Virginia Duenkel (USA)
Honor Swimmer (1985)
FOR THE RECORD: OLYMPIC GAMES: 1964 gold (400m freestyle), bronze (100m backstroke); WORLD RECORD: 1 1964 (100m backstroke); AAU NATIONALS (4): 1962 (200m backstroke), 1963 (200yd, 200m backstroke, 1500m freestyle); AMERICAN RECORDS (2): 1962 (200m backstroke), 1963 (200yd back); PAN AMERICAN GAMES: 1963 gold (relay); WOMEN’S NATIONAL COLLEGIATE Titles: 1965, 1966, 1967 (backstroke).
“Ginny” Duenkel won four U.S. Nationals, but none were in the events that she competed in at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Her two best events, the 200 backstroke and the 1500 freestyle, were not Olympic events. She had to settle for the shorter 100m back and 400m freestyle, neither of which she had won at either the U. S. Nationals or at the U.S. trials. Nevertheless, Ginny had her heart set on winning the 100 back, thereby qualifying for the sure win U.S. Medley Relay. She lost by a look and finished third ( a tenth of a second behind first).
The next day was to be the 400 freestyle and another chance for Duenkel, but a slim chance since she was up against world record holders and teammate Marilyn Romenofsky, the present world record holder who won in the preliminaries.
The race was a honey. Romenofsky, Stickles, Fraser of Australia and Hughes of Canada, all present or former world record holders, finished in that order, but all were behind Virginia Duenkel, the new Olympic Champion who had won her first individual event in international competition.
Nobody can be quite sure what went on in this quiet, gutsy girl’s head, but her brother Bob says he thinks he knows her well enough to be sure that if she’d won the backstroke, she wouldn’t have returned the next day to win the 400.
Ginny won her first Nationals at age 15, finally beating Donna deVarona in the 200 backstroke. In this race, she set her first world record, crashing the time of Japan’s Satoko Tanaka. Ginny accomplished all this and more on one hour a day workouts six times a week with her coach Frank Elm, commuting 50 miles from her home in West Orange, New Jersey to the Summit “Y” in Rutgers.