Swimming Loses A Great Friend with Passing of Ronald Reagan

By Phillip Whitten

LOS ANGELES, Calif., June 9. WHEN Ronald Reagan passed away last Saturday at the age of 93, the sport of swimming lost one of its greatest friends.

The 40th president, connected affectionately with the sport of football because of his movie portrayal of "the Gipper," was actually an enthusiastic proponent of swimming.

"We missed the boat Big Time with President Reagan," commented Dr. Sam Freas, President of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. "Publicizing his lifelong love affair with our sport could have done wonders for its growth and popularity."

Swimming queen Janet Evans, who met the president on several occasions, agrees enthusiastically: "He loved talking about swimming and life guarding, about his experiences in college as a competitive swimmer, and he told me several times that swimming was always his favorite sport.

The first time I met President Reagan," she recalls, "was after the 1988 Olympics. The entire team was invited to the White House but then Flo Jo and I were asked to visit with the president in the Oval Office. I was just 16, and I'd studied American history in high school. And then all of a sudden I was talking with the president of the United States in the room where so much history had been made!

"I was overwhelmed, but President Reagan was so kind, he put me at ease. Then he talked about swimming and asked me what I thought about when I was swimming distance events."

Dr. Freas recalls a meeting with President Reagan in June 1989, when the Hall of Fame presented the president with its coveted Gold Medallion award:

"A group of us representing the Hall of Fame went to his office in Century City (California) for a meeting and presentation that was scheduled to last for 10 or fifteen minutes. We wound up spending an hour-and-a-half with him."

"The president talked about his love of swimming and his rescues as a lifeguard while he was a student at Eureka College," Freas recalls. "Then he told us a story I don't think he'd ever mentioned publicly before.

"Ron had been a member of the Eureka College swim team since his freshman year. When he was a junior, and captain of the team, the coach had a stroke. The college president came to him and asked if he would assume coaching duties while remaining a team member, and, of course, Ron accepted.

"That year — I think it was 1930 or '31 — the team was at the conference championships, where they had placed last the previous year. The first event was the 150-yard medley relay — that was before butterfly and breaststroke were separate strokes — and Eureka's backstroker didn't show up.

"Ron was primarily a freestyler, but as he told us, [he] 'didn't mind turning over on his back every now and then.' The problem was, he was also the anchor on the relay.

"He solved the problem by swimming both legs — the leadoff 50 back and the anchor 50 free.

"The other coaches were furious, claiming the same person couldn't swim two legs in a relay. But when they looked it up in the rulebook, they found out there was no rule against it. So the results stood. Nowadays, of course, there is a rule prohibiting someone from swimming more than one relay leg.

"Eureka wound up placing fourth out of the 11 teams in the conference that year," Freas finishes with a flourish.

Double Olympic gold medalist Bruce Furniss was also at that meeting and he recalls the President's relay story with a smile. "President Reagan spent a lot of time with us that day," he remembers. "He spoke at length about his experiences around water, how they shaped his views on life and the values swimming confers that last a lifetime."

Janet Evans concurs. "Every time I met President Reagan he talked about his love of swimming. That day in 1989, he spent the whole time telling stories about swimming. It was great!”

Janet Evans at the White House with Ronald Reagan.  From the June 1991 issue of Swimming World Magazine.