When you're on top, and the newspapers say you're on top, you have to prove it over and over again.... You have the pressure of the people you're competing with and what the newspapers say. You never know what's going to happen. If the kids come up—some little kid you didn't even know...."
It sounds like an aging actress speaking, but these words of worry come from the hopeful young mouth of 14-year-old Donna de Varona (see cover).
In 1960 Donna went to Rome, an alternate on the United States women's swimming team and the youngest American at the Olympics. Today she holds the world records in the 400-meter and 440-yard individual medley and the American long-course medley records for 400 yards, 200 meters and 200 yards (there are no official world records for the latter events). She is one of the best backstrokers swimming today, and is second to very few in the freestyle. A swimmer whose forte is the individual medley (a race in which four different strokes are required) is of course at a disadvantage in competition for the individual stroke records; she must practice all four—butterfly, breaststroke,freestyle and backstroke—while her competitors can concentrate on one or two of them. That Donna is formidable in all four was spectacularly demonstrated in Japan last year when, swimming alone, she broke her own record in the 200-meter individual medley and defeated by 2.8 seconds a medley-relay team of four Japanese girls swimming one stroke apiece. While there are a few swimmers in the U.S.and abroad who might beat Donna in any of the four competitive strokes, she is today without question the best all-round woman swimmer in the world.
Her father was seated by the pool a few weeks ago, watching his bemedaled, world-traveled daughter. He greeted her when she surfaced, "Hi, fishie," and remarked thoughtfully, "You never seem to be able to get the little girl out of her when she goes swimming." Or when she's on dry land either—her mother can ask her four times from three feet away, "Do you want any green beans? DO YOU WANT ANY GREEN BEANS?" and Donna will be dreaming and not hear.
When Donna was really young (like 10) she went barefoot, was partial to climbing on things and to bringing home frogs. She had a toad in a glass tank and mourned its demise after she left it in the sun. She had premonitions (small premonitions)—"You know how you have feelings about things? I just woke up once and thought, 'I'm going to step on a bug!' And you know those ugly potato bugs or whatever—they have a bald head—I did step on one!"
She rode a neighbor's horses, bareback, and when the family first moved from San Francisco to Lafayette, California, where they now live, she tried to roll down hills. The hills of Lafayette are high and round; in the spring they look like fuzzy green sand dunes. "I wanted to go up and just roll down them, but it doesn't work—they're all sticky."
Donna was born in San Diego, and lived there for three years. Then the family moved to San Francisco, and three years later to Lafayette, where she started school—or schools. "We're right on this line where every time they build a new school, I have to go to it," she says in tones conveying no pioneer enthusiasm. She has an 18-year-old brother, David, a sound athlete suffering a severe case of sororal eclipse; a 9-year-old sister, Joanne, who is a diver, perhaps a musical prodigy, and walks on her hands; and a baby brother, 3-year-old Kurt, in whom all the will implied by Spanish, Welsh and German blood shows signs of blossoming. The family includes as well an elderly dog named Sam (a female) and a parakeet, Marvin Levy.
Donna's father, Dave de Varona, played tackle for the 1937 California Rose Bowl team, and later for the San Diego Bombers, and he rowed No. 3 on the California crew that won at Poughkeepsie in 1939 and set the four-mile record. Sports are his greatest interest: he has coached high-school football, and might have made a career of it, were it not for a mesh of red tape in the form of education-course requirements for coaching in California. He is a man who loves his children and takes a deep pleasure in their company. These qualities make De Varona sound like a sure bet to overdrive a child with Olympic ability, but he has—with monumental restraint—managed to become knowledgeable about swimming but not a maniac. And Dave de Varona feels something about Donna's swimming that the real driving parent rarely seems to feel, which is delight. Not just pride, and not self-fulfillment, but the sports lover's delight at seeing something difficult performed with the beauty and apparent ease which is the far side of effort.
Dave met his wife Martha in Washington, D.C. during the war, and called her three days, later from San Diego to propose. Or, as she remembers it, "He asked me if I wanted a lifetime job."
She got one. It now comprises the four children, full-time work in a library, a house to run and a good chunk of the transporting of the family troops. "I never felt tired a day in my life until I got into my 40s," she says, mystified.