Passages: 1956 Olympic Coach Stan Tinkham Passes at 87

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Stan Tinkham, 24 years old Olympic Coach with gold medalist Shelley Mann; Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

Stan Tinkham, the 1956 USA Women’s Olympic Team swim coach has passed away in suburban Maryland at the age of 87 on April 9, 2019. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years.

Stan Tinkham was Born on Nov 24, 1931 in Yankton, SD. When he was seven years old his family relocated to the Foggy Bottom area of Washington, DC and a year later he started swimming with the Ambassador Hotel swim team. As a 5’11” 14 year old, and weighing 165 pounds, he was the Ambassador’s “Wonder Boy” and swam in the AAU National Championships against the best swimmers in the nation and held DCAAU Junior (14 and under) records in all three strokes. This was before butterfly was recognized. Swimming for Western High School, he was an All-American and Eastern High School Champion in the 150 individual medley in both 1947 and 1948.

After graduating from high school, he chose to continue his swimming career and pursue a degree in communications at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As a UNC freshman he was coached by the legendary Bob Ousley and was a teammate of Buddy Baarcke, another swimmer who also became a renowned coach. In 1983, the American Swimming Coaches Association established the Robert Ousley Award, in honor of his service to the sport. Swimming on the Varsity, under famed coach Dick Jamerson, he became the school’s top sprinter and an All-American.

After graduating from UNC in 1953, Tinkham signed up with the U.S. Army Medical Corp before he was drafted. After receiving training as a medical technician, Pvt. Tinkham was assigned to serve his hitch at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in his hometown of Washington, D.C.

The hospital was home of the Walter Reed Swim Team, the club begun in 1952 by daughters of military personnel stationed in Washington. The club used the hospital’s “huge 40 yard by 50-foot indoor pool“ that was built for patients at the hospital, but which the club used early in the morning and late in the afternoon. The club had prospered immediately under coach Jim Campbell and won the 1952 Women’s national Championships. Two of his swimmers, Mary Freeman and Gail Peters (both ISHOF honorees) qualified for the 1952 US Olympic team.

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Walter Reed Medical Center National Championship Team; Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

Tikham had been swimming for the team for just a couple of weeks when Campbell quit over a feud with local AAU officials and team parents on the eve of the 1954 indoor nationals. When the Center’s commanding officer learned of Stan’s background, he assigned him to coach the team – Stan was just 22 years old.

Tinkham was a calming influence and the team went on to win the women’s indoors a few weeks later. His team would dominate American women’s swimming at both indoor and outdoor championships for the next four years. While he was the first to point out that he had “walked into a good thing,” Tinkham went on to prove he was no stopgap coach. In 1956, at the age of 24, he was named the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team coach for the Melbourne Olympics – a team that included his swimmers Shelly Mann, Mary Jane Sears and Betty Mullen (mother of Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey).

“Why did his girls do so well?” a reporter asked.

“Primarily because we have a large-size indoor pool, something that isn’t available to girls in most other parts of the country,” said Tinkham. “There are only a few high schools and colleges which have women’s swimming teams and only a few athletic clubs encourage competitive swimming between women. If a girl is a good swimmer, there are only a few places where she can get the coaching and use of a pool to develop her talent.”

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Tinkham’s Northern Virginia Aquatic Center circa 1970; Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

After he was discharged from the Army, he lost his pay, but continued coaching for free, supporting himself by starting a firm selling swimming pools.

Tinkham and his team were the subject of features in Sports Illustrated, Life Magazine and in 1955, during a live television broadcast on CBS, hosted by Esther Williams, his women’s medley relay team broke the American Record in the 150 years medley relay.

In 1958, the Hospital decided their staff and patients needed more access to the pool and announced it was abandoning the swim team. At the time, Stan was also managing the Washington Golf & Country Club and was coaching the Potomac Swim Association team. With two business associates, Stan conceived and built the Northern Virginia Aquatic Club, which opened in 1959. The club was successful immediately and continued to produce world class swimmers, notably, Robin Johnson, the dominant freestyler of her time.

Around the same time, Stan helped found the Montgomery County Swim League and was instrumental in developing age group swimming throughout D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

He coached at the NVAC until he retired in 1988. During his career he also made many important contributions to swimming as the founder and president of the D.C. Coaches Association, member of the National AAU Swim Committee, Chairman of the AAU National Long Distance Swimming Committee and the Vice President of the D.C. Amateur Athletic Union. In 1989 he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Tinkham is survived by his wife Caroline, 6 children (Geoff, Lori, Jaci, Paul, Michael, and Chris), and 11 grandchildren.
For thoughts and cards Caroline can be reached at
  • The memorial service will be on Friday 4/26 at:
            All Saints Church at 11:00 AM
            3 Chevy Chase Cir
            Chevy Chase, MD 20815

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    I had no idea that Stan Tinkham founded the Montgomery County Swim League (MCSL) summer league program…which is how I began my career in competitive swimming, along with thousands of other kids. Olympic champions Katie Ledecky and Mike Barrowman spent their summers competing in the MCSL…alongside very average swimmers like myself.

    A true visionary in the sport. Rest in peace…

  2. avatar
    Jim D

    I’m in that picture somewhere. Stan was outstanding. He asked for respect and discipline. He never demanded it. I think he got more that way than most other coaches ever dreamed of. I mourn today, rest in peace Stan.

  3. avatar
    Michael Connellan

    I had the honor to swim for Stan for a number of years in the 60s before going off to college. Apart from his obvious coaching ability, more importantly he was a true gentleman and conducted himself that way at all times – even when some of us screwed up so badly he would have been entitled to use a few choice words! I’ll always remember him striding across the deck at East Potomac Park’s 50m pool in D.C., never wearing anything other than proper Bermuda shorts! He showed us how to not only be swimmers, but more importantly to be gentlemen.