Remembering Zada Taft
The "mother of open water swims"
One time South End Rowing Club swim star Zada Taft, died at the end of August, 2002. Lynne Taft says: "Just to add some more about Zada Taft. She first swam the Golden Gate in 1937 when the bridge was first built. She swam it several times and again in 1987 (the 50th anniversary). Diddo Clark described her as the “Mother of Open Water Swims. The passing of Zada was the end of a perfect love story of two young people that meet on a swim team in the 1930s. Ray and Zada were married 61 1/2 years. Thank you to all those that have sent cards."
Sallie Olsen wrote, "I believe this elegant woman was one of the first and one of the oldest female swimmers at the South End Club. She went along with the unspoken rule of no wet suits in the Bay. When I first joined the South End Club in 1989, Zada was swimming the "out of the cove" races. She was and will continue to be quite an inspiration.
According to the September 25, 1939 San Francisco Chronicle, "Gear Wins Swim, Uninvited Girl Star is Sixth—Sneaks By Judges to Enter South End Gate Event for second Year. Jack Gear, husky young machinist, paddled his way to an easy win in the annual South End Golden Gate swim in 27 minutes flat yesterday, but it remained for an unofficial entry to steal the show. Zada Weed, blonde Crystal Plunge swimmer, barred by rules which prevent feminine stars from competing, sneaked into the water while the judges were looking the other way and proceeded to come home a nifty seventh, finishing in front of eighteen men contenders. Zada also completed the course last year. Twenty-four South Enders and Miss Weed started on the Marin side of the bridge and all finished. Usually the Coast Guard has to fish out a few exhausted swimmers."
Zada Weed Taft competed in 16 Golden Gate Bridge Swim races over 50 years. In the 1930s, she was the youngest swimmer in the South End's Gate races. In the 1980s, she was the oldest. In 1987, seventy six swimmers started the South End's 57th annual Golden Gate race. Strong currents swept the competitors out to sea and most of them failed to touch the finish line at Lime Rock on the Marin side. The oldest finisher was 68 year old Zada Taft. She was the only swimmer who competed in South End Gate races in the 1930s and in the 1980s. South End life member Dan O'Neil finished 17th in the 1939 South End Gate Swim; in the 1980s, he rowed a rowboat to pilot for South End swims.
In 1953, Zada swam from San Francisco's Pier Seven across the Bay to Treasure Island. In the 1970s, Zada and her husband Ray founded the first Masters swim team—the San Mateo Master Marlins.
In 1987, Zada said: "Everything they've had since the beginning of time that had a woman in it, I've been in it.... I'm not the fastest or the most graceful (swimmer) but I love it."
In the history of Masters swimming in the San Francisco Bay Area, the swimmer who has seen it all, done it all and become one of its best loved and enduring participants is Zada Taft. Of course it is impossible to tell Zada's story without telling parts of Ray's story too, but his story appears elsewhere (Ray Taft).
Zada's swimming life began at age twelve in the early thirties as the depression began. When her father's wages were cut, the family moved from San Francisco to Alameda to live with Zada's grandparents.
Nearby was Neptune Beach "a grand playground" with two 100-yard pools, a roller coaster (Shoot the Chutes) and other similar attractions. Here is Zada's tale about its role in her learning to swim:
"I asked my father for ten cents to get in. No, he couldn't afford it. The cashier at the attraction said that if I swam in the race on Sunday, I could get in free. So I went down to the 'rocks' (the Bay) and taught myself to swim. I came in last (as I did for many years) but Bunny Fergson Ross, coach at the Western Women's Club in San Francisco, said she'd help me."
To finance the deal, Zada's mother provided the fifty cent yearly fee and her father, who worked for the Market Street Railway, provided her with free tickets for the train and the ferry. In her Tuesday and Thursday crossings of the Bay she watched the building of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
The following year the Western Women's Club became the Marines Memorial and the swim team was dropped. Two alternatives appeared and Zada chose the Crystal Plunge whose coach was Charlie Sava, Hall of Fame coach. It was Charlie Sava who introduced sixteen year old Zada to sixteen year old Ray Taft.
"Ray became a lifeguard and I was cashier, towel girl and cleaned up the women's room. One sunny afternoon I saw Ray walk to the shallow end of the pool. The roof was glass and as he walked the sunlight that shined on him lit him up. He was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen: broad shoulders, trim hips, tall and seemed suspended in the light.
Three years later he asked me to go roller skating with him. I loved it! Weekends we met at the beach to surf or at Fleischaker to train. 'Charlie sent us' was the password. Charlie sent me to Aquatic Park to knock on the door of the Dolphin Club. Free!
There was no dressing room for girls so I left my towel and sweats on the pier, swam around the cove and walked home.
After a year of dating, I asked Ray why he didn't kiss me. 'What for?' he asked."
In 1937 the Golden Gate Bridge opened and swimmers accompanied by rowboats began making the crossing. A man at the Dolphin Club asked Zada if she would like to go rowing with him.
"Yes" she said, "What fun to learn!" The Dolphin Club needed pilots for their annual Golden Gate Swim so she offered. "I asked the man rowing with me if he'd row over to the boat where the swimmers were starting. The gun went off and so did I. It was an easy swim across, right tide."
Asked to get out of the water onto the swimmers' boat, she had her picture taken with the winner, Jack Gear. "It took up a half of the Chronicle's sport page. WOW!"
Two years later, allowed to pilot with another rower—no woman was allowed alone in any rowboats—"I did the same thing, but climbed back into the rowboat and rowed back. But someone told someone and headlines again!"
She continues: "Somewhere about this time, Ray joined the Dolphin Club and did his Golden Gate swims backstroke. Joe Kaufman, our ninety-three year old Masters Marlin swimmer swam on that same day. In those days, the Chronicle reported everyone who finished."
During World War II and married, Ray became a surgical technician in the Philippines and Zada a journeyman welder. Inside a ship being built she broke another kind of record in a seven-hour shift making three passes to weld a vertical 40 feet in one night.
In 1953 after they had moved to Belmont and couldn't find a place to swim, Ray asked if they should start a swim school. He was coach of the Olympic Club which made Zada very proud of him, so she said, "No, I don't want to teach."
However, they got a G.I. loan and opened the Taft Swim School May 1, 1955. To pay for the pool they sold their house, gathered up their three children, and moved in with Zada's mom and stepfather. So there were seven of them in a one bath, two bedroom house. Ray cleaned pools from dawn to nine a.m., opened the school pool, and taught. Zada baby sat, ironed, whatever the Department of Employment had available from day to day. She was finally pressed into service to clean pools with Ray and became the first "pool woman" in Hillsborough. But the hard work began to show results as time passed.
Ray got Zada teaching when one of his pupils, a boy, was almost ready to swim. The boy "did everything I said to do and swam. I was hooked. Ray would send them to me when they could swim with rhythmic breathing and on their backs. I taught them competitive strokes and then they joined the Marlins children's team we started with our first pupils." As the team grew they expanded, renting the Hillsdale High School facilities.
"Ted Stickles was our first national record holder in the 400 IM. His sister, Terri, broke her first national record in the 200-meter free when she was fourteen. She placed third in the 400 free at the 1968 Olympics in Japan. We were so proud of her."
The swim school pool which was indoors continued to be used by Zada for the eight and under swimmers. One year at a relay meet ten of the eight and unders won every relay event for their age group.
"One day a mother asked why her child was having such trouble learning the strokes and turns. I asked her to come to our eleven a.m. class and try it. That answered the question."
Soon there were too many adult swimmers so the Tafts asked Joinville, a San Mateo pool if there was room for them. The answer was yes and the San Mateo Master Marlins are still there.
Zada's landmark swims are awesome accomplishments. In 1953 after a twelve year hiatus she swam from Pier Seven to Treasure Island. Treasure Island is the island attached to Yerba Buena Island through which the Bay Bridge passes. In 1969 Ray went to a Masters meet in Los Angles winning all of his events. The year following both he and Zada won their events and met Buster Crabbe and Ransom Arthur. They missed the first nationals in Texas, their days and evenings too filled with coaching.
Zada lists her swims as follows: "I swam 22 trips across the Golden Gate (one a year) and completed 12 Alcatraz swims. In 1976 we made our first Waikiki swim of approximately 2.5 miles and for seventeen years I won my age group. On my last swim I was second. When I was 65 I swam the Waikiki 7K (the oldest woman) in three hours and 31 minutes. Our first international meet was New Zealand (1984), followed by Japan (1986), Australia (1988), Rio (1990, Indianapolis (1992), Canada (1994), England (1996)."
Zada and Ray have gone to every possible meet in the Pacific Masters, except those missed for Ray's quadruple bypass, her back and knee surgery. Ray continues a battle against prostate cancer and Zada severe osteoporosis. He has made every national and she gets, at least, to one national meet per year.
And now there is a third Taft swimming Masters, daughter Lynne De Victoria, who with one of her brothers, Roy, has taken over the running of the Taft Swim School. The other son, Ray J. Taft (they gave him a different middle name so he would have an identity of his own) is employed by United Airlines. Zada's positive view of the world encompasses the three younger Tafts. She speaks of them as our "wonderful children" and they respond with the same warmth and love as their parents.
On the subject of swimmers: "Swimmers are exceptionally wonderful people. We really like each other, I know, we love them and care for all of them we know. It's always been an exceptionally healthful and delightful environment. My body has given up, but I haven't." She is slower but remains steady and it is her steadiness and her wonderful smile that the rest of us prize.
"My favorite events were all in the San Francisco Bay, then long distance anywhere. Now, thank God, the two mile events also have alternate one mile swims." So on she goes!
Ballad by Robert and Diddo Clark for the 2002 Zada Taft memorial service. © Diddo Clark and Robert Prestegaard, 2002, sung to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon" Zada the Swimmer, In the 1930s, when men wrote ALL the rules, THEY could swim the Golden Gate; women were confined to pools. Sixteen year old Zada yearned to swim the Gate. Pondering ways around the rules, a plan she did create. (Chorus) Zada the swimmer swam far across the Bay, And lived a long and happy life with her dear husband Ray. One Gate-race morning, men flocked to the start. A BROTHERHOOD of daring-do - NOT for the FAINT-OF-HEART. Zada slipped among them, an interloper she. Thirty minutes later and - that gal made history. (Chorus) Zada the swimmer swam far across the Bay, And lived a long and happy life with her dear husband Ray. For 60 years thereafter, Zada swam and loved and laughed, And raised 3 lovely children with her soulmate Ra-ay Taft. Mother of Bay Swimming, 50 years she swam the Gate. Women swim it freely now, with thanks to Zada the Great! (Chorus) Zada the swimmer swam far across the Bay, And lived a long and happy life with her dear husband Ray.