Thursday, February 19, 2009


by Al J. Stump

Library of Congress catalog card member: 52-6766

THE GREATEST WOMAN SWIMMER OF ALL TIME? SOME MAY SAY that she was Gertie Ederle, who whipped the English Channel, or her counterpart of 1951, Florence Chadwick. On the basis 75 of wrecking pool records at sprint distances, many coaches would vote for Helene Madison, the first o her sex to hit one minute flat for 100 yards. Or Ann Curtis, the strapping Olympic champion who virtually swam herself out of competition in 1948.

But for all-around ability and a magnificent example of sheer courage against odds here is a vote for Nancy Merki Lees.

If Hollywood screened the story of Nancy Merki, it would have its fade-in shot ready made. The scenario would call for her to be seated, a tousle-haired youngster of fourteen, on the White House porch in Washington, sipping tea with Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President has called her clear across the country from Oregon as his special guest

"They tell me, Nancy," the late F.D.R. would say, "that you are our youngest swimming champion in history. Yet you and I have had the same illness. Tell me how you did it."

The Merki answer might sound overdramatic by its very simplicity. But it would be exactly what she told the crippled President on a day in 1939. "Well I guess I just kept trying, Mr. President."

In real life, the answer was so well-received by Roosevelt that it became the rallying cry at his Warm Springs, Georgia, foundation for poliomyelitis victims. Nancy Merki "just kept trying" against the stiffest handicap to beset any sports figure, and out of her battle came such personal rewards as the White House invitation to tell the nation her story through the March of Dimes and as fine a pair of legs as ever graced a female athlete.

If the Hollywood version should sound like the All-America girl story, a Jack Armstrong twist in a two-piece suit, then so much the better for celluloid veracity. Through the 1940's, Nancy Merki was just that in the eyes of the Amateur Athletic Union All-American seven times.

Yet not much earlier than that, Nancy couldn't take a sponge bath without assistance.

The swimmer who wasn't given much chance even to walk is now appraised by aquatic experts as the most versatile and durable swimmer of her sex ever produced in the United States. She won more important championships than Madison; she stayed at the top longer than Curtis. She could do more things in the water than any mermaid on record, so fabulously versatile that her coach, Jack Cody, never knew from meet to meet where she would pick up her first-place points.

"The only thing she couldn't do was dive," says Cody. "And if she'd concentrated on that, Nancy would have been the sensation of the springboard. It just wasn't in her to be second- rate."

Supporting Cody's contention is a record covering a ten-year span, which at the same time unbuttons the theory that women athletes are vacillating, temperamental, fuzzyheaded creatures with the competitive urge of a goldfish. Merki started tearing records apart in 1938 at the unheard-of age of thirteen. When she first hit the tank, a skinny 95-pounder, the big stars nationally were Eleanor Holm, Lenore Sight Wingard, Katie Rawls, Marjorie Gestring, Esther Williams, Ruth Jump, and Ann Hardin. All had long faded from the headlines by 1948 when Merki's tireless crawl was still close to unbeatable.

The onetime polio-crippled Portlander was American champion and record holder in the most demanding event of all, the 300-yard individual medley, which combines all three types of water locomotion: backstroke, breast stroke, and free style. She set national records at all the standard metric free- style distances, from 200 to 1500 meters, and put a 400-meter long-course mark on the books that still hasn't been touched. She won fifteen indoor and outdoor individual American titles and at one time or another splashed her way to nine senior A.A.U. records.

A moppet of thirteen, she made mature swimmers seem slow in her first national meet at Des Moines as she set 400- and 800-meter marks and placed a phenomenal second in the mile, to boot. That day Nancy Merki became the youngest high-point winner at a national swimming meet in history.

In 1946, Denmark held the women's 400-yard relay world record, and U.S. coaches despaired of ever coming close to it. Yet with Nancy anchoring the celebrated "Cody Kids" quartet, a full second was cut from it, and our local talent realized for the first time that it could compete on equal terms with the best in Europe.

Advocates of water therapy for polio will never get a better ad than that.

Jack Cody, a sun-blackened little man with forty years of coaching champions behind him, first laid eyes on Nancy in 1935. He had been a specialist at producing divers and had several Olympic Games winners to his credit, including Hap Kuehn and Norman Ross. With no warning, Cody found him- self placed in charge of a frail ten-year-old who for some time had been partially paralyzed. To Cody, at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, her heartsick parents made the plea that he "try to do something for her the doctors give us very little hope."

The disease had settled in the child's hips, constricting movement, and had already somewhat shriveled the right leg. "Shell have to wear iron braces and maybe get around on crutches as the polio progresses," medical men said. Modern treatment for polio was unthought-of in the Thirties; there was nothing in the books that could help Nancy, She couldn't swim; in fact, she was terrified of the water, Cody is a man of infinite patience with a deep conviction that the healing powers of swimming have long been under- estimated. But he was no physician, and the paralysis had been creeping upward since Nancy was eight. All he could do was coax her to hang onto the rim of the athletic club tank and try to kick her legs. "I wouldn't know what the odds were
against her," says Cody. "Yet, as weak and tiny as she was, she had heart. There was an urge to get well that kept her in the water for hours at a time, just trying to master the trick of fluttering her legs"

It was close to a year before Nancy was able to suck in a chestful of air and paddle a length of the tank. Constant mas- sage seemed to help. Her strength grew by painfully slow degrees. Now Nancy could swim two laps. Now three. Now she was watching the healthy kids and picking up the elements of a crawl. And a year later, Nancy was begging Cody to let her enter an indoor event for girls under twelve.

"O.K., Minnow/' he told her. "I guess it won't hurt you/' Nancy did fairly well for thirty yards but weakened and had trouble finishing. Cody, therefore, couldn't have been more astonished a few weeks later when she tried again and this time won a fifty-yard sprint for girls older than herself.

"Until then I'd been thinking of her in terms of a cripple who might get well enough to live normally," the veteran coach recalls. "Now, all at once, I realized that here was a competitor who wanted to win as badly as her family wanted her to recover from the polio."

Doctors checked and were startled. The disease had been halted. But for how long?

Not much later, making magical progress, Nancy was a surprise starter in the three-mile Lake Oswego marathon. Cody figured it would be a triumph if she went a mile before he had to pull her into the official launch. But Nancy finished the grind, gamely bringing up the rear.

The next major event she entered, another marathon, Nancy gave her growing body of Oregon fans a shock by not only finishing, but winning in the good time of 1 hour, 10 minutes, and 18 seconds.

The following year, when she cracked the state 100-meter record, Cody realized that he had held a front seat at the unfolding of a miracle. The withered leg had filled out, Nancy's body rippled with long supple muscles, and she had more endurance than any other swimmer on the Multnomah team. Almost as remarkable, she had a natural aptitude for the various techniques of speed swimming and, unlike most girls, was more concerned with winning than having fun in the tank. She told Jack, "Some day I'm going to be a champ."

The 1938 National A.A.U. meet was held in Santa Barbara, California. More to slip Nancy a lollypop for her game efforts than for any other reason, Cody wangled a round-trip ticket for his "minnow." He had told her to keep an eye on the older girls and learn everything she could. What happened was that the stringy infant came up like a torpedo to finish third in the 440-yard free style and fourth in the 880.

Sports writers wouldn't believe it when Cody told them that three years earlier Nancy had been a hospital case. In 1939, the story got better. Still short of her fourteenth birthday, she went to the Des Moines Nationals and cut 13.3 seconds from Katie Rawls' 800-meter free-style record, won the 400 meters in 5:29.6, just 1.1 seconds off the American record, and placed second in the mile to the veteran Mary Ryan. That made her high-point scorer of the meet . . . and the biggest news event in swimming.

Cody's wonder girl had just started to swim. Around her he fashioned his "Cody Kids/' starring Merki, Brenda Helser, Suzy Zimmerman, Joyce Macrae, Anne Cooney, and others. They trouped to San Francisco for the 1939 Far Western Championships, and Nancy set American 400- and 200-meter freestyle marks. Then it was 1940 and Miami Beach, where Nancy won the 440. At High Point, North Carolina, in 1941, "Fancy Nancy" astonished coaches by paring 27 seconds from the American 1500-meter record and lowering the 800-meter standard. The streak continued, and between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, at Buffalo, Chicago, and Neenah, Wisconsin, she was supreme at anything from 200 to 1500 meters. She was named the country's No. 1 feminine swimmer by the A.A.U. and was the only nominee of her sex for the James E* Sullivan Memorial Award. She swept the 440-yard indoor title for three straight years, splashing her wake in the faces of such standouts as Betty Bemis, Dot Leonard, Ann Hardin, and Lenore

"This was a hard period, in a way," Nancy says, "because so many letters came in from all over this country and even from Europe. People begged me to tell them the secret of how I overcame the paralysis. It was hard just to say, 'Don't give up, and try to swim!"

Letters from foreign lands that she could not read were taken by Nancy to local consulates or language teachers. But she answered them all.

Now, when you're still only sweet sixteen and a national champion of four years' standing, the whole world is rosy. Nancy was a well girl and a pretty one, as photogenic as any in the pool. Her volume of personal publicity was tremendous. With the Cody Kids she saw the breadth and depth of the land feted at the Stork Club in New York, at the U.S. Senate by Oregon legislators; she was even the honored guest of Franklin Roosevelt. When she returned to Portland with another batch of blue ribbons, she rode up Broadway with sirens screaming and crowds cheering. The Cody Kids became national team champions and could have anything their city possessed in the way of tribute.

Came now the second-biggest blow of Nancy's life, the challenge that catches up with every champion.

Suddenly her speed in the water was gone. Competing in the National Indoor meet late in 1943, Nancy finished in the ruck and lost her 440 title. In the 220 free style, she was beaten again. For the first time in four years, she returned home without a U.S. championship. At Shakamak, Indiana, later in the year, she was shut out in her middle-distance specialties and, in a desperate switch to the mile, finished a bad fifth. Nancy was in more than a slump. Her career looked finished almost as suddenly as it had flowered.

"Merki has passed her peak," the word went around the swimming galleries. For the first time, she was dropped from All-America ranking.

There were no more motorcycle escorts, but only puzzled glances* Cody, progressing from worry to bafflement, couldn't find an explanation. It just didn't make sense to the coach that Nancy could be washed up at seventeen, when a swimmer's best performances should be just starting.

The gamble Cody and Nancy took beginning with the 1944 season made aquatic history. She switched over from the free style to the breast and backstroke events. It was radical, daring,
asking far too much of any athlete in high-pressure national competition. It was like converting a track sprinter to hurdling or telling a fastball pitcher to throw nothing but curves, for the
crawl is the speed stroke and it was galling to Merki to propel herself along in this new laborious way.

But she stuck it out through the winter, working seventy- five per cent on the breast stroke, where she was weakest., and the rest of the time on backstroking. By the stop watch, she was only fair.

The test came at the 1944 National Indoor meet at Oakland. Merkfs opponent in the breast stroke was Patty Aspinall of the Riviera Club, the American record holder. Pre-meet char-
ters gave Merki no better than fourth place. Sea-green pool water splashed high into the scuppers as the big field thrashed the first lap of the 220-yard finals. Paddling Patty led into the final twenty yards and then here came Merki!

Stroke and stroke, the pair came down the stretch. Judges crouched far over the edge of the tank to catch the winner. Merki by a half yard! When Cody hauled her out of the pool, he exuberantly
started to slap her back. But he stayed his hand. She was so exhausted that a tap would have knocked her fiat.

Forty minutes later, the gamest lass in a nylon suit dove in and won the killing 300-meter individual medley in just three seconds over the meet record. "There is the greatest competitor I ever saw," congratulated Coach Charley Sava of San Francisco's Crystal Plunge. Other coaches came up to express astonishment at the sight of a converted free styler and one believed finished, at that beating the country's leading butterfly and backstroke artists.

Marvelous Merki went on wrecking records for several more years. Then, having won everything in sight a dozen times, she retired from the tank to marry. Today a housewife, she can look back on the most unique career of any girl who ever dipped ten toes in a plunge.

For any man's money, Nancy Merki has to rank as the greatest gal swimmer of them all.

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