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Gail Roper, 1997 ISHOF Honor Masters Swimmer

Learned to swim on her own from books and experimenting

Lee Nessel | July 19, 2000

Gail Roper (USA) was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Masters Swimmer in 1997. The following text was included in the program for the induction ceremony of that year:

For the Record: Masters swimming: 42 world records: (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, IM); 166 USMS records: (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, IM); 1984 Masters World Championships: gold (50-, 100-, 200-, 400-meter freestyle, 200-meter backstroke, 50-, 100-, 200-meter breaststroke, 50-, 100-, 200-meter butterfly, 200-, 400-meter IM); 1985 Masters World Championships: gold (100-, 200-, 400-meter freestyle, 50-, 100-, 200-meter butterfly, 400-meter IM); 1986 Masters World Championships: gold (200-, 800-meter freestyle, 100-, 200-meter butterfly, 400-meter IM); 1988 Masters World Championships: gold (100-, 200-meter butterfly), silver (400-meter IM); 1952, 1953 US National Championships: six short course (100-, 200-, 250-yard breaststroke, 300-yard IM), five long course (110-, 220-yard breaststroke, 330-yard IM relays); 40-44 age group: 29 national records; 45-49 age group: seven world records, 39 national records; 50-54 age group: 16 world records, 54 national records; 55-59 age group: 12 world records, 38 national records; 60-64 age group: one world record, two national records; 65-69 age group: six world records, four national records; 130 US Masters national championships: 74 short course (50-, 100-, 200-yard butterfly, 200-yard backstroke, 100-, 200-yard breaststroke, 50-, 100-, 200-, 500-, 1650-yard freestyle, 100-, 200-, 400-yard IM), 56 long course (50-, 100-, 200-meter butterfly, 100-, 200-meter breaststroke, 50-, 100-, 200-, 400-, 1500-meter freestyle, 200-, 400-meter IM).

She was not a particularly good athlete in school. In fact, the school coaches never considered her when drawing up a team roster, but this strong-willed and dedicated girl coached herself to become the best breaststroker in the world both as a younger senior swimmer and later as a Master swimmer. She had a number one world ranking in 1953, beating out Hungary's Hall of Famer Eva Szekely, the 1952 Olympic champion and a number one world ranking in each of her Masters swimming age groups.

Gail Peters Roper, born in 1929 in Trenton, New Jersey, learned to swim on her own by reading books on swimming and then trying it out in the water. She never found a coach serious enough to work with her, but she was the 1948 to 1951 New Jersey State Champion and 1948 Eastern Interscholastic Champion. In 1951, at the age of 22, a few years after high school, she moved to Washington, D.C. as a military geology draftsman for the government. It was here that she began swimming with the girls on the Walter Reed Hospital Team relays, winning and setting records in the breaststroke, individual medley and 300-yard medley relays with Hall of Famers Mary Freeman and Shelly Mann. In 1952 she became the US National Champion in the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke and the 200-yard individual medley in national record time. Her performances garnered her a spread in various magazines including the April 1952 Life magazine which described her after winning the US National Championships, "in a bathing suit, she looked scrawny and in street clothes, wearing glasses with a pink rim and rhinestones, she looked anything but athletic. But in the water she looked wonderful and became the star of the meet." She was swimming's nominee for the coveted Sullivan Award that same year.

She coached herself to the 1952 Olympic Trials where she qualified first in the 200-meter breaststroke on the US Olympic team. All set to take on the world in Helsinki, she pulled a ligament in her ankle just before the competition and was not able to race. She left Finland disappointed, but eager to continue in the water.

The next year at the US AAU National Championships she won the High Point award by winning the 100-yard and 250-yard breaststroke and 300-yard medley relay. Swimming long course, she won the 110-yard, 220-yard breaststroke, 330-yard IM, 330-yard medley relay and the 880-yard freestyle relay. And again she was the Sullivan Award nominee.

Gail swam until she was 26 years old, beyond the normal age for a competitive female swimmer. It was then time to start a family and live the family life. She stayed away from swimming for 18 years.

It was at the age of 44 that Gail began to swim again, this time on her daughter's swim team in California. She competed in the first Masters meet ever held in 1970 and from the start began to set national records in all four strokes in the individual medley. From 1974 to 1978, her five years in the women's 45-49 age group, she held every short course yards record in her age group as well as 14 of the 16 long course records for most of those years. She has set over 42 world records and won 27 gold medals at the first five world championship meets throughout the world. She has won over 130 US Masters national championships setting 53 records at these meets. All total, she has set 166 US national records in all of the age groups in which she has participated from the 40-44 to the 65-69 age groups.

In 1986, Gail was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and advised to severely restrict her swimming. Following the doctor's advice, she finally retired in 1990 and from 1991 through 1994, she was the Masters coach for the very successful University of San Francisco Masters Team.

But you can't keep a good girl out of the water and, in 1994, she decided to return to swimming, instantly setting national and world records in her new 65-69 age group. Sports Illustrated has called her the most dominant swimmer ever. Today, as a mother of seven and grandmother too, she continues to swim up a storm.

from Swim magazine

Gail Roper's 23 first place times, nine national records and eight world records helped her return as a SWIM magazine honoree for the second year in a row. This 1952 Olympian and number one ranked breaststroker in 1953 grew up swimming in a creek in Trenton, N.J., and never even swam in a pool until high school. Currently, she works as a marine biologist for the Pacific States Marine Commission and lives in California by way of Japan and Honolulu.

Roper was extremely happy with her eight world records in 1996. "I can't think any one of them was more important than the other," but she was glad that she finished her 400 IM and swam it six seconds under the record. "I just like to swim, and I like to better my time."

Among the latest group of swimmers inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame Jan. 9, Roper said she greatly enjoyed her evening alongside the likes of Matt Biondi, Mike Barrowman and Mark Schubert. She will also be taking a trip to Japan in June for another induction ceremony.

But Roper is no stranger to travel. "I have seven children, and I'm not leaving them any money. I'm taking them all on a world trip and spending it all on them." She's taken two of her children to India and one to Africa on safari. Her most recent voyage was to Egypt, where she and her daughter risked bilharzia by swimming across the Nile, then sailed down the river for three days on a sailboat.

She had plans to travel to Borneo this year, "and then the Hall came up." So instead, Roper had to travel to Florida and, later, Japan. "It was a bit too much to go to Borneo on top of those two trips. Maybe next year."

published in SWIM magazine, March-April 1997

The International Swimming Hall of Fame has announced that Gail Roper, 67, Menlo Park Masters, will be inducted into the ISHOF as Masters swimmers at a ceremony in Nagoya, Japan, on June 12-14, 1997 along with Tim Garton. An American ceremony will be held at the ISHOF in Florida on January 10. Both Roper and Garton have overcome life-threatening illnesses on their journeys to phenomenal success in Masters swimming. Let's meet USMS's fifth and sixth inductees into the Hall.

Gail Roper's dominance in Masters swimming had its seeds in her youth when she was virtually unbeatable in the AAU's breaststroke and IM events from 1948 to 1953. In 1952, she was a member of the U.S. Olympic team, competing in the 200 breaststroke, and was named a Sullivan Award nominee.

After a 20-year hiatus, she returned to the waters where she was an immediate success on the Masters circuit, entering some of the first Masters meets ever held. From 1974 to 1978, her five years in the 45-49 age group, she held every short course yards record in her age group as well as 14 of the 16 long-course records.

Her Masters swimming career was curtailed in 1986 when she was diagnosed with spine stenosis and advised to severely restrict her physical activity. Instead, she turned to coaching a successful Masters team at the University of San Francisco.

Growing tired of being away from the challenge of competition, she admitted, "if I am going to die, I might as well die happy." With resolve, she returned to the water five years ago to continue her Masters swimming dominance. Her physical condition has improved dramatically.

Roper's accumulation of Masters achievements is simply mind-boggling. She has won 136 national championships and broken national records on 657 occasions. She has set 42 individual world records and won gold 30 times in world championship competition. Amazingly, during one stretch she won six events, all national records, at five consecutive nationals.

by Bobbie Callison , Swim magazine, Jan-Feb 1997

USMS SWIMMER magazine (March-April 2005, Vol. 1, No. 1) details a historical perspective of Gail Roper's early 1950s butterfly stroke in the Splashback article "Butterfly's Emergence Challenged 1950s Swimmers" by Virginia Sower.

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