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Former Brazilian World Record Holder, Maria Lenk, Passes Away At 92

April 16, 2007 -- Maria Emma Hulda Lenk, the first South American woman to swim in the Olympics and a pioneer in the development of the butterfly stroke, died Monday.  She was 92.

Maria Lenk was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1915 of German parents who immigrated to Brazil in 1912.  This German-Brazilian girl did more to advance the status of Latin women in athletics than any other.  Her forceful and persistent personality certainly were contributing factors.  She was the first South American woman to take part in the Olympics (1932) and is credited with being the first woman to swim the butterfly breaststroke in the Olympics (1936) if not the world.  Maria was the first South American woman to set swimming world records in the 200 meter and 400 meter breaststroke in 1939.

In 1932 Maria's Brazilian team made its expenses to the Games in Los Angeles by selling coffee they brought with them on the ship.  She made the semi-finals in the 200 meter breaststroke and also participated in the 100 meter freestyle and the 100 meter backstroke.  In the 1936 Olympics, swimming the new fly arm stroke with breaststroke kick, Maria again reached the semi-finals in the 200.

On November 8, 1939, in Rio de Janeiro, she beat Jopie Waalberg's World Record of 2:56.9, with a time of 2:56.0, for the 200m breaststroke event. This record lasted almost 5 years, until Nel van Vliet, from the Netherlands broke it on August 17, 1946. She had hopes to swim for the gold in the 1940 Tokyo, and then Finland Olympics, but both sites had to cancel because of World War II.

Maria's fame grew with the 1942 South American team touring 20 U.S. cities.  The tour group consisted of six men and Maria, again the pioneer woman.  Twelve American records were set, but more importantly, Maria ended up at Springfield College studying physical education which eventually led her to a professorship at Brazil's Federal University in Rio De Janeiro, becoming the first woman on the Brazilian Counsel of Sport.

Maria was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1988 and was a frequent visitor to Fort Lauderdale, attending almost every Honoree Induction since receiving her honor. 

Maria was still swimming a kilometer or more a day in her 90’s. According to news reports, she fell ill while swimming and suffered a fatal heart attack while being prepped for surgery at Copa D'Or Hospital.

The Brazilian Olympic Committee has declared three days of mourning for the woman who did more to advance sports opportunities for Latin American women than any other person.
“We’ve lost another legend of swimming and a great friend of the Hall of Fame,” said ISHOF Executive Director Bob Duenkel.  “She always came back for our honoree ceremonies and they won’t be the same without her.
Greg LouganisEraldo

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