Reach! Reach!" It's 5:30 a.m., pitch black outside, and most San Francisco Bay Area residents are still asleep. But Gail Roper is jumping up and down in her living room, exhorting her youngest daughter, Sunshine, 13. "That's right! Yeah! Lean forward and reach! Now you're moving!"
Sunshine, in red-and-white-striped pajamas, paddles fiercely while sitting on a stool in the middle of the living room. The stool is standing still, but she is clearly making headway. Her feet planted firmly on the floor, she reaches farther forward with each stroke, pulling back more air and then reaching forward again with her mother's Hawaiian pine paddle, her mother's impassioned drive.
"That's great! Great!" shouts Roper, mother of seven, full-time student, full-time employee, sometime coach and sometime steersman on an outrigger canoe for the Waikiki Surf Club and, undeniably, the most dominant AAU Masters swimmer ever. Roper, a 1952 Olympian and at one time the world's best woman breaststroker, now collects Masters swimming records the way a train conductor collects tickets; she has 43 national records, dozens more than anyone else, male or female. And her freestyle stroke is so clean that she barely ruffles the surface of the water. If her living room were flooded, she could swim through it and the Gauguin prints on the wall would stay dry.
"Gail's just phenomenal," says Jane McAllister, a fellow California Masters swimmer. "Whenever she hits a new age bracket everyone knows she'll break every record in every event. She just does. And don't think we don't all envy her, from tip to toe, envy her with a...longing." Small wonder, considering that at 52 Roper swims the butterfly faster than she did when she was 18.
May 30, 1982
"Hello, loves. How are you today?" Roper says as she reaches up to feed goldfish in a tank on top of her refrigerator in the tiny house she rents in Petaluma, Calif., north of San Francisco. She always seems to be up on her toes, as buoyant in air as she is in water. Sleep plays such a small role in her life that she says the word "nap" as if she were letting an exotic moth out of her mouth. She's quick to break into a soft-shoe in the aisle of a K-Mart, trailing little whirlpools of energy behind her. When she charges through the basement of the San Francisco Aquarium, stopping momentarily to greet her friend the Russian ichthyologist who is hunched over a rockfish, all the thousands of bloated fish suspended upside down in solution in thousands of bottles on hundreds of shelves, all these non-swimming specimens seem to stir slightly when she passes by, as if a tide had just rippled through the basement.
Fish always have been important in Roper's life. She even almost had one named after her. It turned up in a fish auction where she was working in Hawaii. She brought the strange fish to her friend, Dr. Jack Randall, head of ichthyology in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu (after whom the Rapdallichthys filamentosus is named). If she had been the first to discover it instead of the second, it might have been named Roperichthys filamentosus.
"When I was little I used to dive down to the bottom of the creek near where I lived and hold myself down by grabbing the bottom of a dock," she says. "I'd look around and think, 'This is how it is to be a fish. Wouldn't it be nice if people could live underwater?' Then I'd come up for air and go back down and stay a while. It was so quiet and peaceful.
"I remember looking at the fish to see how they moved. I could see their head motion controlled the rest of the body; like a whip the body would follow the head."
Roper's swimming career is the product of her exceptional determination. In the 50-54 age group, she now holds 30 of 33 possible women's records. The three she doesn't have are for backstroke events. At last week's Masters national short-course championships, held at The Woodlands, near Houston, Roper broke three of her own records, in the 200- and 500-freestyle and the 200 IM.
"I guess the most records I ever had at one time were 62," she says when pressed to think about it. "Hey, would you like some shredded wheat?" she then asks, gesturing toward the 20 or so battered boxes she recently scavenged from a bin behind a supermarket. "Nothing wrong with the cereal," she says with a grin. "Once I found 40 frozen chickens thrown away. They'd been advertised as fresh, so when they arrived at the store frozen they got heaved outside. We ate every last one." She pulls off a man's blue sweater with a couple of holes in it, revealing a T shirt over a slim, youthful body. Roper's sweater, her faded jeans, her running shoes and the three-level green enamel pagoda in the goldfish bowl were all found in the Bargain Box, a thrift shop in nearby San Rafael.
Besides swimming eight miles a week, Roper is a full-time student at Sonoma State University with a 3.8 grade average; she's one semester away from getting her B.A. in environmental studies. And she has a full-time job, as coordinator of a survey conducted by the Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission. She also has all those children (two by her first husband, now grown and living in Hawaii, and five by her second, with whom they live during the week), one grandchild, a ukulele on which she can only strum Ain't She Sweet? and a fishing pole she won in a striped-bass sweepstakes. A closet is crammed with more than 800 medals, trophies and ribbons. ("What is this white ribbon for?" she says, fingering through layers and layers of blue. "Oh, it's for the chickens I entered in the Hawaii state fair.") She also has a Kongozuye, a five-foot wooden cane she got when she climbed Mount Fuji, and notebooks full of pressed algae she has collected and meticulously identified. (Four other volumes she assembled contain almost 300 species of Hawaiian algae and now serve as reference books in the Hawaiian State Division of Aquatic Resources.) And she has an invitation to the White House, where, during Eisenhower's presidency, she, Rocky Marciano, Joe DiMaggio and 22 other athletes were honored. "It was the only time in my life I ever wore a hat," Roper says. The house also contains shelves and shelves of books, including Richard Halliburton's His Story of His Life's Adventure: A Unique Autobiography of the Famous Young American's World-Wide Pursuit of Danger and Romance.
"Oh, I loved Richard Halliburton," says Roper. "I was going to live a life like his and swim down the Nile, and swim the Hellespont, the Panama Canal, the Miya-jimi in Japan. I wanted to cross the Alps on elephants and go to Egypt. Egypt, ahhh. Of course, when I was growing up women weren't supposed to be adventurous unless they were Amelia Earhart and they died doing what they were doing. I never died. Here I am."
She began as Gail Peters, born in Trenton, N.J. on June 23, 1929, daughter of a former Miss Trenton and a man who left home when Gail was six months old.
"Our house was out on this stretch of land, kind of like an island," says Roper, in her silver Datsun pickup truck en route to Sacramento. "The Sanhican Creek, a tributary of the Delaware, ran right in front of our home. There was a hydroelectric plant on the point so there was a lot of current in the water, really strong current; you had to learn how to swim well if you wanted to get home. I used to float down to Bloomfield Avenue and then swim back home against the current two blocks up to Mount Vernon.
"Girls weren't supposed to swim hard back then. There was a partition down the middle of the pool at school: girls on one side, boys on the other. The boys could swim back and forth without stopping to rest. The girls used to have to swim a lap and then walk or go hand over hand across the width of the pool before we could swim another length. When I heard that the boys would swim a whole mile without stopping, I thought gee, I'd like to try that.
"I managed to get into the pool once all alone when I was about 17, and I started swimming back and forth, back and forth. What a sensation! It felt wonderful. When I'd almost swum a mile I felt this hand on my shoulder. There was the coach, yelling, 'No, no, no! You'll injure yourself! Girls shouldn't do this! You'll ruin your heart! You won't be able to have children when you grow up! Get out, get out, get out!'
"Oh, it was the dark ages of swimming back then," she says. "I didn't really even think about competition until my senior year in high school, 1946. The New Jersey Junior Championships were held at my school, and I entered the 50-yard freestyle. That's when I learned that only the first three people got medals. I came in fourth. I wanted a medal so bad, I had to get one the next year.
"But my mother wanted me to go to college. She got hold of my father somehow and asked him to pay for my tuition. I hadn't seen him in over 16 years and I went into New York City to meet him. I told him over the phone that I'd meet him in the Metropolitan Museum of Art near the Egyptian tomb. You know that tomb at the end of Catcher in the Rye? I loved that tomb, way before Salinger wrote the book."
Roper was more impressed by the tomb than by her father.
"Oh, he was just some stranger. It was no big deal meeting him."
Growing up without a father and as the only child in a bustling home with an active mother, grandparents, uncles and aunts, Gail spent much of her time roaming around on her own. With no imposed boundaries, physical or spiritual, her untethered energies were free to buck and romp. That mobility of spirit, bolstered by a challenging physicality and good looks, has led to a number of run-ins with men—husbands and coaches—but she always is able to disentangle herself and move on. "I'm good at practicing brinkmanship," she says. "I'm always one hour ahead of the posse."
Roper still is too independent to care much what people think of her; she gives no thought, for instance, to what the suburban housewives around her might think when she spends a night sleeping in her truck.
"My father did agree to pay for my education at Trenton Junior College where I began studying art," Roper says, "but I realized I had to decide between swimming and going to school. I chose swimming. It's not that I wanted a career in it or anything. All I wanted was to win that 50-yard freestyle. My father got mad and lost interest in me and never supported me again.
"I used to have to take a bus to Philadelphia to train because nobody would let me swim in Trenton. I would sell my clothes, my radio, anything to get money to ride that old smelly blue bus. And just to swim in this pool in the basement of some building in Philadelphia an hour away, oh, it was an awful pool—20 square yards of dirty water. My girl friend and I used to break into Kotex machines to get money to eat and ride the bus.
"Nobody would coach me. Once I hitchhiked in the snow to New Brunswick [N.J.] to meet this coach I'd heard about. He told me I should find a man to live with who would support me so I could pay this coach $20 a week to coach me. Swell! I hitchhiked home. Then I asked the coach of the boys' high school swim team if he would coach me. He said no, too.
"It's true I was a scrawny little thing. I knew I wasn't strong, and I didn't have natural talent. I figured I'd have to learn to be efficient and perfect my stroke; I would develop the smoothest, nicest, sleekest stroke possible. I went to the library and read a book by Bob Kiphuth [Yale's legendary swimming coach]. When he'd write about 'eliminating rolling,' I'd go swim and try to figure out what he meant; that's how I learned to keep my shoulders level."
It took Gail two years—or until she was 19—of reading and practicing to implant in her undernourished arms a stroke that would win the 50-yard freestyle at the Junior Championships. She hadn't planned on competing after that victory, but within a year she'd acquired seven trophies, 72 medals and a habit of entering as many different events as possible. The first time she competed in a breaststroke event, she won the women's national junior AAU 200-meter championship. At that time the breaststroke was so loosely defined that it was permissible to recover one's arms over the water, as in the butterfly stroke.
"Actually I learned how to butterfly by mistake," she says. "On my 18th birthday at Clementon Lake Park I had to swim the individual medley, and I was so nervous that when I took my first stroke for the breaststroke my hands came up and out of the water. The rules said you had to continue that stroke for the length of the pool and I found myself going faster."
It wasn't until Gail reached the ripe old age of 22, when many swimmers consider retiring, that she met Jim Campbell of Washington, D.C., who coached star freestyler Mary Freeman. The encounter occurred at the 1951 AAU National Outdoor championships in Detroit, where Roper finished last in the 200-meter breaststroke, but she persuaded Campbell to take her on. She moved to Washington, got a job as a military geology draftsman and swam for Campbell at the Walter Reed Hospital swim club.
"I'd never really determined to gut it out and fight until I swam for Campbell," Roper says. "I'd always been afraid that I'd fall apart during a race; you know, really just...explode. I'd been told for so long that my ovaries would burst."
When Gail was 23 she set an American record, winning the 200-meter breaststroke at the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis with a time of 3:02.6. She didn't make the finals at the Helsinki Olympics because of a pulled ligament in her left ankle. It was in the following year that Gail swam her best time in the 100 breaststroke (1:18.0) and was ranked No. 1 in the world. That was also the year she fell out with Campbell, took her last military geology paycheck and headed west on a bus.
After she got to California a famed Hawaiian coach, Soichi Sakamoto, asked her to swim in the prestigious Keo Nakama meet in Honolulu. Gail went, won the 100 fly and ended up, with $12 in her pocket, on a plane headed for Japan with a men's team that had been invited there. When she landed, officials blinked a few times but then asked her to go on a three-week tour of Japan. Her marriage to Johnnie Hayasaka, a sportswriter who interviewed her during the tour, was written up in Parade magazine because it was so unusual for an American woman to marry a Japanese man. NEW JERSEY GIRL MEETS TOKYO BOY...THE STORY OF A UNIQUE INTERNATIONAL MARRIAGE read the headline.
For the next 20 years Gail didn't compete. When she had her first child, while working as a cartographic draftsman for U.S. military intelligence in Tokyo, she assumed she had to give up competition.
"I'd been brainwashed into thinking that once you had kids you were old, grown-up, mature," she says. "Adults didn't compete and run around in bathing suits."
Hayasaka landed a job with Japan Air Lines in Honolulu, and the family moved to Hawaii. Gail had her second child, another girl, and coached the Hickam Air Force Base swim team, which won the state Junior Olympic championship. After a seven-year marriage, she went through an unpleasant divorce from Hayasaka. Unable to find adequate work, she was forced to send her daughters to stay with her mother in New Jersey. She remained in Honolulu, met an out-of-work mortgage financier named Jim Roper, married him in 1963, sent for the girls and moved to Petaluma, where she had her five other children.
"He liked me barefoot and pregnant," she says. "I was terribly frustrated then, not stimulated at all mentally, and I put a lot of energy into coaching the Petaluma swim club.
"I remember Sunshine was born on a Tuesday, and the next Saturday I was at the Redwood Empire Championships, which we won. I went and sat on a big pillow in 100-degree temperature; I couldn't let my team down."
She used to bring her children with her to practice, wrapping them up in blankets by the side of the pool. When they got old enough to swim, she coached them as well.
Then, in 1971, unhappy in her second marriage to a man who resented the time she spent at the swim club ("He used to flush my bathing suits down the toilet; we had a terrible plumbing problem," she says), Roper saw a notice in Swimming World announcing a Senior Olympics in Los Angeles.
"It was four months after the birth of Jim and I was still overweight," she says. "I went and met an old friend there who had trained, really trained, just for the occasion. I beat her, I won all five events I entered, but I almost killed myself doing it. I thought, this isn't what adults are supposed to do, but it made me feel wonderful. When I heard about the Masters competition, I thought, I'm going to see what I can do if I train."
"She trained her head off and just amazed everybody," says Ann Curtis Cuneo, who won gold medals in the 400-meter freestyle and 400-meter relay in the 1948 Olympics. "She made a comeback in Masters swimming that's incredible. People thought, how long can she last? But she's still going strong."
Roper's success in swimming only ex-acerbated the tension of an already degenerating marriage. Finally in 1975, following a violent argument, she left Jim and took the six youngest children back to Hawaii. After three years of struggling on welfare, she had to send them back to Jim in Petaluma.
"I had dumb jobs like staining ashtrays at Coco Joe's," she says. "Then I went to a place in Kaneohe called Woman House, a resource center for women. I thought something was terribly wrong with me; I wasn't able to make it. They encouraged me to go back to school. When I scored really well on the entrance exam to Windward Community College, I was in shock because I'd always thought I was a dummy.
"That's when my life started opening up to me, in my late 40s as I began to get an education. Till then I'd been so naive, not knowing anything about politics or the environment. I took a course in identification of Hawaiian fish, and that's what got me into my career. I got a job working at the fish auction house in Honolulu and working for the Survey Marketing Service interviewing fishermen."
In 1979, after a year and a half of being away from her children, she moved back to Petaluma to be near them and transferred to Sonoma State.
"She's an inspiration," says Zada Taft, 62, the oldest woman to swim the span of the Golden Gate Bridge. "I emulate her."
"It's her self-discipline that's so unbelievable," says Larry Lack of Novato, Calif., who coaches Roper. "I love to see her practice with 18-year-old guys. You can see the lines of horror on her face after doing 60 or 70 75s on a minute but she doesn't complain. So those guys don't dare complain."
"You have to have a lot of mental power to win," says Roper, her right hand deep inside the guts of a fish she's examining. "Bocaccio, 430 mm." She announces the name and length of the fish to Jim, 12, her youngest child and only son, who writes down the information on a survey sheet. She's out on Tide's Pier in Bodega Bay, one of the many places her work takes her to. Her job is to record the catches of recreational fishermen for a survey designed to measure the impact of such activity on the area.
"It's like there's this energy out there," says Roper, her eyes narrowing, "and it's suspended in mist, or cobwebs. You have to collect that energy to win." Her long, lean fingers, covered with fish scales and blood, comb the air as if picking cotton out of it. "You have to time it right so all the energy pools together at just the right moment when you need it, because you can't sustain that high a level of concentration for long. When I get an A on an exam, it's the same gathering up of mental energy. When I'm on my way to a swim meet I'll listen to Stravinsky's Petrushka, just to help me get primed. I feel I can will myself to swimming a record, because I gather up these forces to explode at the right time.
"Oh, look here." With a fingernail she cuts into a large egg sac, releasing a blue froth of eggs. "Too bad we can't put the eggs back into the ocean." She sighs and reaches for another fish. "Yellowtail, 425 mm." Two more. "Lingcod, 710 mm. Cowcod, 480 mm." Roper stands amidst a throng of gruff, bearded fishermen who shuffle about her, dragging burlap bags full of fish. They flirt with her, cracking jokes, while she lovingly strokes the skin of the fish she measures.
"I think I must be a reincarnation of a Hawaiian fisherperson, maybe some woman who lived by the sea," she says. "I feel a great affinity for the beautiful land. Aloha 'Aina says it all: love of the land. I want to go back to Hawaii and protect Aloha 'Aina; I want to get into aquaculture, fish farming, to protect the beautiful species of Hawaiian fish so they don't disappear."
But she'll continue her own form of aquaculture. "As long as I'm alive I'll keep trekking to the swimming pool," she says. "You know, athletics should be for older people in particular because they need it more. When your body starts to deteriorate, that's when you have to exercise and take care of it, to improve the quality of your life. You shouldn't just sit around and live to give presents to your grandchildren. When I coach, I try to get the parents to swim. They come and sit and watch their kids swim, and I tell them, 'Get a suit and hop in!' Swimming's fun, even in the rain and the cold.
"Isn't this fun?" she asks suddenly, stopping to take in the scene around her, a small bocaccio in her right hand and a lingcod in her left. "You know, I love my kids, I love my courses, I love my job. And when I'm swimming...oh, I feel like I'm flying." She takes a deep breath. "Tomorrow morning I'm going bird watching, this weekend I'm going salmon fishing, next week I'll be in a three-K road race and I'll start my t'ai-chi classes. I just have these terrific days."