Roughly 70 years ago, Virginia "Ginny" Smithers-Sanders first made waves as a middle-school swimmer. Now, the city of Somerville is naming the pool at the John F. Kennedy School in her honor.
Born in 1937, Ginny's swimming career took off at age 11 when she became the youngest swimmer to ever win the 1,500-meter New England Championship. By 15, she'd won more than 80 gold championship medals. Later, she went on to break five records at the National Masters Swimming Championships in Chicago and even earned a spot on the All-America swimming team.
Later in life, she became a repeat cancer survivor, married a Hall of Fame Celtic player, and served as a dean at Northeastern. She joins us to share her story.
Below are highlights from their conversation, which have been lightly edited.
On the beginning of her swimming career:
"I was hungry. My life was both wonderful and less than. I loved my father, a capital policeman, so much. He was a great man, but he was a man that on holidays would become a Jekyll-and-Hyde drunk. ... And during a Labor Day at nine [years old], just before turning 10, my father did his Jekyll-Hyde. And after all the noise settled down, my mother said, 'Go to the pool and go climb that fence. Go win something, for God's sakes.'"
"So, I went to the pool and the lifeguards knew me. I told them, 'My mother said I have to swim.' And they said, 'There's only a 100-meter for 16-and-under boys left.' I said. 'Fine.' And I won it."
On competing against the clock:
"I'd never, ever competed against other people, ever. I've always competed against the clock. So when I would say to a swimmer on either side of me, 'Good luck, swim as fast as you can,' I meant it because it had no bearing on me — it was the time that had the bearing on me."
"That 1,500-meter surprised me to no end. All I knew was I got in and I swam as fast as I could."Ginny Smithers-Sanders
"The gentlemen who saw me win that race was an AAU official — now it's USA Swimming — and coached Metropolitan Swim Club in Southie, and he's going, 'Who was that kid?' And that was a month before I turned 10. I was the youngest girl to ever win. That 1,500-meter surprised me to no end. All I knew was I got in and I swam as fast as I could."
On where swimming took her:
"I would love to have gone to the Olympics, and we're talking ancient history now and different times — very different times. And in 1952, they had the Olympic Trials for Helsinki. The Western Seaboard trials were in L.A., Eastern Seaboard in Boston, sponsored by the Boston Herald American, and the winners were supposed to be sent to Indianapolis. Well, the Boston Herald American backed out financially. And we didn't know, with all the championships already behind me, that if we had approached the Lions Club or Rotary, they would have sponsored it. We didn't know, so I just figured, that's just the way that goes. But my times would have done very well in Helsinki, and I love that competition of the clock. But you know, it didn't happen, so it didn't happen."
"That was before Title IX when there was no hope of going to college on a scholarship. My father died when I was 16, and I lost a lot of interest in swimming and knew that I'd have to pay for college if I wanted to go. That little bit of insurance money was saved for my younger brother and my mother said, 'I expect room and board from you two weeks after you graduate from high school. Get a job at John Hancock, like everyone else.' But I said, 'I'm going to college mom. I'm going.' And I did."
On having this pool named after her:
"[The city] set up a committee to honor people who have really brought distinction and something special to the city of Somerville. And when they were coming up with candidates, my name came up because I was the only female in their city of Somerville Hall of Fame. And it was unanimous that they choose me."
"It's 70 years later. It's like, 'Wow, are they serious? Is this a dream?' It's both humbling and really, really exciting, and it's a great pool."Ginny Smithers-Sanders
"It's crazy. It's 70 years later. It's like, 'Wow, are they serious? Is this a dream?' It's both humbling and really, really exciting, and it's a great pool."
"It's perfect for competitive swimming, and there's a teaching pool that's warmer. And I love that it's in an elementary school because the kids can learn how to swim."
On her outlook on life:
"I'm fierce every day. I'm so surprised that I wake up and I'm not dead. And I have so many things wrong with me and I'm here against all odds. I mean, I just left Dana-Farber to come here. You know, life is crazy and I am here. But I will admit when I wake up, before I stretch, I say, 'Oh, I'm still alive.' And my next thought is, 'How soon can I take a nap?'"
This segment aired on April 12, 2022.