long-distance swimmer in high school and college, quickly gaining notoriety as an athlete. His dedication was such that he was “never one for mediocrity.”
Contending with the best of the best, he soon added “Olympian” to his repertoire of identities as a dedicated and formidable competitor, world record maker, teammate, student and son, to name a few.
Of all of his titles, however, Burton says being a husband takes the cake.
“Carol, my wife, really completes me. All other identities are secondary.”
A change of scenery
On Burton’s right hand, he proudly sports a “Live United” bracelet representing United Way of Yellowstone County where his wife works. Having lived in multiple states and visited several countries, a fortuitous change of his wife’s employment was what drew Burton, an Iowa native, to Montana.
“We were living in Washington at the time, and I told her [Carol] it’s time we pursued her career a little harder,” said Burton.
In 1998, Carol accepted a position with United Way in Billings, and the duo readily packed their bags for the move farther inland. A warm welcome into the community put the couple at ease and made for a smooth transition to Montana.
Now that he’s retired, Burton volunteers with United Way. He connected his love of athletics with educational success.
“I love sports because they build the psychological endurance that you need to stick it through,” he said. “The exact same kind of mental toughness needed to graduate.”
Burton recalled one of his defining moments as an adolescent which impacted his athleticism toward feats of Olympic proportions. One Saturday, his coach, Sherm Chavoor – a former WWII pilot-turned-swimming instructor – had kept the team in the pool later than the allotted two-hour practice. A few teammates complained, and Chavoor told the group to swim a ‘fast 66.’
Most swimmers consider a fast 66 a torturous distance to swim nonstop, the distance being roughly the equivalent of a mile. And this was right after the team had just finished a hard two hours of practice. Passing teammates left and right, Burton gave it his all.
“I was so shot afterward. I’ve never been that tired in my life, neither before nor after that Saturday,” he smiled. “But I knew from that point on that there was nothing Sherm could give me that I couldn’t handle.”
Adventures and escapades
Burton’s choice of work usually never kept him far from the water. Upon arriving in Billings, he coached swimming at the YMCA and later at Senior High School in Billings for several years, investing time and expertise in younger swimmers.
Red, white and blue decorations swath the Burton household’s dinner table. Similarly-colored 1972 Munich Olympics drinkware commemorates an exciting past while grandchildren’s photos set around the living room tell of a lively future.
Burton says he’s most passionate about spending time with his kids and grandchildren, as many reside in other parts of the U.S.
The same love that brought Burton to Montana is also what keeps him here. Despite living in multiple states, Billings will always be home base.
“All of the places we’ve lived have had their great points, but Billings is it for me – no question,” Burton said. “We wish more of our friends would come and visit us here because we love it so much.”