July 24, 2012
Ann Curtis, who was widely regarded as one of the greatest female swimmers, winning 2 Olympic gold medals in 1948 and 34 United States championships, died on June 26 at her home in San Rafael, Calif. She was 86.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her daughter Carrie Cuneo said. The death had not been widely reported until this week.
Curtis, tall and long-armed, swam freestyle, from the shortest championship distance (100 yards) to the longest (1,500 meters). Starting in 1943, she broke 5 world and 56 American records, more than any other woman before that time.
In 1944, she became the first woman and the first swimmer to win the Amateur Athletic Union’s Sullivan Award, based on “character, leadership and sportsmanship.” It would be 12 years before another woman, the diver Pat McCormick, won the award, and 20 years before another swimmer, Don Schollander, won.
Louis de B. Handley, America’s leading swimming expert at the time, ranked Curtis as the best female swimmer ever. In 1966, she was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Curtis stood 5 feet 10 ½ inches tall and weighed 160 pounds but looked lighter, carrying much of the weight in her powerful legs. She never worried about diet, she said, and acknowledged having a taste for custard pie.
MGM found her attractive enough to offer her a movie deal, but she turned it down, she told Collier’s magazine in 1945, partly because she expected that the studio would want her to perform water ballet, something she hated. Moreover, she said, she did not want to play second fiddle to MGM’s reigning swimming star, Esther Williams.
In 1948, after her junior year at the University of California, Berkeley, Curtis competed in the London Olympics — the first Summer Games in 12 years (the Olympics had been suspended during World War II), and her first chance to test herself against the world’s best swimmers.
There were only five Olympic swimming events for women then, and she took medals in three — gold in the 400-meter freestyle, gold in the 4×200 relay, and silver in the 100 freestyle. (At the time, swimmers were limited to three Olympic events.) She retired afterward.
Ann Elizabeth Curtis was born on March 6, 1926, in San Francisco and grew up there. Her parents divorced when she was about 9, and she and her younger sister were sent to live in a boarding school run by Ursuline nuns. Ann learned to swim there, and her instructor, who thought she showed promise, persuaded her to practice for an hour a day.
Her mother opened a boardinghouse to make ends meet, and when the girls moved back home they had to put in long hours, serving meals twice a day to the 24 guests and washing the dishes.
Curtis said later, “If swimming pools had suds on them, I’d probably be a golfer or a softball pitcher instead of a swimmer.”
Their mother remarried at least twice, Carrie Cuneo said, and the sisters found life with stepfathers to be difficult. (Their father, a Marine Corps captain, died from wounds suffered on Tarawa, a Pacific atoll, in November 1943.)
Curtis continued swimming, and by age 11 she was winning competitions. But after a miserable defeat when she was 14, she declared herself “fat, short-winded and lousy,” and said she wanted to quit. Instead, her mother took her to Charlie Sava, a renowned San Francisco coach.
Sava took her swimming style apart and put it back together again. He had her swim two or three miles in each practice, six days a week and every other Sunday. Sometimes, wearing a belt attached to pulleys, she swam against weights or with her feet tied together.
In time, her training yardage doubled. But Sava was said to believe that vanity would drive some women away from the sport if they developed muscular shoulders, so he tried to avoid that. Photographs of Curtis during her championship years suggest that he succeeded.
“He was the first coach to use repetitive training and intensive workouts,” Curtis said in a 1999 interview for Splash magazine. “Up to that point, it was thought that a swimmer peaked if he or she worked too hard and would not be at his or her best for the actual competition. Charlie turned things around. I remember one time two visiting swim coaches from Australia came to watch us work and were appalled at how hard he worked us.”
Sava took no credit for his star’s success.
“Nobody ever worked harder to get where she is,” he said of Curtis, “and since she got there, she kept right on plugging, because she’s always afraid. Real champions are always afraid they’ll lose.”
After the 1948 Summer Olympics, Curtis married her college sweetheart, Gordon Cuneo, who played basketball for California. In 1960, they opened a swimming school in San Rafael, where they lived. She managed it into her 70s.
Curtis was modest about her achievements. Her children first learned about her Olympic exploits from other people, her daughter Carrie said.
Curtis’s swimming school has had some 40,000 students, including the Olympic swimmers Rick DeMont and Ben Wildman-Tobriner. Her daughter Carrie now manages it.
Gordon Cuneo died in 2010, and a son, Bill, died in 2008. Besides her daughter Carrie, survivors include another daughter, Susan Cuneo Staff; two sons, David and Brian; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
At 50, Curtis won five gold medals in the United States masters championships. She seemed unimpressed.
“My times were terrible,” she said. “I did a complete turnaround and took up tennis.”
Ann Curtis was born on March 6th, 1926 according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Curtis
Each letter of the first name rules 9 years of life. The first 27 years of life are ruled by the sum of the first three letters of the name and the month of birth.
Ann Curtis March 6th, 1926
1 (A is the 1st letter of the alphabet) + 14 (n is the 14th letter of the alphabet) + 14 (n is the 14th letter of the alphabet) + 3 (March is the 3rd month of the year) = 32
So the number 32 ruled her first twenty-seven years of life.
32 = Olympics. Medals. #1. The best.
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