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MI Olympic swimmer still inspires

Like many other American cities, Mercer Island has its own proud list of Olympic medalists. There is Mary Wayte — gold medalist swimmer in the 1984 Los Angeles Games — whose name has been eternalized by the Island’s Mary Wayte Pool; figure skater Peter Kennedy, who won silver skating pairs with his sister, Karol, in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo; and Carl Buchanan, who won gold for sailing in the 1984 Summer Games.

All of these Islanders have led lives that inspire. Each of their stories is worth telling, as is the story of former Islander and Olympian Nancy Ramey.

Ramey, whose married name today is Nancy Lethcoe, was an Island celebrity 52 years ago, returning from the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne with a hefty silver medal.

At age 16, Lethcoe was one of the youngest swimmers to compete in the Melbourne Games and one of the first to swim the 100-meter butterfly event, which was introduced to the Olympics that year.

Today, the 68-year-old is still breaking ground. A resident of Valdez, Alaska, Lethcoe is running for the Alaska Legislature this fall. An active environmentalist, co-author of four books, successful business entrepreneur and world-record breaking swimmer, the Mercer Island native is hardly short of life accomplishments; yet her modesty suggests otherwise.

“I swam because I loved swimming. I liked the workouts. I felt good afterward,” Lethcoe says, reflecting on her days as a competative swimmer. “It was trying to do my very best at something I did well and trying to figure out how to do it just a little bit better.”

And that, Lethcoe adds — the personal quest for improvement — is what has carried her through in life.

Nancy Lethcoe was born on June 29, 1940 in Seattle. Her parents moved to Mercer Island “before there was the floating bridge,” settling in a home six lots away from the Calkins Landing ferry dock. Lethcoe’s earliest memories are of wading along the Mercer Island shoreline.

“You could say I was a water baby,” she says. “Later, we had a raft and we’d dive and swim off our neighbor’s dock all the time.”

As a young girl, Lethcoe spent her summers swimming with other Island children through an annual Mercer Island Parks and Recreation youth program.

“The Parks and Rec. bus would pick us up and take us down to a beach on the South end of the Island. There was a bathing house to change in and roped-off area for swimmers,” she says.

With so much time in the water, Lethcoe soon discovered she had a natural athletic talent.

“At the end of summer, we’d have swim races and I was winning them all.”

By age 13, Lethcoe was ready for competition. But in 1952, girls’ competitive sports were nearly non-existent. It would be more than 20 years before Mercer Island High School offered a girls’ athletic program, and Eastside youth club sports were dominated by boys. The only female swim team that Lethcoe could find to join was at the Washington Athletic Club (WAC).

Coaching under former Olympic swimmer Helene Madison, Lethcoe soon developed the skills necessary to compete at a national level. She was watched closely for her talent. Her training became rigorous. Her dedication to — and love for — swimming grew.

To build endurance, the teenager would swim the span of the 1-90 bridge and back — freestyle one direction, butterfly the other — with her boyfriend following along in a motorboat. By this point, she was already winning U.S. championships.

“When I was 15, I set my first world record — the 100-meter butterfly in one minute and nine seconds, I think — and it looked like I might have a chance for the Olympic team.”

It turns out, she did.

In August 1956, Lethcoe qualified for the Melbourne Olympics in the 100-meter butterfly event. The following fall, instead of beginning a new school year with her peers, the MIHS sophomore set off to train in Australia with the U.S. Olympic Team.

Reflecting on her experience in Melbourne, Lethcoe barely mentions her silver-medal win. She struggles to recall her Olympic race times. Instead, she talks about the friendships she made, the athletes who inspired her and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

“While we were in Melbourne, the Revolution broke in Hungary,” she recalls. “The Hungarian Olympic team got caught outside the country. Nobody on the team could get reports from home. They didn’t know when the Revolution would end or how they would get back.”

As socially conscious as she was independent, Lethcoe took it upon herself to invite Hungarian swimmer Szusza Ordogh — a fellow 16-year-old — home to Mercer Island with her. The remaining 32 members of the Hungarian team were hosted by individuals and organizations across the United States.

Reports of Lethcoe’s generous deed were picked up by journalists from the Seattle Times to Sports Illustrated Magazine.

“Ordogh was welcomed to a new life in a West Coast home,” an article in the Jan. 7, 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated reads.

The young Hungarian swimmer spent three months on Mercer Island, living with Lethcoe and attending high school at MIHS until she could return to her country after the political situation stabilized.

Meanwhile, life resumed its regular pace for Lethcoe. Despite her new reputation as an Olympic medalist, the athlete says that “people tried to keep life very normal for me.”

“Seattle wanted a parade for me, but my parents said no. They thought it might go to my head,” Lethcoe says.

It seems this humility was passed on.

Today, Lethcoe is both modest and grounded. She leads an awe-inspiring life without bravado. She gives back to the community. She cherishes nature. She pursues her passions, which have hop-scotched from swimming to education, adventure tourism to writing, environmental activism to politics.

After living in Alaska for more than 40 years where she and her late husband, Jim, spent a lifetime teaching, sailing the Prince William Sound and establishing their own adventure-tourism company, followed by their own publishing company (Prince William Sound Books) through which they co-authored four books, Lethcoe says there is no other place in the world where she would rather be.

“Jim and I, we realized that where we lived was more important than our professions,” she explains. “We loved Alaska, so we just changed our professions to live there. It’s just such a remarkably beautiful area.”

And Lethcoe has labored to preserve that beauty. An active citizen and environmentalist, she formerly represented the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, playing a crucial roll in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup, helped establish the Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association, and is a recipient of the Alaska Conservation Foundation’s prestigious Celia Hunter Award for her leadership and dedication to preserving the state’s natural habitat.

With this and more filling up her resume, it is little wonder that Lethcoe, now retired and living on her sailboat in the Prince William Sound, is running for Alaska State House District 12.

“I’d like to work for the common good of the people of Alaska,” she says. “I’m interested in energy, education issues, jobs and the Alaskan economy.”

With hardly a moment to spare in this month’s flurry of campaigning, Lethcoe doubts she will have time to watch most of the Beijing Olympic Games. Yet she will do her best to catch the swimming events.

Although her Olympic career ended after the 1956 Melbourne Games, the spirit of the Olympics — the invaluable friendships and international camaraderie — has stayed with Lethcoe for life.

“In 1956, we were in the midst of the Cold War. The news media said America is the best, but for those of us who were athletes, to us the Olympic ideal was to compete fairly among other athletes, not to be involved with nationalism and war-mongering,” she says, adding that she supports China as host of the 2008 Summer Games.

“The true spirit of the Olympics is to bring people together to have greater understanding,” Lethcoe adds. “That is what I felt in Melbourne, and I believe this spirit is still alive today.”

To find out more about Nancy Lethcoe and her work in Alaska, go to www.lethcoeforstatehouse.com/

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