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A View From Behind the Berlin Wall

From the GDR to Florida Masters coach

Carl House | April 20, 2002

Kathleen Nord (Schwartz) started swimming at age six. At age nine she was identified as a promising athlete by the Ministry of Gymnastics and Sports of the German Democratic Republic and invited to attend a special school that would develop her talent. Twenty students nine years old entered in her class for a combined program that required continuing academic performance and athletic excellence. Athletics at this school included track and field, canoeing, sculling, swimming, and gymnastics. Between scholastics and athletics, it was athletics that got priority. School was not allowed to interfere with swim camps or competition, and much of her studies were alone as she struggled to do what was needed to pass exams while travelling. By the fifth year of this school, she was the only student left from the twenty that had managed to compete and get passing grades and at this point her teacher pupil ratio became one to one. While we might be envious, she says it was really bad. "When anyone did anything wrong they knew immediately who to blame".

Her first international competition came at the age of 13 and at age 16 she went to the 1982 World Championships in Ecuador, placing second in the 400 IM. She made the East German Olympic team in 1984 at age 19 and arrived in Los Angeles at the peak condition of her life. Only days before competition was to begin, East Germany gave in to Russian pressure and agreed to boycott the Olympics as the United States had done in Moscow four years before. One can only imagine the confusion and anger within her as Kathleen, age 19, went on television in a press conference with her teammates and obediently testified that "it is right that we boycott the Olympics."

She won the 400 IM and took third in the 200 IM in the 1986 World Championships in Madrid and in 1988 she went to Seoul for her chance at the Olympics. She took fifth in the 400 IM in the first day of the meet. Her coach felt that was not good enough and badgered her all week until her final event, the 200 fly. Mary T. Meagher was the world record holder and the favorite. Mary T. was given lane three and Kathleen was placed next to her in lane four. Another East German, Berta Weigang, was placed in lane five. Berta started as a sprinter and won a substantial lead in the first 50 with Mary T. slightly behind and Kathleen third. Fueled with anger from her coach's badgering and her lost opportunity four years before in Los Angeles, Kathleen began slowly pulling up on Mary T. and passed her in the third 50 and continued to gain on her sprinter teammate. Kathleen likes to come from behind. She likes being the one that is in control, the one that is applying the pressure, and she is a very strong finisher. She won by an arm length.

Kathleen won the 200 fly again in the 1989 European Championship and took third in the 100 fly. And she renewed her friendship with "Biggi" Lohberg who had been a West German rival during the previous ten years. The "Wall" had come down that year, and Biggi and her coach husband, Michael Lohberg, invited Kathleen to come to America. She came for four weeks of swimming at Mission Bay in 1990 and then returned to resume her study of law at her East German University. In the reorganization of East and West Germany her law program was cancelled in January, 1992. She responded again to the standing invitation from Biggi and Michael Lohberg and came to Florida again. In her year and a half in Florida, she has been studying at Palm Beach Community College, which has a splendid program for helping students not fluent in English.

Conversation with Kathleen reveals remarkable contrasts between East Germany and America. There was no awareness of poverty or homelessness in East Germany. Everyone had enough to eat and a home. Her first encounter with poverty was at the World Championships in Ecuador when she and her teammates fed a family for a week by sneaking food from the hotel dining room and giving it to a beggar. On the other hand, because school was not allowed to conflict with sports, she and Kristin Otto were the only top female swimmers of their era in East Germany who completed high school. Her parents had not joined the Communist party, so many avenues of opportunity were not open to her. She felt that swimming was her only chance to take charge of her life. And take charge she did.

We are indeed fortunate to have Kathleen Nord as one of our Gold Coast Masters coaches.

Published originally in the June, 1993 issue of the "Florida Gold Coast LMSC News"

 

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