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by Cheryl Gettelfinger

July 19, 2011

A lifetime of swimming

Although Marty Mennen began swimming at age nine, he did not compete until he was in the 11-12 age group. He was a state champion for Louisville Male High School (100 butterfly), (he believes it was 10th grade) before swimming for Williston Academy in Massachusetts where he was the "slow" guy on an All-American relay which was third in the country for prep schools.

While living in the Louisville area, Marty swam for teams including: River Ridge Club, Colonial Club, Clarksville, Fountain Ferry Park, Louisville Y, Lakeside Club and Plantation Club. (Rumor has it that each team asked him to leave because he was goofing off in practice.) One of his famous coaches was Ralph Wright, founder of Plantation Swim Club, Louisville Y Aquatic Director, former national champion and the namesake of the new University of Louisville Aquatic Center.

Before college and in his early years of swimming, Marty enjoyed a scattershot approach to swimming. One of the interesting events in which he participated included the annual Ohio River Swim which started in Jeffersonville and finished in Louisville and was scored like cross country. One father requested coast guard current charts so he could tell his daughter where to begin her swim. The secret was to swim straight and let the current push you gently down river toward the finish which was at Turner's Boat Club. The most fascinating swim event, however, was one in which he, unfortunately, did not get a chance to  compete. This was a "professional " swim competition which took place in the Ft. Lauderdale area and involved charging an entry fee, charging spectators and awarding a prize of $300 to $500 to the winner. The competition lasted less than two hours and involved a series of elimination races of 50 yards each. Swimmers entered seed times and advanced in head to head races with a staggered start. For instance, if you had a seed time one second faster than your competitor, then you were sent off one second later and whoever finished first advanced to the next race. The way to keep the swimmer honest was if his prediction was more than one second off (he seeded himself too slowly), he was automatically disqualified and his opponent moved on. Successive heats would eliminate those not beating their opponents. Finally, one swimmer survived and took home the money. Marty's friend, who organized this 1980s business venture, remains convinced that it still has merit. And imagine how much easier it would be to do now with electronic timing!

Marty also remembers one of his coaches telling him to drink copious amounts of a honey and orange juice drink shortly before the start of a 1500. This sounded good, but it was not a good idea. Marty dabbled in other sports and did not swim in a year round program until he joined Masters. The most surprising thing is that Marty hated backstroke because there were no backstroke flags and often no lane lines. Because he was slow at conventional backstroke, he experimented with double over-arm backstroke, but gave it up when he continually attracted lifeguards who thought he was drowning. Strangely enough, this guy who originally didn't like backstroke currently holds the world championship meet record for the 200 backstroke for ages 70-74 and has the sixth fastest of all time in the world for 100 back in the same age group. Wow.

College years were spent initially at Williams College under the 1956 Olympic Coach, Bob Muir, who despite his best efforts could not get Marty to even dream about being good enough to make the Olympic team. Later, Marty graduated from the University of Louisville as co-captain of the swim team.

Marty's national and international accomplishments didn't begin until he started into Masters swimming. His first meet in 1972 was okay; however, he didn't finish higher than third. Nevertheless, he has fond memories of his start in Masters swimming. He remembers swimming on a relay with Doc Counsilman, Doug Strong and Fred Lurie. And he remembers tabbing Doug as: "The guy who beat Tarzan." because Buster Crabbe quit in the middle of a 400 heat while swimming against Doug and others. Marty left Masters until he turned 50, coming back in 1990 at the Woodlands Nationals where he won his first three national championships. After a ten year hiatus, he joined Mel Goldstein's team in 2002. As long as he is healthy, he plans to continue for many more years. Marty's accomplishments are breathtaking when you consider that since his return he has: 18 individual All-American swims, six relay All-American swims, 130 top tens, 19 of which are first place, 29 relay top tens, six of which are first place and in FINA (world) top ten 24 times, in six of which he was number one in the world! I think it's fair to say that Marty learned his backstroke and for that matter a little bit about freestyle.

Marty is known as a cut-up on the team, and he considers it a great accomplishment that he often is able to keep the coaches off balance. Some of those stories? well?

written by Cheryl Gettelfinger


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