Gail Roper (USA)
Honor Masters Swimmer (2003)
FOR THE RECORD: MASTERS SWIMMING: WORLD RECORDS (42): (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, IM); USMS RECORDS: (166): (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, IM); 1984 MASTERS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (50m, 100m, 200m, 400m freestyle, 200m backstroke, 50m, 100m, 200m breaststroke, 50m, 100m, 200m butterfly, 200m, 400m IM); 1985 MASTERS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (100m, 200m, 400m freestyle, 50m, 100m, 200m butterfly, 400m IM); 1986 MASTERS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (200m, 800m freestyle, 100m, 200m butterfly, 400m IM); 1988 MASTERS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (100m, 200m butterfly), silver (400m IM); 1952, 1953 US NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS: 6 short course (100yd, 200yd, 250yd breaststroke, 300yd IM), 5 long course (110yd, 220yd breaststroke 330yd IM relays); 40-44 Age Group: 29 NATIONAL RECORDS; 45-49 Age Group: 7 WORLD RECORDS, 39 NATIONAL RECORDS; 50-54 Age Group: 16 WORLD RECORDS, 54 NATIONAL RECORDS; 55-59 Age Group: 12 WORLD RECORDS, 38 NATIONAL RECORDS; 60-64 Age Group: 1 WORLD RECORD, 2 NATIONAL RECORDS; 65-69 Age Group: 6 WORLD RECORDS, 4 NATIONAL RECORDS; US MASTERS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS (130): 74 short course (50yd, 100yd, 200yd butterfly, 200yd backstroke, 100yd, 200yd breaststroke, 50yd, 100yd, 200yd, 500yd, 1650yd freestyle, 100yd, 200yd, 400yd IM), 56 long course (50m, 100m, 200m butterfly, 100m, 200m breaststroke, 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 1500m freestyle, 200m, 400m IM).
She was not a particularly good athlete in school. In fact, the school coaches never considered her when drawing up a team roster, but this strong willed and dedicated girl coached herself to become the best breaststroker in the world both as a younger senior swimmer and later as a master swimmer. She had a number one world ranking in 1953, beating out Hungary’s Hall of Famer Eva Szekely, the 1952 Olympic champion and a number one world ranking in each of her Masters swimming age groups.
Gail Peters Roper, born in 1929 in Trenton, New Jersey, learned to swim on her own by reading books on swimming and then trying it out in the water. She never found a coach serious enough to work with her, but she was the 1948-1951 New Jersey State Champion and a 1948 Eastern Interscholastic Champion. In 1951, at the age of 22, a few years after high school, she moved to Washington, D.C. as a military geology draftsman for the government. It was here that she began swimming with the girls on the Walter Reed Hospital Team relays, winning and setting records in the breaststroke, individual medley and 300yd medley relays with Hall of Famers Mary Freeman and Shelly Mann. In 1952, she became the US National Champion in the 100yd and 200yd breaststroke and the 300yd individual medley in National Record time. Her performances garnered her a spread in various magazines including the April 1952 Life magazine which described her after winning the US National Championships, “in a bathing suit, she looked scrawny and in street clothes, wearing glasses with a pink rim and rhinestones, she looked anything but athletic. But in the water she looked wonderful and became the star of the meet.” She was the swimming nominee for the coveted Sullivan Award that same year.
She coached herself to the 1952 Olympic Trials where she qualified first in the 200m breaststroke on the US Olympic team. All set to take on the world in Helsinki, she pulled a ligament in her ankle just before the competition and was not able to race. She left Finland disappointed, but eager to continue in the water.
The next year at the US AAU National Championships she won the High Point award by winning the 100yd and 250yd breaststroke and 300yd medley relay. Swimming long course, she won the 110yd, 220yd breaststroke, 330yd IM, 330yd medley relay and the 880yd freestyle relay. And again she was the Sullivan Award nominee.
Gail swam until she was 26 years old, beyond the normal age for a competitive female swimmer. It was then time to start a family and live the family life. She stayed away from swimming for 18 years.
It was at the age of 44 that Gail began to swim again, this time on her daughter’s swim team in California. She competed in the first Masters meet ever held in 1970 and from the start began to set national records in all four strokes and the individual medley. From 1974 to 1978, her five years in the women’s 45-49 age group, she held every short course yards record in her age group as well as 14 of the 16 long course records for most of those years. She has set over 42 world records and won 27 gold medals at the first 5 Masters World Championship meets throughout the world. She has won over 130 US Masters National Championships setting 53 records at these meets. All total, she has set 166 US National Records in all of the age groups in which she has participated from the 40-44 to the 65-69 age groups.
In 1986, Gail was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and advised to severely restrict her swimming. Following the doctor’s advice, she finally retired in 1990 and from 1991 through 1994, she was the Masters coach for the very successful University of San Francisco Masters Team.
But you can’t keep a good girl out of the water and in 1994, she decided to return to swimming, instantly setting national and world records in her new 65-69 age group. Sports Illustrated has called her the most dominant swimmer ever. Today, as a mother of 7 and grandmother too, she continues to swim up a storm.