Olympic champ Donna de Varona champions others
Every now and then nature produces a powerhouse athlete who is also a powerhouse human being.
In 1960, Donna de Varona splashed onto the scene at the age of 13, the youngest swimmer to compete at the Summer Olympics in Rome. Four years later at the Tokyo Games, de Varona won two gold medals – one in the 400-meter individual medley, the decathlon of swimming, and one as a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay. Just like swimming legends Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps, de Varona went on to dominate her sport with 18 world records and 37 national titles.
In so doing, the California native – now a Greenwich resident – captured the imagination of the world, defining American swimming in the ’60s with two appearances each on the covers of Life and Sports Illustrated.
Though she retired from competitive swimming at age 17, her sports career did not end there. Indeed, she was about to plunge into uncharted waters – a journey that would transform the playing fields for young women and athletes.
De Varona became the first female broadcaster for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” hosted by Jim McKay. Behind the scenes, she worked tirelessly for the passage of Title IX of the Education Act of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in sports, and helped found, with Billie Jean King, the Women’s Sports Foundation, serving as president from 1976 to ’84.
So when the London Games begin on July 27, it’s hard to imagine that they will have a more enthusiastic supporter than de Varona, who has lent her support – not to mention her Olympic Order, a stunning necklace presented to her by the International Olympic Committee – to the Olympics exhibit at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.
“Obviously because Phelps is such a star, he’s going to drive the coverage,” de Varona says, putting on her broadcaster’s hat. “NBC is going to play the hell out of it, because that’s what they do.”
The Phelps’ narrative will embrace his rivalry with Ryan Lochte.
“Lochte has been really hungry. He really wants to win. You have a guy that’s hungry, and you have a guy who’s done it all.” She adds perceptively, “The hardest thing for a champion is that you’re chased. You should never swim not to lose. Always swim to win. Sometimes when you’re a champion, you get caught in that space.”
Her hope, though, is that NBC will widen the camera lens so that we will hear other stories. There are the potential comebacks of veterans Janet Evans, age 40, and Dara Torres, age 45, giving lie to the myth that older women can’t compete.
And there’s breakout star Missy Franklin, who’ll be making her Olympics debut. The teenager is 6 feet, 1 inch, with a wing span of 6 feet, 4 inches.
Says the 5-foot, 6-inch de Varona: “I wouldn’t want to sprint against her.”
Into the swim
“Swimming was a gift to me. It’s my thing. I love to just get in and swim….It’s almost like meditation for me.”
That meditation began in Lafayette, Calif., where young Donna idolized her older brother, David Jr., and followed him around everywhere – including the baseball field, where she became the first Little League batgirl. (Sister Joanna was into gymnastics. She would become actress Joanna Kerns, star of ABC’s “Growing Pains.”)
Trailblazing Donna, however, was out on the diamond.
“I even had a uniform,” she recalls. “But back then they didn’t let girls play.”
When David quit baseball for swimming following knee surgery, Donna followed suit.
First, though, she tried diving but couldn’t get any air sense.
“I like to say that I was great on toes and short on courage.”
It wasn’t long before she switched to swimming and started racing in the local pool, where she began winning ribbons.
“I was almost 11 and my father (David Sr.), who was an All-American football player and member of the crew at Cal Berkeley, said, ‘Are you sure you want this?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’”
With that, he enrolled his young daughter in a program at the Y, where the coach had a daughter who was a world-record holder and a member of the 1956 American Olympic team
“When people raise the bar, you raise the bar.”
De Varona got so fast she began training with legendary swim coach George Haines at the Santa Clara Swim Club in northern California. Haines’ many Olympic swimmers would include Mark Spitz.
“No one worked harder than me. I was up against girls who were 6 feet tall.”
Before the lens
It’s that tenacity that has spurred de Varona’s fight for women’s and athletes’ rights. But as is often the case in life, she was also in the right place at the right time.
When “Wide World of Sports” bowed in 1961, the producers, who knew nothing about swimming, would ask the young swimmer which races would be close and which they should broadcast.
“I became friendly with the production team. They would even put a diver underneath my lane with a scuba tank, because they wanted to capture what was really going on.
In 1965, after competing in her second Olympics, the champion was faced with a difficult decision. She wanted to attend college, but there were no athletic scholarships for girls back then. So de Varona made the gut-wrenching decision to give up the sport she loved to attend UCLA.
With no scholarship and no money, “I just picked up the phone, because I couldn’t bear to quit the sport I loved, and I said to the producer, ‘I’d like to be in the booth talking about it.’”
The producers were concerned, because of the rules at the time – rules de Varona would later help change – that barred amateur competitors from getting paid. “WWS” finally relented, and at 17, de Varona became the first woman sports broadcaster to appear on network television when she covered the 1965 men’s Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swimming championships alongside Jim McKay.
She paid her way through college with the money she earned working in television, all the while moving her way up the broadcasting ranks. Eventually she would become an
on-air analyst, commentator, host, writer, and producer for many shows, including the Olympics, ABC Sports, ABC News and “Good Morning America.”
In 1991, she earned an Emmy Award for producing a feature on a Special Olympian and in 1998, she received an Emmy nomination for co-producing, writing, and hosting “Keepers of the Flame,” a television special on the Olympics.
“I have to have a life purpose. It’s something that the sport gave me.”
But this child of the activist ’60s has also been spurred by witnessing the racial discrimination that fellow Olympians Muhammad Ali, Wilma Rudolph and Willye B. White experienced.
Besides fighting for Title IX and working with Billie Jean King on the Women’s Sports Foundation, de Varona threw her support behind the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, providing legal protection for individual athletes and making training facilities and money more accessible to women athletes.
“I know young women don’t like to identify with the word feminism. But they’re sitting where they are because of us, whether they realize it or not.”
A purposeful life
“When I went to Washington for the first time, it wasn’t just about women. It was about changing the paradigm in our Olympic movement, and that’s why I was appointed to President Ford’s commission on Olympic sport and at that same time I got involved in Title IX.”
De Varona served four terms on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In 2002-03, she served on the U. S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on Opportunity in Athletics. She also sits on the International Special Olympics’ executive board and is a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sports Commission.
With all she has done, have the battles for equality in sports and physical fitness been won?
“No. You think it’s over, but we’ve still had to fight. We’ve got so many pockets in our country where it’s all about the elite sports, kids are not participating and we have an obesity issue and a tsunami of diabetes.”
“We have to get P.E. back. We have to open our parks. We have to work together. We can’t just have a few people saying, ‘Jog and stay fit.’ We have to come up with programs that really work.”
That’s why she accepted the George W. Bush Administration’s invitation to serve on the Commission on Opportunity in Athletics. But the administration, she says, was more interested in watering down Title IX, which had empowered women.
While the experience has soured her on politics, the little girl who charmed Rome is still in it to win it. It’s a life lesson she’s imparted to her children. She and husband John Pinto, a lawyer and investment banker, are the parents of two – John David, who was an All-American at Greenwich High School and co-captain of the swim team at Brown University; and Joanna, a Catholic University graduate who’s pursuing an acting career, just like her aunt and namesake.
De Varona believes there is value in sports for everyone as they require commitment, the ability to take criticism and work with others, and, in the end, acceptance of both success and failure – important lessons in the corporate world.
“I like the idea of sports as a journey and not an end in itself.”