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Remembering Ella Peckham

Came to competition late, but always enjoyed water

Author Unknown | August 14, 2000

When Ella Peckham (1899-1991) started working out with the Walnut Creek Masters in January 1981 she could barely swim 25 yards across Clarke Pool. Within six months she held six national records in the 80-84 year age group. "I am surprised" she said, "here I had all these capabilities and I wasn't competing."

Ella was not a newcomer to water—just competitive swimming. She was a water safety instructor with the Red Cross for 40 years. Since 1948 she was an accredited judge for synchronized swimming touring Europe as a judge.

Ella learned to swim in the ocean after her family moved to Santa Barbara. "We had a house on a hill with a bath house down the hill. Every morning we'd run down there, change our clothes and swim in the ocean all day. My mother never asked where we were."

Ella Peckham founded a World War II child care center in Oakland. She taught at Meadow Home Elementary School in Oakland for 20 years. During that time she remained active at the Oakland Y ("I was a fixture there.") teaching and serving as a lifeguard. The only time she got into the water was when she had to pull someone out.

It was at the Y that Peckham and several friends heard about the Senior Olympics. She was the only one who tried out. She didn't think there would be too much competition in her age group. After her triumphs in the Senior Olympics with virtually no practice, she though that it was fun and decided to join the Masters program in Walnut Creek.

She was recruited by Bill Johnson, a Walnut Creek Master swimmer and she joined in January 1981. Under the tutelage of coach Kerry O'Brien she soon started to fit into the practice drills, even kicking across the pool.

Five days a week, she drove (in her Thunderbird) 25 miles from Hillsborough (Oakland) to Heather Farms Park in Walnut Creek.

In her first meet she competed in only one event, the 50-yard backstroke, her favorite stroke. Soon thereafter she competed in five events, the 50, 100 back, 50, 100 breast and 50 free. For the breaststroke she had to unlearn the wedge kick and learn the whip kick so not to get disqualified. Every time she swam she would lower her times and soon started to break records. She competed in the UC Irvine Nationals and lowered the 50 back record to 1:01.

In June of 1981, the then 82 year old swimmer, competed in a long course meet in Walnut Creek and chopped off l4 seconds in the 50-meter back from 1:25 (a previous standard) to 1:11.26. She also broke the record in the 50 free.

She continued to train diligently and started to set her goals to compete on the international scene. She traveled to Australia and Japan to the world championships. She was active until she was 89 and on her 90th birthday she was involved in an automobile accident. Her injuries were severe, but she survived. Her swimming career ended and she passed away at age 92.

She was an inspiration to all of us and we loved her.

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