"Swimming just makes me feel good"
Gertrude Johanne Zint was born in 1917 in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, which at that time was Germany's largest navy base at the North Sea. Both her parents were swimmers, swimming breaststroke only. Her mother swam it with a dolphin kick. Gertrude learned to swim 80 years ago when she was five years old.
Gertrude's father left the navy after the war and became a tugboat captain on the Middleland canal which connected the rivers Elbe, Weser, Ruhr, Rheine and later, the Oder. Since her dad was regularly gone for weeks, she and her mother went with him as often as possible. There were strict rules for her on board. "One day I did not follow them" Gertrude said, "I lost a putz, a bucket with a rope to get water from the canal, which I was not allowed to use when the steamer was moving. I pretended to know nothing. Four weeks later the cook came back from vacation and told my father I had drowned it. His daughter, who had been on the bridge as the ship was approaching his home village, had seen me. I confessed. Verdict: I could no longer be on board until I could swim."
Her mother took her to the local swimming pool, which was constructed in the Weser River every year by soldiers using pontoon boats. One side was for the soldiers, the other side was for the general population, and in the middle was a tower with diving boards, one, three and 10 meters. In the beginning, Gertrude practiced the strokes out of the water. Later, wearing a belt with shoulder straps that was connected by a line to a pole on the railing, she practiced the strokes in the water.
Gertrude said, "I climbed a ladder down to the water and that was it. I would not go in. No talking or persuasion helped. Finally my mother took charge and picked me up and threw me in. I screamed as loud as I could, but eventually I did my arm movements." After a week her mother let her go in alone. She stopped screaming and swam. "We had to swim 15 minutes on a loose line. I had to swim it twice, the second time with my mother watching," she said.
Gertrude was also required to jump off the 10-meter board. "I stood on the board and thought about it, but before I finished thinking, I was in the water," Gertrude remembered. "An innocent looking girl had given me a push. It was not as bad as I had thought. I went up again and did it all by myself. I guess they got even for having to listen to all my screaming."
By the time Gertrude celebrated her fifth birthday she had a swimmer certificate and the following year she swam for a half hour in order to get the Stromswimmer (river-swimmer) patch, which was needed to swim in the river.
"Swimming in the river was a lot of fun," remarked Gertrude. "When a big ship went by, we would jump upstream out from the pool and ride the waves downstream to the end. If you missed the ladder, you had to swim farther downstream and walk back ashore. We would also climb on board low barges and ride them for a mile upstream and swim back with the current."
In 1926 her father was transferred to Pillau, the Baltic seaport in East Prussia. Now it is called Baltisc, and is under Russian rule. "My sister and I arrived with a rash we had picked up in the Weser River after the flood," said Gertrude. "The next day my mother took us to the most beautiful beach and clearest water we had ever seen. Since there was no one around except fish and gulls, my mother told us to undress and get in. After two days of swimming, the rash was gone."
On the second day at her new school in Pillau, she was told that she had to take swimming lessons. Nobody believed that she could swim. "I had to swim in the dirtiest water at the end of the harbor, but I even out-swam the boys," she said.
Once a year the three local schools had a competition which consisted of a 50-meter swim for time, a dive from three meters and a distance underwater swim. "You got a balloon attached to your suit and tried to stay straight," said Gertrude. "I always won that combined competition, but not always the 50 meters for time."
Since she found gym and swimming far too easy, she decided to join the Turners, an organization founded in Germany in 1860 that was started to keep people healthy and fit. They taught the basics like running, jumping, throwing, wrestling, climbing, fencing and swimming, for national education. Gertrude had good training and also learned to instruct. Every Turner had to know how to swim for the Reich's Sportabzeichen and they had to pass time trials for the 200-meter swim, but could substitute a 100-meter swim for one of the field events and a 1,000-meter swim for a long distance event like the 2,000-meter run.
They practiced in the summer, but training like today was not available. Back then, training consisted of water polo between the neighborhood kids. "You had to be strong to survive," said Gertrude. "The waves could get very high."
One winter day she went with the swim club to Koenigsberg for a swimming competition in the Palestrina, the only indoor pool. Gertrude said, "I was agog and remember noting that I felt fenced in. I never again swam in an inside pool until I came to the USA."
The harbor in front of their house on the shipyard peninsula was the meeting place of all the kids living in that area. Swimming in the harbor was forbidden, but the police were only on the city side. "We swam over when the air was clean," said Gertrude. "The best fun was to turn sailboats around. When they headed out we would turn the boat back. Some of us would push the front and others the back, then we would disappear and watched how they struggled to get on their way again."
In 1932 Gertrude went to college in Koenigsburg. That year, Pillau hosted the big Haffcrossing swim, 13.5 kilometers from Pillau to Balga accompanied by rowboats and motorboats. It was the fourth time that swimmers attempted the swim. Gertrude's father was against her competing, but my mother gave her permission. She started the race with 13 other swimmers. A half hour into the swim a storm blew up and three of the swimmers got seasick and gave up. The motorboats had to run for shelter and Gertrude finally went to shore after four hours and 20 minutes. "I had to wait in the water until a rowboat came that had shorts available," she said. "My suit had split during the swim." They had to walk five kilometers to the next harbor to find the motorboats with their clothes and it wasn't until after the wind calmed down that they were able to drive home. The event was never repeated because no one wanted the responsibility.
After college, Gertrude worked for the city running the library and helping out at the adjacent social services office. She also instructed the female Turners, was a lifeguard on weekends and taught swimming for the swim club, her only income, since the city was as broke as the German government.
From 1935 to 1936 she was in the Arbeits Dienst helping the farmers with the harvest. "We swam in the Elbing River after work to relax and to clean up," said Gertrude.
In 1937, when Gertrude was 19, she was accepted to a nursing school in Saxony. It was a very progressive school because besides having regular classes they also had "sport" every morning and every afternoon for one hour. "The sport teacher came every second day and I had to direct the other days and give swimming lessons," Gertrude said. "Every nurse had to be able to swim and pass the test of the German Sportabzeichen." But that lasted only the first year because by the next year, her nursing studies took over completely.
In 1939 Gertrude passed the state board in Hamburg, was transferred to a village in Danzig, and became a nurse practitioner, taking care of several villages. She also helped the youth organization with sport and swimming, which they did in the river Weichsel.
In 1941 she was transferred to Kulm as county head nurse. That city had a swimming pool where Gertrude enjoyed swimming with her nurses.
When the Russians neared in 1945, she escaped as far west as possible, arriving in the costal town of Swinemunde. At that time it was the middle of north Germany, but now it is in Poland. Gertrude reflected, "I was put to work at an emergency hospital for fleeing people. There was no time to swim. On March 12, we got hit by a bomb. I was still recovering at the end of the war and tried to flee again, but the Russians were faster and took us back to Swinemunde."
Gertrude's next job was with a venereal disease specialist, checking all the women on order of the Russian Command, since 90% had been raped. "The ones that got away were the ones that could outrun the conquerors," said Gertrude.
The city had just started to function again in the fall of 1945, when the Poles took over and robbing and fighting started up again. The dermatologist moved over the border to Germany. Her mother did not believe that the middle of Germany was suddenly Poland and did not want to move, so Gertrude worked in the Polish hospital, and later in the Russian Navy hospital. "At that time I found a bathing suit in a ditch," Gertrude said, "where you oftentimes found what you needed, and we Germans snuck to the Polish beach for swimming. We practiced long swims so we would be able to swim over to Germany, five miles away, if we should need to."
After she got her family out and safe to West Germany, she followed in 1947. "I got a job in my profession and joined the Turners again in competition and swimming."
In 1952 she had her papers to America and joined her uncle's family in Chicago. She got a job as a nurse and also joined the local Turners (brought over to the United States by German emigrants) and swam at the YMCA.
It wasn't until 1981 that she heard about Masters from an older ice skating friend who had to miss a lesson, because of a swim competition. He put her in touch with Ingrid Stine, then the president of the Shabbona Sharks. Gertrude joined the team and tried to learn all the strokes, but for a long time swam breaststroke only, even in the freestyle events. That spring, when she was 64 years old, she entered a Central Masters competition. She swam the 100 IM, not knowing if she could make the 25 fly, and got second in her age class with a time of 1:53.40. She also swam five new records: the 200 breast in 3:58.12; 100 breast in 1:42.80; 50 breast in 43.96; 100 back in 1:46.4; and 50 back in 47.58. In the 500 freestyle, she got third place swimming breaststroke in 10:39.23, and second place in the 50 free with a breaststroke time of 43.16. She also swam on the mixed 200 free relay, which placed first in a time of 2:25.03. "That was my most memorable swim in the states," Gertrude remembered. "I framed the medals and still have them, which is how I know the times."
She attended her first long course nationals in 1981 in Canton, Ohio. "My teammate Gladys Olsen drove there and took me along and showed me the ropes, as well as my competitors. They all looked so impressive! I was seated with the younger group ahead and was not nervous. I knew if I could keep up with them, I had a chance to win, and I did!" She still remembers her 50 breaststroke time of 52.43.
That year she made All-American, which she did not find out until two years later and had no idea what it meant. Gertrude said, "I kept it up for 19 years, missing only one year (1992) when I swam records in Germany, which were rejected by the USMS registrar because I had not asked for permission. I did not know I needed permission!" She was able to repeat her records the following year in Orlando.
Gertrude had her hip replaced in 1997 and missed receiving All-American status that years. She has been an All-Star five times (1988-1989, 1993-1995). Gertrude said, "I remember the gifts from the final; two warmup suits, one parka and two swim suits. I cherish them and take care of them and they are still in good condition, except for the swim suits, which are worn out."
Gertrude moved to Florida in 1984 when she retired. She swam unattached until she and Betty McCormack found the Edgewater Neptunes. It was a small 12-member club, but they sent about 10 people to the nationals in Fort Pierce. "We trained at Aqua Park in Edgewater," said Gertrude, "but to our sorrow we kept shrinking. The young people moved out of town and the older members got sick and died. The club eventually folded."
Gertrude joined the Lumber Jacks and went with them to the world meet in Brisbane in 1988, Brazil in 1990, and Montreal in 1994. When the Lumber Jacks hit a slump she was the only member of the club at some meets. "I like company, said Gertrude, "so I joined the Community College Masters in Fort Pierce and represented them in Munchen in 2000. Because they very seldom got to swim relays, which Gertrude enjoys, she joined the Maverick Masters in St. Petersburg when she found out they were old friends of hers from Chicago. In 2002 she swam at the world meet in New Zealand and the national long course in Cleveland, where her relay set a national record in the 200 free women 320+ with a time of 3:46.42.
Gertrude attends all the meets that she can afford and attends national meets at least once a year, using the trips, near and far, to do sightseeing, visit historic places and socialize with the swimmers.
Her swim training has never been intense, swimming short practices, three to four times a week. She manages 200 yards of each stroke and some light kicking and pulling. Some days she will swim the 200 through and on other days she does 50 or 100 of each stroke. She also swims at the beach for long stretches, which she likes more than swimming in pools. She has swum twice around Key West with a relay team. "Swimming just makes me feel good. My goal is to swim as long as possible, improve my freestyle and swim an easy 100-meters butterfly." said Gertrude. "I try to improve my stroke technique, but I do not get any faster." Her other activities are rowing, biking, and skiing.
Gertrude has never been married and has no children. Her sister and her sister's children and grandchildren all swim regularly, "because it makes them feel better."
Until 2002, she volunteered at the New Smyrna Art Center and also worked for the Salvation Army. "I have retired fully now and have enough to do with my garden, house and swimming," Gertrude replied.
"Good bye. See you in a pool."