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Ferguson, Cathy Jean (1948—)

Ferguson, Cathy Jean (1948—)

American swimmer. Born on July 17, 1948.

Bested five other world-record holders to win the 100-meter backstroke and also took gold in the 4×100-meter medley relay at Tokyo Olympics (1964); retired from competitive swimming at 19 and became a coach.

Born in 1948, Cathy Ferguson became serious about swimming at age ten. At twelve, fueled by an internal drive rather than parental pressure, she began training with Peter Daland at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. "I didn't want to be just 'C-Average Cathy,'" she commented. But she also listened when Daland, whom she admired enormously, convinced her that athletics were temporary while education had permanency. "It's lonely at that pool," she said. "Just think of the countless hours in the water when you scarcely talk to another human being. All you have is that black line. It becomes your best friend…. I can remember being so tired at the end of the day that there was no way I had any energy left over to talk to other kids."

In 1964, Ferguson participated at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, along with a strong American team that included Sharon Stouder , Kathy Ellis , Martha Randall , Sharon Finneran , Donna de Varona , and Claudia Kolb . Ferguson's roommate, Jenny Duenkel , was also her competitor. "That is the essence of the Olympic Games," said Ferguson, "to be able to separate when it's time to work and when it's time to play. We understood this."

The women of the 1964 Olympics broke a series of world swimming times. Australia's Dawn Fraser took the 100-meter freestyle with a stunning 59.5. In the preliminary heats for the 100-meter backstroke, Duenkel broke the world record. Ferguson then broke Duenkel's record, followed by Christine "Kiki" Caron of France who broke Ferguson's record. Only a fraction of a second separated each new winning time. In the holding area, while waiting for the 100-meter backstroke the following day, Ferguson was numb. She was also slow off the mark, typical for her. But during the race, she felt strong. At the finish, her gold-medal time was 1:07.7, a new Olympic and world record. Caron finished second for the silver; Duenkel came in third.

Duenkel, Jenny (1947—)

American Olympic swimmer. Name variations: Virginia Duenkel. Born Virginia Duenkel on March 7, 1947.

Jenny Duenkel won the bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964; she then took the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle with a time of 4:43.3. Her U.S. teammates, Marilyn Ramenofsky and Terri Lee Stickles , took the silver and bronze, respectively.

Ferguson married and ended her competitive swimming career before the 1968 Olympics. The 19-year-old felt free. But the transition was difficult because swimming had been her cocoon, and the marriage fell victim to the painful change. Eventually, Ferguson went on to college, married again, had children, and became a swimming coach. "Now that I'm coaching," she remarked, "I include breaks within my practices so that my swimmers have structured social time…. [Y]oungsters must learn how to make decisions and relate to one another if they are going to become functioning human beings…. Being an Olympic champion doesn't make life simpler. It opens the door and lets you get your foot in. But if you don't produce after that, you're gone the same as anybody else."


Carlson, Lewis H., and John J. Fogarty. Tales of Gold. Chicago and NY: Contemporary Press, 1987.

Karin L. Haag , Athens, Georgia

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