Feature

Ann Curtis, 1926–2012

The swimmer who won gold at the 1948 Games

Ann Curtis was always modest about her success as an Olympic swimmer. In fact, for many years she kept her two gold medals hidden away in a desk drawer in her house. Her own children were unaware of her illustrious past until they discovered the awards while playing. “We came across the medals going through the drawers and asked, ‘What’s this? It’s pretty. Can I play with it?’” recalled her daughter, Carrie Cuneo.

Curtis’s career as a swimmer began at age 12, said The Washington Post, when she was spotted at a community pool in her hometown of San Francisco by a friend of legendary swimming coach Charlie Sava. The coach decided to take her on, and he put her through a “grueling regimen” of swimming three miles a day, six days a week, often “with her feet bound together and while pulling weights.” By 1944, she was celebrated as one of the top swimmers in the country. She “reportedly turned down movie offers to pursue her sport,” but was unable to compete in the Olympics that year because they were suspended during World War II.

When the Games resumed, in London in 1948, said the Los Angeles Times, Curtis was the favorite to take home a host of gold medals. Disaster struck in the 100-meter freestyle, when she “slipped slightly as she dove into the water” and finished second, but she won gold in both the 400-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter freestyle relay. When she returned to San Francisco, she was handed the key to the city and was offered a brand-new convertible. Told she would lose her amateur athlete status and the chance to compete in future Olympics if she took it, she decided the time was right to leave the sport—especially as she was also engaged to be married. “I didn’t think I could successfully train and be a wife, too,” she later said. “So I accepted the car.”

Curtis later started a swimming school, said the Associated Press, and coached young swimmers, including Olympians Rick DeMont and Ben Wildman-Tobriner. Modest as she was about her own success, she never forgot it. “I know that glassy look in a medalist’s eyes,” she said. “You’ve thought about it, you’ve visualized it, you’ve swam it. But nothing compares to the real thing.”

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