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London 1948 Champ Ann Curtis Passes

Jul 6, 2012  - Craig Lord


Ann Curtis Cuneo, an Olympic swimming champion from San Francisco, one of the names of the 1948 London Games and founder of her own swim club, died on Tuesday this week at home in San Rafael, California, a month before the Games return to the British capital. She was 86. 

Curtis won the 400m freestyle in an Olympic record, helped the US win the 4x100m and took silver in the 100m freestyle. Not a bad count considering women had just five events to go for in those days. 

The leading woman freestyler of the immediate post-war era, Curtis never held a metres world record: she swam at a time when global standards could be set in pools of various dimensions, her long-course metres times not fast enough to surpass the efforts of others in 25-metre and short-course yards pools. 

Curtis won 34 National AAU swimming championships in a career that lasted from 1943 to 1948. That record was finally surpassed by Tracy Caulkins in 1981; and Caulkins still has the standard among women, with Michael Phelps the only swimmer to have gone beyond her tally.

Coached by Hall of Famer Charlie Sava, Curtis was a middle distance ace but could stretch to sprinting, winning her national 100 yard and 100-metre titles six times. Over 400m, she won the crowns metres and yards nine times and also claimed 200, 800 and 1500 titles.

Curtis was undefeated as she approach the Olympic 400m final with Karen-Margrete Harup (DEN) and Catherine Gibson (GBR). She won the crown in 5:17.8, an Olympic record 17.7sec shy of the world mark that had been held by Ragnhild Hveger since 1940. Hverger was unable to race: she was banned by her country for "collaborating" because she had taught soldiers fighting for the Nazis to swim during the war years. She was later pardoned and in 1952, at 31, returned to the fray and finished 5th in the 400m at Helsinki Games. 

Curtis, meanwhile, was taught to swim by nuns at the Ursuline Convent in Santa Rosa, California, where she attended boarding school. At 11, she made her racing debut at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco and by 15 tried out for a place on Sava's Crystal Plunge swim team.

Sava was unimpressed but Florence Curtis, the girl's mother, pleaded with him to give her a chance. Curtis took to training seven days a week, covering 3 miles a day. All the while, she was excelling at school too:she graduated from Washington High School and attended the University of California at Berkeley. Since Cal did not have a women's swim team in those days, Curtis travelled twice a day from Berkeley to Treasure Island for training.

The Games of 1944 were cancelled because of the war Germany had plunged the world into. Curtis would have made the 1944 team but it was not to be. The Sullivan Award and AP woman athlete of the year came her way in 1944 but she had to wait four more years to have her chance of Olympic glory, by then aged 22.

One of the rewards for excelling at the London Games was an invitation to Buckingham Palace to meet the Royal Family and the then-Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen of England.

Back home in San Francisco, Curtis was honoured with a ticker tape parade down Market Street, received the keys to the city and a Chevrolet convertible and featured on the cover of Colliers, Newsweek and several other leading magazines of the day. A year later, she married her college sweetheart, Gordon Cuneo.

The couple met at Cal where Gordon played basketball. he was a starting forward on the basketball team. Inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1966 and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1983, she was voted one of the "50 Most Significant Bay Area Sports Figures of the Century" in 1999.

Curtis would look back on her Olympic achievements as secondary to what she became most proud of: building and operating the Ann Curtis School of Swimming in San Rafael. In 1959, she was expecting a fourth child just as the family moved to San Rafael. She organised the building of a swimming pool, while her husband built the offices, changing rooms and pump room during his spare time and at weekends. Sava designed the teaching pool, shallow throughout, while his philosophy - that skill repetition acquires muscle memory - was adopted as policy.

When the donkey work was done, a swim club was born. Curtis coached a swim team for 25 years and a synchro team for 12 years. Today, the facility remains a swim school and private swim club, more than 40,000 children having passed through and come out swimming. Among alumni are Rick Demont (inaugural world champion 400m and 1500m, 1973, and an Olympic champion in 1972 before falling foul of a test for an asthma drug prescribed by US team doctors), a coach at Ford Tuscon in Arizona, and Ben Wildman-Tobriner (who swam heats of the 4x100m free in Beijing and ended the day an Olympic gold medal winner).

The couple's daughter Carrie now runs the swim programme. One report on the club had a woman employee saying of Curtis: "As amazingly accomplished as she was, she was extremely humble, hard-working, and very self-assured. She showed me what it means to be a strong woman, without sacrificing her femininity. She is irreplaceable and has touched so many thousands of people for the better. I am so grateful to have known her and learned from her grace." 

Ann Curtis Cuneo lived to see her husband and their son Bill pass away. She is survived by Carrie, Susan, David and Brian, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A memorial service and reception will take place on Saturday, July 21 in San Rafael. Donations may be made to the Ann Curtis Cuneo Swimming Scholarship Fund at UC Berkeley (call 001 510 643-0888 for details).