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by Ronnie Kamphausen

April 2, 2002

Finding his groove in backstroke

For many Masters, when it comes to picking our events at meets, we "play the field"—trying to find that magic event that yields success. In the case of Connecticut Masters' John Merrill, after 85 years, he must have done all his "playing around." He’s settled long ago into a backstroke groove where he's been honing his skills to near perfection. In backstroke, this Master rises to the surface, like the cream of the crop!

Witness any meet, and you're likely to find John on his back and doing his all as a Connecticut Master. When a distance event is on the docket, you guessed it; John does it on his back. The truth of the matter is: John's backstroke 1650 is faster than that distance in freestyle! That in itself tells you something about this special phenomenon called John Merrill.

After high school in Buffalo, N.Y., John attended the New York State Merchant Marine Academy. There he continued his tradition of strong swimming established in high school. On one occasion in 1936, he swam an exhibition backstroke event with Olympian Walter Spence in Bermuda. He swam in a meet against the Panamanian Olympic Team in Balboa, Panama.

In the United States Coast Guard from 1938-1951, his assignments included International Iceberg Patrol (1940), Ketchikan, Alaska (1942-1944), U.S. Coast Guard Radio Engineering and Maintenance School at Avery Point Groton, Connecticut (1944-1951).

After WWII, John stopped swimming competitively until the early 1970s when he caught wind of the fledgling Masters program.

In 1973, John earned the most points in a New England Regional Meet among swimmers 55-59 years. Four years later, he won a gold in the 200 backstroke at the nationals in Fort Lauderdale. He continues to make his mark locally and nationally in his forte, backstroke. This year, as he ages up to 85, look for the records to be challenged again. John is one swimmer, however, who doesn't wait for the advantage of being the youngest in an age group. He said recently, he finds it an added incentive to be the best at the top of his age group! In Connecticut, John owns the backstroke records as he cruises through the upper age groups. He has also been an important cog on team relays.

John makes his home in Waterford (wouldn't you know he would pick that town?) where he built his house, and with wife Josephine raised five kids. Son Justin cranks up as a potent freestyle sprinter, so you may find two Merrills on the starting blocks in a given meet. Daughter Jan would do well if she'd hang up her running shoes, but no one is encouraging this former Olympian to abandon that skill for an aquatic plunge. One of these days we hope to see these three corral another family member for a Merrill Medley - sum of the ages - a sure winner!

But there's more here than meets the chlorine-clouded eye. His primary career (1951-79) was at the Naval Underwater Systems Center in New London, Conn., as an electronic engineer in submarine electromagnetics; and as Head of the Submarine Electromagnetic Systems Department. John has witnessed, and been a part of, the technological changes in the Navy's submarine communications systems. After retirement, he returned to the center to assist in developing the Navy's first video teleconferencing facility. He has written a history of the Navy Underwater Systems Center, and taught at the Universities of Buffalo, Hartford, New Haven, Fairfield, and Mitchell College in Electrical Engineering, Math, Physics and Computer Science.

Yes, John wears many hats—as scientist, professor, historian—but we Masters are happiest when he dons the Conn. cap, because we know he will "bust his butt" for the team. First, however, John has to satisfy himself. His satisfaction comes not just in winning, but in measuring his performance against what he's done and hopes to do in the future. He also claims to derive satisfaction from rapping with his swimming colleagues—and this, Dear John, is mutual!