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Marjorie's Story

Swam joyfully back from grievous injury

Marjorie Sharpe | May 23, 2001

Thirty years ago when I was fifty, If anyone had suggested that I might be writing this account when I was eighty, I would have laughed at the idea, perhaps even a bit hysterically. Bedridden most of the time for four years following an auto accident, three operations to restore my spine to something like normal and a prognosis as dim as possible, I was in the process of changing from the too warm water of therapy pools to the cooler water of a small pool in which I could try, at least, to move through the water under my own power.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know how to swim. My mother told the tale that when I was less than three and had given my grandfather a terrible time about getting out of the wading pool, in desperation, he took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants legs to pursue me in the water. Catching me at last, he flung me into my mother's arms yelling to be heard over my indignant screams, "This child must be taught to swim"! Three days later, he had thought it over and took up the challenge.

Living in the heat of California's San Joaquin Valley where summer temperatures could be well over 100° day after day, swimming was one way to keep cool. For me, however, it was more than that, I loved being in the water. I enrolled in Red Cross swimming classes, watched more experienced swimmers to improve my own stroke and read everything I could about Gertrude Ederle, Dorothy Poynton, Florence Chadwick, watched Johnny Weissmuller and all the other swimmers and divers of the time.

There was no swimming in my high school’s physical education curriculum and by the time I reached UCLA it never occurred to me to pursue my swimming except for enjoyment. Graduate schools at UCLA, USC and Stanford kept me busy, but for years I was never without a swim suit, cap and towel in my car. Any puddle of water deep enough to cover my body enticed me and I was prepared.

I was working on a graduate degree at UCLA in the mid-fifties when Dorothy Poynton, the diver from the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, opened a swim school near the campus. In addition to lessons in swimming and diving, the pool was available for recreational swimming. I took advantage of the opportunity to swim regularly. Dorothy made suggestions about improving my freestyle stroke and taught me to dive. When I finished my degree at UCLA I came to Stanford for an advanced degree and again the demands on time and energy allowed little time for swimming regularly.

For some years I have felt that my life was divided into three quite separate segments with all three held together by my swimming. The first portion came to an abrupt conclusion in March 1963. On my way to San Francisco State College where I had been on the faculty for four years, I was involved in an auto accident. The next five years were spent virtually "living in a bed." Pain became a regular part of my existence. There were three spinal operations, long hospital stays, physiotherapy and the final recognition that to return to teaching an impossibility. But swimming became a more important activity.

In water I was relatively free of pain. I learned to use Canadian crutches and began walking with them. My husband was and is fantastic. He saw to it that I got to pools (he still does, gets up at 4:30 a.m. to get me to the early morning workouts at Stanford).

So, late sixties we were living at Parkmerced in San Francisco and I had retired. I was reading, writing and swimming. Al had an opportunity to attend a world conference of psychology in London so I went along, crutches and all.

The following year we returned to England, renting a small trailer and car. I swam whenever and wherever we found a pool open. Then in 1972 Al was diagnosed with cancer. After the surgery, he was urged to retire, he was expected to live no more than a year. He is still here and will be 85 in November 1997.

In 1974 we decided to move to England, where we had made many friends and there was so much we wanted to see. So with my crutches, Al's medication and letters detailing our "conditions" we went off to live the "gypsy life." And I began to know all the best swimming pools in Western Europe.

When we returned to the United States in 1977 we settled in Tampa, Fla., where the swimming was wonderful but the weather a disaster. The humidity caused all sorts of difficulties so we returned in the early eighties, to Spain, which gave us all of the things we needed: water, mountains and moderate climate. And for the next eight years I swam almost every morning in the Mediterranean across the Play de la Fosse—the Levante Beach, at what had been a fishing village, Calpe, on the Costa Blanca between Valencia and Alicante.

Swimming the two kilometers across the bay and back was a glorious experience. The crystal clear water, the schools of fish, the marine plants plus the increasing strength of my swimming made for an ideal situation. I could walk down the sixty steps to the beach and into the water while Al walked along the beach in one direction than back on the paseo to wait for me to make my return swim.

I wrote on Spanish politics and other topics of interest to non-Spanish speaking residents for a monthly English language magazine. We were active in the local International Club (the only Americans). I swam, studied French and Spanish with the result that all three improved.

In 1989 I returned to the States for a fourth operation on my back. And the swimming went on. However, the dollar had been slowly losing its value and with the rising inflation in Spain, our income was not adequate for us to remain and maintain return trips to the United States. So in the fall of 1990 we came back to settle in Redwood City. I was devastated without my morning swim until I began, in February 1991, to swim laps at the Sequoia YMCA and found it oh, so boring to follow that black line.

The Masters coach suggested I join the Masters team and so began my regular instruction, my entry into competitive swimming and the third segment of my life. In June, I swam the one mile at Lake Berryessa, first in my age group. Then followed Lake Sonoma, Del Valle, and in August, the 2.7 mile Donner Lake swim—my favorite. I did not swim in any pool competitions until 1993 when I swam my first 1650 at the PMS Championships at Stanford followed by the national SCY at Santa Clara.

Along the way I found wonderful friends among the swimmers I met. Zada and Ray Taft gave me valuable advice and encouragement, Jean Durston and others in my age group helped with their friendship and support. Then I began to add other distances. I was fearful in view of my spine's vulnerability, of diving from the blocks and doing flip turns. Zada insisted I should learn these and my coaches shepherded me through learning them. I swam for a short time with Woodside Hills Aquatics, but left to go to Stanford following my coach, Chris Morgan.

I swim three or four mornings a week usually an hour to an hour and a half covering 2,000 to 2,500 meters per workout. Workouts are designed to provide aerobic, threshold and quality sessions spaced through the week. We swim in a 50-meter pool with opportunities to use a 25-yard pool from time to time. As a distance swimmer who has "shrunk" to middle distance and sprint events, I enjoy the 50-meter pool. I have learned to do flip turns in the past few years and added backstroke flips this spring. After several experiences of feeling very unstable standing on the blocks, I found a "track" start made better use of my strong upper body and my less damaged left leg. I have restricted my swimming to freestyle and backstroke because of my back injuries. However, Gail Roper insists that with my upper body strength I could add fly to my repertory. I am working on it.

Stanford has played an important role in my life. It provided me with a marvelous academic life, I met my husband there and my experience as a member of Stanford Masters have been totally fulfilling. It has given me wonderful supportive friends as well as superb coaching.

This has been an amazing year for me. Partly as a result of "ageing up" and partly as a result of swimming better (some of my times have been lifetime bests) I have set many new records for my age group. However, my success has been due, in large measure, to the support of my husband, my coaches, my teammates and the swimmers I have come to know. I believe that what we accomplish we rarely do alone. I am fortunate to have genes that produced a body that works well; the years on crutches have produced great upper body strength; I enjoy challenges and am willing to make the effort to meet them; and last, but not least, the people in my life have made it possible for me to develop such talent as I have.

Marjorie Sharpe (1917-2005) died on October 10, 2005 after suffering a stroke two months earlier

Marjorie W. Sharpe lived in Redwood City, Calif., and swam for Stanford Masters.

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