de Varona, Donna (1947—)
de Varona, Donna (1947—)
American swimmer who won two Olympic gold medals. Born on April 26, 1947, in San Diego, California; daughter of Martha and Dave de Varona (an insurance salesman); sister of actress Joanna Kerns (who barely missed making the 1968 Olympic team in gymnastics); graduated University of California, Los Angeles, 1970; married John Pinto (a businessman).
Won gold medals in the 400-meter individual medley and the 400-meter freestyle relay at the Tokyo Olympics (1964); won 37 national swimming titles; broke 18 national and world records; was the first female sports commentator on network television; was co-founder and president of the Women's Sports Foundation.
Champion swimmer Donna de Varona began her athletic career at age three when she started paddling around California pools. She and her older brother practiced swimming freestyle in the ocean and in public pools in Lafayette, California. When she was ten, de Varona entered the Far Western American Athletic Union (AAU) meet in California and finished last among ten contenders. Determined to work harder, she began to practice at the Berkeley YMCA and to train five to six hours a day at the Santa Clara Swim Club. Three years later, she broke her first record in the 400-meter individual medley event at the Outdoor National AAU championships. The difficult medley—which includes one lap each of the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle—was de Varona's best event, a testament to her versatility. In 1960, the 13-year-old was the youngest member of the American team at the Rome Summer Olympics, but her specialty, the 400 meter, was not approved for women at that time. As an alternate, she did not swim in competition.
But de Varona dominated women's swimming for the next four years, setting world records in backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle. In 1961, she posted a world record of 5:34.5 in the AAU medley, defending her previous title. She bested her own world record by a full 18 seconds at the world championships in Lima, Peru. The 400-meter individual medley was approved for women swimmers at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and Donna de Varona won the gold in that event (her Olympic Trial time of 5:14.9 stood as world's best until 1967). She also captured a gold medal, swimming the second leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay. Other members of the winning foursome were Pokey Watson, Sharon Stouder , and Kathy Ellis .
Throughout the early 1960s, de Varona, who was called the "Queen of Swimming," dominated the sport. In 1969, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, followed by induction into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1983 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1987. An attention-drawing swimmer, de Varona was constantly defined as "unusually attractive" and appeared on the covers of Life, Time, Saturday Evening Post, and Sports Illustrated, as well as foreign periodicals. "People thought it was unusual for a female athlete to be attractive," she commented. "We were still fighting that battle then. It got to the point where I was ashamed of my looks. I wanted to play them down."
In 1965, she retired from competitive swimming and enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles where she majored in political science. At age 18, de Varona became an ABC sports commentator. "I was so young I needed a work permit," she recalled. In the next few years, she—along with Suzy Chaffee and Billie Jean King —led the fight for equality for women in all levels of sports. Said de Varona:
Not all men like sports and not all women hate sports. Those are clichés that have become too widely accepted. … I'd like to
see the women who want to participate in sports, either for recreation or as a living, be treated with the same respect by the general public, by the press, by television, and so on, as male athletes. In my work for television I've sometimes been sent to interview a girl or woman who has just done something interesting or unique in a sport. Sometimes that interview never gets on the air. I believe it's because the producer feels that not enough people are interested in a woman doing something in sports. That's an attitude I'm always fighting to change.
De Varona was the first woman to cover the Olympics for U.S. network television. Her insightful commentary gained women a foothold in sports broadcasting. As a lobbyist, she played an important role in the passage of the Amateur Sports Act and in getting Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 implemented. This legislation ensured equal opportunity of women's sports in schools and colleges throughout the nation. She served on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and on President Jimmy Carter's Advisory Committee for Women. As a swimming star, sports commentator, and lobbyist for women's sports, Donna de Varona has worked to widen the margins of opportunity: "I had my dream, and I achieved it. Now I want to see it happen for other people."
Bortstein, Larry. After Olympic Glory. NY: Frederick Warne, 1978.
Porter, David L., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Basketball and Other Indoor Sports. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1992.
Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia