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Reach! Reach!" It's 5:30 a.m., pitch black outside, and most San Francisco Bay Area residents are still asleep. But Gail Roper is jumping up and down in her living room, exhorting her youngest daughter, Sunshine, 13. "That's right! Yeah! Lean forward and reach! Now you're moving!"
Sunshine, in red-and-white-striped pajamas, paddles fiercely while sitting on a stool in the middle of the living room. The stool is standing still, but she is clearly making headway. Her feet planted firmly on the floor, she reaches farther forward with each stroke, pulling back more air and then reaching forward again with her mother's Hawaiian pine paddle, her mother's impassioned drive.
"That's great! Great!" shouts Roper, mother of seven, full-time student, full-time employee, sometime coach and sometime steersman on an outrigger canoe for the Waikiki Surf Club and, undeniably, the most dominant AAU Masters swimmer ever. Roper, a 1952 Olympian and at one time the world's best woman breaststroker, now collects Masters swimming records the way a train conductor collects tickets; she has 43 national records, dozens more than anyone else, male or female. And her freestyle stroke is so clean that she barely ruffles the surface of the water. If her living room were flooded, she could swim through it and the Gauguin prints on the wall would stay dry.
"Gail's just phenomenal," says Jane McAllister, a fellow California Masters swimmer. "Whenever she hits a new age bracket everyone knows she'll break every record in every event. She just does. And don't think we don't all envy her, from tip to toe, envy her with a...longing." Small wonder, considering that at 52 Roper swims the butterfly faster than she did when she was 18.
"Hello, loves. How are you today?" Roper says as she reaches up to feed goldfish in a tank on top of her refrigerator in the tiny house she rents in Petaluma, Calif., north of San Francisco. She always seems to be up on her toes, as buoyant in air as she is in water. Sleep plays such a small role in her life that she says the word "nap" as if she were letting an exotic moth out of her mouth. She's quick to break into a soft-shoe in the aisle of a K-Mart, trailing little whirlpools of energy behind her. When she charges through the basement of the San Francisco Aquarium, stopping momentarily to greet her friend the Russian ichthyologist who is hunched over a rockfish, all the thousands of bloated fish suspended upside down in solution in thousands of bottles on hundreds of shelves, all these non-swimming specimens seem to stir slightly when she passes by, as if a tide had just rippled through the basement.
Fish always have been important in Roper's life. She even almost had one named after her. It turned up in a fish auction where she was working in Hawaii. She brought the strange fish to her friend, Dr. Jack Randall, head of ichthyology in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu (after whom the Rapdallichthys filamentosus is named). If she had been the first to discover it instead of the second, it might have been named Roperichthys filamentosus.
"When I was little I used to dive down to the bottom of the creek near where I lived and hold myself down by grabbing the bottom of a dock," she says. "I'd look around and think, 'This is how it is to be a fish. Wouldn't it be nice if people could live underwater?' Then I'd come up for air and go back down and stay a while. It was so quiet and peaceful.
"I remember looking at the fish to see how they moved. I could see their head motion controlled the rest of the body; like a whip the body would follow the head."
Roper's swimming career is the product of her exceptional determination. In the 50-54 age group, she now holds 30 of 33 possible women's records. The three she doesn't have are for backstroke events. At last week's Masters national short-course championships, held at The Woodlands, near Houston, Roper broke three of her own records, in the 200- and 500-freestyle and the 200 IM.
"I guess the most records I ever had at one time were 62," she says when pressed to think about it. "Hey, would you like some shredded wheat?" she then asks, gesturing toward the 20 or so battered boxes she recently scavenged from a bin behind a supermarket. "Nothing wrong with the cereal," she says with a grin. "Once I found 40 frozen chickens thrown away. They'd been advertised as fresh, so when they arrived at the store frozen they got heaved outside. We ate every last one." She pulls off a man's blue sweater with a couple of holes in it, revealing a T shirt over a slim, youthful body. Roper's sweater, her faded jeans, her running shoes and the three-level green enamel pagoda in the goldfish bowl were all found in the Bargain Box, a thrift shop in nearby San Rafael.