Three Weeks In South America: American Swimmers Witness Military Coup in 1973

Editor’s note: The following is a first-person account of a trip made 30 years ago by several members of the USA Swimming national team in a goodwill trip to teach young talent in Peru and Chile in September 1973. Our thanks to Anne Brodell for reliving her story in words and photographs.

By guest contributor Anne Brodell

In September 1973, eight American swimmers went to Peru and Chile to compete with, train with and provide stroke clinics for South American swimmers after our National Championships in Louisville, Ky. Tom Szuba, Tim McDonnell, Mike Bruner, Steve Tallman, Nancy Kirpatrick, Sandi Johnson, Michele Mercer and I set off in our new USA uniforms with Jim Montrella from Lakewood Aquatic Club as our coach and Jill Griese as our chaperone. We each had a $10 per diem, and a lot of excitement and idealism to go with it.

Our trip was sponsored by the AAU, the State Department and Phillips 66. That summer, the first- and second-place finishers at the nationals went to Belgrade for the World Championships and those of us that finished third or fourth went on various trips to South America. As with all trips during the highly politicized time of the Cold War, we were briefed before the trip and reminded during the trip that we were not just ambassadors for the sport, but for the United States.

The trip began in Peru. It was fascinating and eye-opening. We had a real immersion in Peruvian culture and Peruvian swimming culture. The Peruvian swimmers were warm and wonderful hosts. Yet, as we left Peru, some of the swimmers on their national team began to get upset and told us we would surely be kidnapped in Chile. We were mystified. Jim Montrella found a small Time magazine article about a truckers’ strike which didn’t shed much light on the matter.

We arrived in Chile on September 4, 1973. It was supposed to be a seven-day stay, but we didn’t leave until September 19. We were billeted with the families of Chilean swimmers, and with Mark Lautman, who at the time was a young Peace Corps volunteer who was coaching the Chilean National team.

Sandie Johnson, Mike Bruner, Jill Griese and I were billeted with Maureen Bonta and her family. Maureen was the Chilean national champion in the sprint freestyle events and she had competed in Cali at the Pan Am Games in 1971. She was fluent in English and was the official translator for the team. At our first official introduction she announced that even though there were severe food shortages and shortages of gas we were not to worry because they had managed to procure enough gas to get us to workouts and swim meets!

It was clear that there was huge civil unrest from the beginning of our stay. After a brief visit to the American embassy, where we were assured that all was fine, we collided with a massive demonstration coming towards the embassy, with tanks and tear gas moving in from the other side of the avenue to meet the demonstrators. I remember feeling very blonde, and very tall, and conspicuous in my USA uniform!

We swam at the Bernardo O’Higgins military academy while the troops that would soon overthrow the government of Salvador Allende were on alert and on parade. We were supposed to give a swim exhibition in Valparaiso the morning of September 11, only to find out that a military coup had started and that 1,000 prisoners were being held in a gym adjacent to the pool.

In the meantime, we swam with the Chilean team. We went into the foothills of the Andes and flew kites, played cards and flirted and partied and danced. We also became friends. We watched with them as their country dissolved into civil war following the coup d’etat that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. We were afraid for them and we hoped for a better world with them.

When the tanks rolled into the plaza in front of the Presidential Palace, a few blocks away from the pool where the Chilean team worked out, everyone was in the water. Mark Lautman said that at first he thought it was an earthquake. Once the coup began, we Americans were separated from each other until we flew out on a UN-chartered turbo prop through the Andes on September 19.

Maureen and her family of seven housed and cared for four of us at a time of huge civil unrest and violence, 300 percent currency devaluation, food shortage and fear. After the coup, there was fighting throughout the city and a 24-hour curfew. And yet, at the Bontas, Mike Bruner taught American card tricks. We tried to stay in shape running around and exercising in their backyard. There were marathon card games and learning radio hits from the Chilean top 40.

Eventually, we began our trip home. As for the Chilean swimmers, they were profoundly affected by the political events of 1973. After the coup, pools were closed. Universities were closed. The Pan Am Games scheduled to be Santiago were held in Mexico City.

The idealism of the Cold War era is now behind us. I was lucky enough to return to Santiago this past fall, 40 years after the coup. The Bontas had a dinner for me and my family, and were just as warm and welcoming as they had been 40 years earlier. Mrs. Bonta is now 92 and she, like the rest of the family, remembers those events as if they were yesterday. When it is all said and done what is lasting are these human connections, not our splits and repeat times. Those human connections have changed our lives forever.

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Author: Jeff Commings

Jeff Commings is the Senior Writer for and Swimming World Magazine. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and was a nine-time NCAA All-American.

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