Becoming a Masters swimmer "saved my life"
Where to begin? My mother held me up by the back of my suit and taught me at the age of three to swim heads up breaststroke. After that two of my brothers took over. They taught me to do the crawl.
My brother, Jim, six years older went on to become chief of staff at Brooklyn Eye and Ear. My brother, Frank, eight years older went on to become head moving picture operator at Radio City Music Hall and president of the M.P.O. Union. My oldest brother was in World War I. He also won a gold medal running the Wanamaker mile. My next oldest brother graduated from Columbia Law School. He became a well-respected lawyer in Brooklyn. I had five brothers in all with the requisite amount of doctors and lawyers in the family—all the Italian families had them. I had one sister 17 years older.
We lived on Graves End Bay in Brooklyn and at age 12, I, along with my brothers were swimming in the meets the Yacht Clubs held at the end of the summer. Medals were not given at these meets. Silver loving cups of all sizes and shapes were given.
There was a hiatus of a few years. I went to New Utrecht High School. They had a swimming pool and I won all kinds of honors for my swimming.
In 1931, a year before graduation, I joined the Dragon Club at the Hotel St. George. They had a warm salt-water pool thirty-one yards long. It was a coed club and I had lots of fun. I met the Spence brothers when I was a young teen and Wally told me I had very flexible ankles and that I would be a very good swimmer one day.
We had what they called "handicap" races in those days. If you were fast, they were awful races. The gun would go off and then the starter would start counting. I waited for as many as 14 seconds sometimes before I could start to swim. Consequently, the only time a fast swimmer got a chance for first places was at Championship meets. I wasn't getting many firsts as a freestyler.
And then Johnny Wicklun came into my life. He suggested that I swim backstroke. The handicappers didn't know my times and I could get away with a little bit of murder. That is when I really took off. I set new backstroke records in the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard events. I set an American record for the 50-yard backstroke and many other NY Metropolitan records. I really had a ball.
My closest competitors were the Kompo sisters. They were two beautiful blond girls. We took turns beating each other in the handicap races. When it came to the Championship races I out swam them every time. 1934 was a very good year.
In 1936, I taught the blind to swim at the Light House on Lexington Avenue and East 59th Street. It was a rewarding time in my life. I was 22 and doing something constructive. I had to have a Senior Lifeguard Examiners Certificate and it had to be renewed every year. When Captain Scully, headman at the Red Cross, asked why I renewed every year since I wasn't working as a lifeguard, I explained that I wouldn't be allowed to teach the blind without it. This was volunteer work. From then on, Captain Scully would have a ball at my expense. He would take me down to the bottom of the pool. I would have to yank him up to the top to be able to break the holds he put on me. I never let on that I was annoyed. I think he really liked me.
Johnny Wicklun was the star swimmer at the Dragon Club. He had world and national records in backstroke. He was the first swimmer to use over arm breaststroke (butterfly) in competition. Coach Kiputh of Yale disqualified the Dragon Club relay team. He said Johnny wasn't swimming the legitimate breaststroke. Eventually, he reversed his decision and the butterfly was born.
The St. George was in financial trouble and the swimming club was the first to go. Johnny was invited to join the Downtown Athletic Club. He declined. He was busy getting ready to join the NYC Fire Department. He made it in June 1938 and we were married September 11, 1938. I did not compete in swimming for 47 years.
In 1950, we had a summer home in New Fairfield, Conn., and became full-time residents in 1960. I have two lovely daughters who are so good to me. I don't know if I deserve it. There were no pools in Danbury. I only swam in the summer time in Candlewood Lake. I learned to slalom ski when I was 47 years old. I bowled and ended up on a championship team.
Then tragedy struck. At age 64, Johnny was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease. I took care of him for seven years. I suffered from tension headaches and medication did not help. God said, "Get in the water, Marie." I talk to God a lot! By that time we had a 20-yard pool at the Danbury "Y". I swam three times a week and my headaches were gone.
In 1980, I became a Master swimmer and it saved my life. I had something to live for—the people I met, the exercise, the fun! In 1981, I won my first All-American certificate. The rest is history. Newspaper clippings and interviews tell the rest of the story. I just can't put it all down. It sounds like bragging.
I thank God every day for all my blessings. Especially, I thank him for Nancy Monastero. Without her, I would not be swimming today. She swims in the 35-39 year age group. She drives me to all the swim meets. She is also typing this history. My typing is not as efficient as hers is. I'm OK on a short haul, but this very long letter would do me in.
I cannot leave you without telling you the joke that goes around in all the athletic circles. The relay team was wondering if they had swimming meets in heaven. They decided whoever died first would try to get back to them with the news. Gus was the first to go. He appeared to Peter and said, "I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is yes they have swimming teams up here. The bad news is you will be on the team next week."