Ray Taft, Masters Swimming Giant, Passes Away at 82

By Carl House and Phillip Whitten

SAN MATEO, Calif., July 21. MASTERS Swimming giant, Ray Taft, 82, passed away yesterday. The cause of death is not yet known, but Ray suffered a stroke shortly before the USMS Nationals in May and had been fighting to recover ever since.

One of the most beloved figures in Masters Swimming, and the lifelong partner of his beloved wife, Zada, Ray
first joined USMS in 1970, shortly after its founding.
The Tafts also co-founded the San Mateo Marlins Masters swim team.

In 1979 Ray and Zada were awarded the coveted Ransom Arthur Award, and in 1996 he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Masters Swimmer. He was a three-time SWIM Magazine Masters Swimmer of the Year.

In his 30 years of Masters swimming Ray set more than 50 world records in the 65, 70, 75 and 80 age groups; set 63 USMS records through 1996; and won 28 World Championship titles through 1996.

Ray Taft was involved all his life as a swimming competitor, coach, teacher, water-showman, administrator and advocate for Masters Swimming. In 1972, the inaugural year of Masters Swimming, he ran one of the first Masters swim meets and has been swimming in the program every year since.

His involvement in the sport began 40 years earlier when, during his junior high school years, he chose swimming over all the other sports. Inspired by a track medal belonging to the father of one of his friends, he wanted to achieve something similar in a sport in which he felt he could become skillful. He chose swimming, however, Ray would first need to learn to breathe and swim at the same time. This he accomplished when he joined the AAU swimming program at the Crystal Plunge in San Francisco, swimming for Hall of Fame coach Charlie Sava.

Ray went on to coaching juvenile and adult age group swimming, water polo, aquacades and finally, climbing the ladder to organizing his own swimming club, the Taft Swim School that came to fruition in 1955. In ten years it had grown from an outdoor pool to a mini-enclosed competitive facility.

Parents of Ray's swim team members wanted to train, prodding Ray to develop a senior program for adults. Ray and his wife, Zada, accepted the challenge and shared the coaching duties on the pool deck of the predominantly noncompetitive program which could be considered to be a forerunner of the Masters teams today. Two individuals to come out of Ray's program were Hall of Famer Ted Stickles and his sister Terry. Ted held four world records in the 400m individual medley and Terry was the bronze medal winner at the 1964 Olympic Games in the 400m freestyle.

In 1972, Ray jumped into Masters Swimming with both feet. He hosted the first National Short Course Championships in San Mateo, California, and he has been actively swimming in the program ever since. He set over 50 world records and earned 28 gold, 4 silver and 2 bronze medals at the Masters World Championships in New Zealand (1984), Japan (1986), Brisbane (1988), Indianapolis (1992) and Montreal 1994). He won 28 National Championships and set over 63 national records in backstroke and individual medley, all after he turned 70.

This year alone, he ranked first nationally in four events.

As head coach of the San Mateo Marlins, his teams have won many honors, and he served on the Pacific Masters Committee from 1972 to 1985.

Ray Taft was active in all aspects of swimming his entire life. He contributed his energy and enthusiasm to the sport's longevity just as he dominated as an athletic participant in his Masters age groups for the past two decades.

The sport of swimming has lost a towering, beloved figure with Ray's passing.

The following is from an article by Lee Nessel in the March/April 1997 issue of SWIM Magazine on the occasion of Ray's being named one of the Masters Swimmers of the Year:

When it comes to swimming, Ray Taft has done it all. Perhaps that's why he is a 400 IMer – he likes to do a little of everything. Taft's aquatic career began when the swimming coach recruited him out of a junior high school P.E. class in 1933. In that era, he recalls, they swam in cold water without blocks, goggles, lane ropes or painted lane lines. Taft eventually became a coach, swam in the Army and opened his own swimming school with his wife through funds obtained from the G.I. Bill. "When we went overseas, I always looked for a place to swim even if it was jumping overboard in our transport or getting our convoys over to the South Seas. I always kept in touch with swimming."

Taft met his wife Zada while swimming in 1936, and 61 years later, they continue to swim together. In the 1950s, they opened a swimming school in the San Francisco area which Taft calls "a beehive with swimmers." The school was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1996 as the nation's longest-running family-run swim school. "We still have it, The only thing is, it's a hand-me-down to two of my children. My wife and I help out when needed.

"We still swim every stroke, every distance, open water and pools of any length – short and long course. We go internationally and to our national championships." The Tafts have no plans for slowing down! Taft finished this year with 23 first-place finishes, and has won the Waikiki Rough Water Swim 21 times, missing only one year for the quadruple bypass operation he underwent in 1990.

Taft's most sentimental race was at the 1986 World Masters Championships in Japan. He swam the 100 backstroke in the pool used for the 1964 Olympics, and dreamed of the 1940 Olympics canceled due to the war. "Every time I swim 100 meters, I say a little short prayer to my mother and father for what they have given me, and because I missed the 1940 Olympics. I felt that race (in Japan) was my victory in the Olympic Games."

The following is an excerpt from an article by Nancy Ridout, in the July/August 1996 issue of SWIM Magazine:

In 1994, Ray Taft recorded an incredible 11 number one rankings, set eight world records for men 75-79 and was named one of SWIM's top 10 swimmers for the year.

It hardly seemed possible, but '95 turned out to be an even better year for Taft, who, with his wife of 55 years, Zada, has been swimming Masters with the San Mateo Marlins Masters since 1970. And so he is back on SWIM's creme de la creme list for 1995.

His achievements last year? Eleven number one rankings for short course, another 11 for long course and a total of 21 national and 10 world records in the free, back, fly and medley. Not only that, but at 76, he bettered many of the times he'd set a year earlier The retired coach and swim school director explains why he keeps getting better with age: "I'm another year away from my (quadruple bypass) operation in 1990 so I've regained more strength. I've added some strengthening and flexibility training and I've focused on pacing. Now I can maintain a predetermined pace for any distance…."

Like all other honorees, Taft emphasizes the social aspect of Masters swimming. "At least once a week we go out with a small group of fellow swimmers of all ages–the old Turks and the young studs. That's what makes it so much fun."

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