Friday, September 29, 2000
Local former Olympian to be inducted into Hall of Fame
On October 11, Joan Rosazza of Prospect Street, a silver medalist at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, will be inducted into the New England Women's Sports Hall of Fame 2000. Rosazza was a member of the U.S. Women's 400-meter free-style relay team that placed second. She also swam in the individual 100-meter free-style competition, placing fourth, one-tenth of a second behind the bronze medal winner.
In these last days of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and just before her induction into the Hall of Fame, we asked Rosazza to tell us about her sports career and the experience of competing in the 1956 Olympics.
Her swimming career began as a young girl growing up in Torrington, Connecticut. Rosazza's mother loved swimming and took her daughter and three sons to a nearby pond to swim during the summer. In the winter when Rosazza was nine or ten years old, the wife of the new superintendent of schools in Torrington started a swim team for girls at the YMCA. Doris O'Meara Murphy had competed in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, swimming the backstroke. As Rosazza remembered her, she was a great organizer and an enthusiastic coach. "It was the mid-'40s and the Y was the only place in town where a girl could compete," said Rosazza. "I wasn't a star at the beginning. I would usually finish third or fourth in meets at other Ys throughout the state, as well as those in New York and New Jersey. It wasn't until I was around 15 years old that I started getting good. I liked swimming and I wanted to win, and there came a time when everything came together. It just happened and it was then that swimming people around the country became aware of me."
As a 16-year-old junior in high school, Rosazza and her teammates were taken by train to the Nationals in Daytona Beach, Florida. She swam in the 100-yard free-style and came in tenth. The next year, as a senior, she came in third at the Nationals.
Asked about her training routine, Rosazza reported that she would swim Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for an hour and a half, plus overtime, until "they threw me out." Later, she was given a key to the pool so she could swim Sunday afternoons. These were the days when neither high schools nor colleges had swim teams for girls.
At the Nationals, Rosazza had met women from the West Lafayette Swim Club, a club located in the home town of Purdue University. Richard Pappenguth was the Purdue men's swim team coach. He had been the women's swim coach at the 1952 Olympics and was coaching, without pay, the West Lafayette Swim Club's women's team. When it came time to go to college, Rosazza chose Purdue to pursue her education, first majoring in math and physics and later switching to physical education. She had come from a long line of teachers, and she finally realized that what she wanted to do was teach.
The West Lafayette girls' team was allowed to use the pool at Purdue, but had to sell visors at football games and put on water shows to raise money for warm-up suits and gasoline for the drive to the Nationals in Florida, remembered Rosazza. As for Richard Pappenguth, he proved to be an excellent coach who understood his latest freshman swim star. "At practice I worked hard but never came close to the times I could do in meets. When competing, I was very competitive. I felt like I was flying and the race seemed effortless. I wanted to do my best, but I also wanted to win. I never loafed at practice; I just aimed to do my best," she recalled.
At the 1956 spring Nationals during her freshman year, Rosazza got the flu and came in third in the 100-yard free-style race. Later, as a member of the 400-yard relay team, she and her teammates came in first, breaking the world record.
Rosazza had been thinking about the Olympics ever since her senior year in high school. Now with the huge success at the Nationals, she began to focus on the Olympic tryouts to be held in Detroit in August. During the summer, she and her teammates met in West Lafayette for six weeks of twice-a-day intensive training. This led to Rosazza's success at the tryouts, coming in second in the 100-meter individuals free-style event, thus qualifying her for the Olympic 100-meter individuals race and the relay team. (From the top six swimmers, four plus two alternates were chosen for the relay team. The top three finishers would also compete in the individuals event.)
On to Melbourne
Rosazza laughed when she recalled her trip to Australia. The Olympics were to be held from November 22 to December 8, and the U.S. team had been training for a month before in Los Angeles. The first leg of the trip was a nine-hour flight from L.A. to Hawaii, not yet a state, where the only place to stay for three nights was the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Then it was on to the Fiji Islands to refuel after another nine-hour flight. "We were in the middle of nowhere with no place to stay, and at the airport only a native hut and natives waiting to greet us," recalled Rosazza. From Fiji, it took the plane another nine hours before it set down in Melbourne -- a twenty-seven-hour flight in all.
"We stayed in the women's quarters at the Olympic Village," said Rosazza. "One of the best things about the Olympics was meeting all the people. Three or four of us hung out together. We ate our meals in the American diningroom, sharing a table with basketball players and trackstars. That's where I met future Celtic basketball player, Bill Russell.
"We were in Australia for about a month," continued Rosazza. "There were no telephones, information was sent by ticker tape, and we couldn't call our parents. It was a different world back then."
The parade into the stadium was something that Rosazza will never forget. "Outside the stadium, the athletes were hanging around chatting, waiting to line up. Finally they announced it was time for the USA to line up. We marched down a tunnel and once inside the stadium, with more people together than I had ever seen in my whole life, a fabulous smile came out on each participant's face. It was so exciting.
"We had to wait while the ceremony was going on, so we started trading pins, buttons and gloves with the Russians, who were standing beside us. It was the height of the ColdWar," continued Rosazza.
It was also the time of the Hungarian Revolution and many of the Hungarian athletes that Rosazza got to know had been Freedom Fighters at night and athletes who trained for the Olympics during the day. Forty members of the Hungarian team did not return to their country at the conclusion of the Olympics. One sixteen-year-old swimmer had lost her parents in the Revolution and had left the country with only the clothes on her back. The Americans gave her clothing, and in the end she went home with an American swimmer.
Getting back to the opening ceremonies, Rosazza spoke with awe about watching the flame carried into the stadium."It was so exciting, especially if you knew the history of the flame.
Swimming her heart out
As for her swimming events, she and her teammates in the relay captured a Silver Medal. "I swam well, but in the individual 100-meter swim, I swam my best time ever. I was the fastest, except for three Australians, and I was only one-tenth of a second away from third and winning a bronze,"said Rosazza proudly, some forty-four years later.
Back to Purdue
After Melbourne, Rosazza returned to Purdue to resume her studies. In the spring of 1957 she competed once againin the Nationals, but this time she had nothing to prove. "I was terrible and I knew it was time to quit. I just didn't have it. I wasn't devastated," she continued. "I just didn't want to do it any more."
Upon graduating in January 1960, Rosazza took a job for one semester, teaching at Evanston High School in Evanston, Illinois. That summer, while on a Youth Hostel bicycle tour in England, her wheel came loose, and as she explained it, she went flying and hit a stone wall, causing serious damage to her head. She lost one eye and a piece of her forehead. She spent the next six weeks recovering in a hospital near Oxford. Always one to look on the bright side of any experience, Rosazza remembered the wonderful Englishwoman whom a nurse at the hospital had brought in to visit her. "She took me under her wing, and when I was discharged,she invited me to stay in her large rambling house with all of her family. It was fabulous," reported Rosazza. "We had high tea in the afternoon, I met all of the relatives and became a part of the family. Even when my brother who was studying for the priesthood in Paris came to visit me, he was invited to stay."
Upon returning to the U.S., Rosazza underwent plastic surgery at a hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, following which she taught for several years in that area. She eventually received a master's degree in psychology from Boston College and realized what she really wanted was a career as a teacher.
She took a job in Winchester, Massachusetts, first in the middle school and then at the high school. She taught physical education and coached field hockey, gymnastics andsoftball. Rosazza said she loved teaching. "Teachers go way back in my family."
Rosazza retired from the teaching profession several years ago, and now spends her time bringing up her two young adopted daughters from China, Maggie and Abby. As Rosazza sees it, it's the best thing she has ever done.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito