Roy Saari Passes Away
January 3, 2009 Roy Saari, a USC swimmer whose unusual kicking style
propelled him to swim the first sub-17-minute 1,500-meter
freestyle race and later win a gold medal in the 1964
Olympics, has died. He was 63.
Saari collapsed and died Tuesday of congestive heart
failure at his Mammoth Lakes home, said his daughter, Joani
On Friday, Peter Daland, Saari's coach at USC, called
him "the greatest swimmer of his time."
Saari -- pronounced "sorry" -- was only the
second swimmer to win nine NCAA individual championships,
making his mark between 1964 and 1966. His four world
records included breaking the 17-minute barrier in the
1,500-meter freestyle with a time of 16:58.7 at the 1964
U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
At the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Saari won a gold medal in the
4x200-meter freestyle relay and a silver in the 400-meter
individual medley. He finished seventh in the 1,500-meter
freestyle at the Olympics, partly because he was fighting a
cold, Daland said.
The son of a swimming and water polo coach at El Segundo
High, Saari was also a standout on the U.S. water polo team
that qualified for the 1964 Games. Because a rule prohibited
him from being on both teams, Saari competed as a swimmer.
The Saari name was still well-represented in water polo
because his father, Urho, coached the Olympic team and his
younger brother, Robert, played on it.
In 1964, Times columnist Sid Ziff called Saari "the
latest world swimming sensation" while riffing on his
curious kicking style -- a strong scissors kick combined
with a glide.
"Saari uses one kick where orthodox swimmers use six
flutter kicks to every double arm stroke," Ziff wrote. "From the waist up you think you're watching Johnny
Weissmuller. From the hips down you wonder if someone
didn't just throw him in the pool and tell him to do the
best he can."
Saari's approach pioneered innovations in distance
swimming, and elite swimmers eventually started using
versions of his kick, Coach & Athletic Director magazine
reported in 2003.
Roy Allen Saari was born Feb. 26, 1945, in Buffalo, N.Y.,
the middle of three children of Urho and Wanda Saari.
He grew up working out with swimmers at El Segundo High,
where his father coached from 1941 into the 1970s. The city
of El Segundo indoor public pool is named the Urho Saari
In 1959, Roy Saari captured the first of his 17 Amateur
Athletic Union swimming titles when he won the long-distance
USC won the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title each
of the three years he swam on the team. He also was named an
All-American each of his three seasons on the water polo
team, the university said.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1967,
Saari earned a law degree from Loyola Marymount University
in 1973 and practiced law for several years in Orange
In 1978, he moved with his wife and two children from
Huntington Harbor to Mammoth Lakes and turned to real estate
development and construction. For 16 years, he was the
planning commissioner for the town of Mammoth Lakes.
He was reserved yet an enthusiastic outdoorsman who strove
to remain physically fit and was often seen walking and
running a six-mile loop around Mammoth Lakes basin.
In addition to his daughter, Joani, Saari is survived by
his wife of 41 years, Sheryl; his son, Jeff; his siblings,
Carol and Robert; and four grandchildren.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Jan. 11 at the Mountainside
Conference Center in the Main Lodge, 1 Minaret Road, Mammoth
For information about the International Swimming Hall of Fame go to www.ishof.org or call 954-462-6536.