When you're on top, and the newspapers say you're on top, you have to prove it over and over again.... You have the pressure of the people you're competing with and what the newspapers say. You never know what's going to happen. If the kids come up—some little kid you didn't even know...."
It sounds like an aging actress speaking, but these words of worry come from the hopeful young mouth of 14-year-old Donna de Varona (see cover).
In 1960 Donna went to Rome, an alternate on the United States women's swimming team and the youngest American at the Olympics. Today she holds the world records in the 400-meter and 440-yard individual medley and the American long-course medley records for 400 yards, 200 meters and 200 yards (there are no official world records for the latter events). She is one of the best backstrokers swimming today, and is second to very few in the freestyle. A swimmer whose forte is the individual medley (a race in which four different strokes are required) is of course at a disadvantage in competition for the individual stroke records; she must practice all four—butterfly, breaststroke,freestyle and backstroke—while her competitors can concentrate on one or two of them. That Donna is formidable in all four was spectacularly demonstrated in Japan last year when, swimming alone, she broke her own record in the 200-meter individual medley and defeated by 2.8 seconds a medley-relay team of four Japanese girls swimming one stroke apiece. While there are a few swimmers in the U.S.and abroad who might beat Donna in any of the four competitive strokes, she is today without question the best all-round woman swimmer in the world.
Her father was seated by the pool a few weeks ago, watching his bemedaled, world-traveled daughter. He greeted her when she surfaced, "Hi, fishie," and remarked thoughtfully, "You never seem to be able to get the little girl out of her when she goes swimming." Or when she's on dry land either—her mother can ask her four times from three feet away, "Do you want any green beans? DO YOU WANT ANY GREEN BEANS?" and Donna will be dreaming and not hear.
April 16, 1962
When Donna was really young (like 10) she went barefoot, was partial to climbing on things and to bringing home frogs. She had a toad in a glass tank and mourned its demise after she left it in the sun. She had premonitions (small premonitions)—"You know how you have feelings about things? I just woke up once and thought, 'I'm going to step on a bug!' And you know those ugly potato bugs or whatever—they have a bald head—I did step on one!"
She rode a neighbor's horses, bareback, and when the family first moved from San Francisco to Lafayette, California, where they now live, she tried to roll down hills. The hills of Lafayette are high and round; in the spring they look like fuzzy green sand dunes. "I wanted to go up and just roll down them, but it doesn't work—they're all sticky."
Donna was born in San Diego, and lived there for three years. Then the family moved to San Francisco, and three years later to Lafayette, where she started school—or schools. "We're right on this line where every time they build a new school, I have to go to it," she says in tones conveying no pioneer enthusiasm. She has an 18-year-old brother, David, a sound athlete suffering a severe case of sororal eclipse; a 9-year-old sister, Joanne, who is a diver, perhaps a musical prodigy, and walks on her hands; and a baby brother, 3-year-old Kurt, in whom all the will implied by Spanish, Welsh and German blood shows signs of blossoming. The family includes as well an elderly dog named Sam (a female) and a parakeet, Marvin Levy.
Donna's father, Dave de Varona, played tackle for the 1937 California Rose Bowl team, and later for the San Diego Bombers, and he rowed No. 3 on the California crew that won at Poughkeepsie in 1939 and set the four-mile record. Sports are his greatest interest: he has coached high-school football, and might have made a career of it, were it not for a mesh of red tape in the form of education-course requirements for coaching in California. He is a man who loves his children and takes a deep pleasure in their company. These qualities make De Varona sound like a sure bet to overdrive a child with Olympic ability, but he has—with monumental restraint—managed to become knowledgeable about swimming but not a maniac. And Dave de Varona feels something about Donna's swimming that the real driving parent rarely seems to feel, which is delight. Not just pride, and not self-fulfillment, but the sports lover's delight at seeing something difficult performed with the beauty and apparent ease which is the far side of effort.
Dave met his wife Martha in Washington, D.C. during the war, and called her three days, later from San Diego to propose. Or, as she remembers it, "He asked me if I wanted a lifetime job."
She got one. It now comprises the four children, full-time work in a library, a house to run and a good chunk of the transporting of the family troops. "I never felt tired a day in my life until I got into my 40s," she says, mystified.
One thing that tires her particularly is the struggle with the family budget.
"Here I have a world champion on my hands, and I have to talk about money. It gangs up on me sometimes," Martie says apologetically. Swimming expenses can run high, and "when she goes foreign, you have to give her money to go foreign with," her father says. But Joanne must have piano lessons, too, and young David badly wants a car—not so extravagant a wish in California, where nothing is within walking distance or on a bus line. Lafayette is not a "neighborhood," and David's friends are scattered. The De Varonas do have a second car, but Martie needs it, and David and Donna practically refuse to acknowledge it. "It wouldn't look so bad," Martie observes, "but a horse jumped on it. It does look pretty terrible." Donna herself is at the age where clothes are more important than food—she browses longingly among the dresses she shouldn't buy. ("I'm so glad you're here," she said one day to a grownup. "They don't let kids look at things.")
Dave de Varona puts concisely what all parents of a winner know: "You don't go into swimming, you're trapped into it. I just can't see how you can take a kid who loves it as much as Donna does, and works as hard, and tell her she can't swim. But I'll be frank with you. I don't make that kind of money."
The De Varonas don't want the household to be Donna-oriented, but there's no reasonable way to ignore the fact that she is a world champion swimmer.
The children take over
It seems a stunning level of ability for a 14-year-old, but the records and age levels in American swimming have been dropping precipitately and steadily for years now. When Donna took the 400-meter individual-medley record from Sylvia Ruuska two years ago, the age of the champion dropped from 17 to 13. In men's swimming, also, the high schoolers today are fast overtaking the collegians.
The principal reason for the domination of American swimming by virtual children is considered to be the development of age-group swimming in the United States. Coaches used to, as Donna's father puts it, "take somebody who looked like Johnny Weissmuller and work to make a swimmer out of him." Now organized competition, with 7-and 8-year-olds confined primarily to competition with each other, has resulted in the early appearance and recognition of the talented swimmer, and in his being trained from an early age to the extent of his capacities without having to compete in terms totally beyond them. The organized competition has brought out the youngsters in hordes—in 1952 there were an estimated 15,000 children in the age-group program; today there are some 250,000. Their training has resulted in discoveries as to what their physical capacities actually are, and this has broken down a lot of psychologically hampering assumptions. A healthy growing child is proving to be as strong as an ox, and a youngster in high school is capable of a cheerful monomania which the horizons of college will probably and properly dissipate. As swimming coaches work in terms of this on a broadening base of little swimmers, the records and age levels are due to continue to fall.
Donna, however, is a phenomenon in her own right, even in this revolution. Now a reasonable (for swimming) size and weight—5 feet 5 inches, 127 to 130 pounds—when she first appeared as a serious competitor she was a disconcertingly tiny 5 feet 2 and weighed barely 100 pounds. Standing beside Chris von Saltza (5 feet 10 inches, 140 pounds) or one of the Ruuska girls, she appeared an unlikely candidate for any of their titles. Her father can remember Donna being picked up and deposited on the lane ropes by the wave of Pat Ruuska's starting dive.
A far greater handicap than her size (which seems to have been no handicap at all) was the fact that Donna only occasionally received the systematic coaching responsible for most recent advances in swimming. She has had to move from club to club and coach to coach so often that her training has been spotty at best. "If she were at our pool every day, twice a day, she'd really rewrite the record books," her coach, George Haines of the Santa Clara Swim Club, says of her. Hopefully, after this June she will be. On June 23 she will have competed unattached for the requisite year and a day. She will then be eligible to join Haines's excellent Santa Clara group, and the De Varonas will by then have moved closer to Santa Clara. In Lafayette they are 45 miles away, and Donna gets down to work out with Haines only once a week instead of twice a day. During the rest of the week she shuttles, at the expense of her own and her father's time and energy, between a number of local pools. Donna works best in stiff competition, and workouts alone in the Acalanes High School pool, or at the Athens Club in Oakland, or at the Pleasant Hill pool in Pleasant Hill do not begin to constitute the training she needs to stay on top of world competition.
The first stages
Donna began not as a swimmer but as a diver, under Coach Frank McGuigan, who had a pool a few blocks away from the De Varona home in Lafayette. Then her brother David began swimming at the Las Lomas High School pool as therapy for an injured knee, and Donna often went along. At Las Lomas swimming was organized. "Not serious," she says, "just organized. We'd kick a few laps, and swim a few laps, and have a little race." In the little races she found herself finishing ahead of all the other little racers, and in 1957 she begged to be allowed to go to the Far Western AAU meet in San Francisco. It was her first big meet. "1 was scared. I mean I was surprised," she says. "There were so many people! People came from everywhere—Hawaii, everywhere. So I swam, and I false-started about 18 times. I didn't know how to go down in a regular start. [She was starting up from the blocks as if off a board, a real little time-loser.] But they were lenient with me, and 1 qualified." There were 10 qualifiers in the 50-meter freestyle, and Donna managed 10th. "I don't know what it was, I found I just didn't want to be last. I wanted to be up there with everybody else. But then I didn't swim for quite a while. I tried to go on the Berkeley City Club, but the coach didn't want me, and she charged fantastic prices. Dad decided, 'She can't do this.' "
The De Varonas finally acted on the suggestion of Coach Weikko (Finn) Ruuska, who had seen Donna in a meet and suggested that she go to the Berkeley Y, where he coached a swimming team. Donna did go there, and swam with the 10-and-under age group, under"; Coach Jack Barkley; when she was old enough she moved up to the group Ruuska coached.
Finn Ruuska was at that time a man capable of inspiring devotion and a little old-fashioned terror in his swimmers, and of getting more work out of them than the pharaohs extracted from the fellahin who built the pyramids. Donna thought she had trained hard before ("The first workout I went to, I couldn't believe it," her father recalls. "I thought they were trying to kill her"), but she says of Ruuska and his regimen, "He really taught me how to work. The reason I worked so hard," she goes on a little wistfully, "was I wanted to please him. He said nice things about the other girls, and I wanted him to say nice things about me."
As it turned out, Ruuska never did get around to saying nice things about her. He had two daughters of his own who were fine swimmers—his Sylvia at the time was among the best in the world—and it is considered in swimming circles that Ruuska's major concern was their training and their records. Had Pat and Sylvia been subjected to a little less training, and the rest of the girls at the Y, Donna among them, to a little more, things might have turned out more pleasantly. As it was, the more promise Donna displayed, the less training, attention and help seemed to be forthcoming from her own coach, and when in 1960 she beat Sylvia Ruuska in the 400-meter individual medley, pleasantness had ebbed so low that Ruuska lodged the accusation against her (and later against the girls from some other clubs as well) of taking pep pills. The pills in question proved to be iron pills, of the same sort Finn had in fact had his own Sylvia take, and the furor shortly died down, but Ruuska had by that time departed from Donna's coaching scene. She had worked with him altogether only about six months, but, sticky as things became, it was the most important coaching she had had. He taught her, as she says, how to work; he taught her, too, to breathe on both sides, a technique which is valuable in that the swimmer moves through the water fiat, not at an angle, can breathe more in accordance with his need to breathe and is less vulnerable to being passed on his blind side. ,
Her first nationals
After Finn Ruuska left, Donna worked with Tatto Yamashita, the coach who took over at the Berkeley Y. In April of 1960 she went with the Berkeley team to her first nationals, in Bartlesville Okla. (whence she wrote a fine Traveling Athlete letter: "The trip over here wasn't very good. Going to Los Angles it was pretty good, but from there on it was all hot and stuffy and we didn't get to eat for a while because it was bumpy. Excuse spelling I just got up.").
Donna says of the Bartlesville meet, "That was when I first got buddy-buddy with the Santa Clara swim team. They were staying in the city of Bartlesville, and we were on the outskirts. I went over and we raided the kitchen and ate ice cream." She continued to be "buddy-buddy" with the Santa Clara team—which was an impressive one, with swimmers like Chris von Saltza and Lynn Burke. Her earliest rival, Debbie Lee, of the Santa Clara club, became a good friend, and George Haines was helpful to her—not a common kindness in one of the more ingrown worlds of top-level competition.
Haines, U.S. women's swimming team coach at Rome, is the founder and coach of the Santa Clara club. His office there is stuffed with trophies, and the walls are lined with plaques proclaiming Santa Clara firsts. In addition to Chris and Lynn Burke he has coached Steve Clark, 15-year-old Don Schollander and Terri Stickles, the 15-year-old girl who is demolishing the American freestyle records. He is one of the best youngsters' coaches in the country, and it will be worth watching to see what he does with Donna, who swims so well even when slackly trained and who at 14 may be considered to have a few good years left in her.
The next years
Into them somewhere she will have to fit the struggle with her algebra, and dances ("that twisting really ruins your legs"). She has about a ton of candy to eat ("35¢ worth, please: one of those, a chocolate butter cream, a caramel nut, three of those—how much is that?") and a lot of fighting with her little sister to do and a world full of new boys to meet. She has the 1964 Olympics coming up. She plans to work for them. "The only reason I wouldn't try would be if I started getting lousy. Or if the kids come up," she adds warily.
After that, of course, she will be old, 17—and what then? "I read The Ugly American,'''' she says. "Maybe I could go abroad and do something to promote good will." In the meantime she will probably continue to study with the radio on, think intensely about boys and clothes and swimming, and eat butter brickle ice cream.