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Mary Wayte reflects on anniversary of ‘84 Olympics
Mary Wayte Bradburne remembers most things about her trip to the ‘84 summer Olympics very clearly. She remembers joking around with her brother Mike right before her 200-meter freestyle race. She remembers how she felt standing on the block before the starting gun went off. But she hasn’t thought about those things in a long time. She said after about year twenty, the story gets old.
“I’m busy,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I have a family, I work full-time. I don’t ever think about it.”
Last Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of Mary Wayte Bradburne winning the gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle at the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, besting Hall of Fame swimmer and fellow American Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead. Bradburne also won gold in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay that summer, before coming home to Mercer Island for a parade and having the community swimming pool named after her.
But it wasn’t until she recently read Daniel James Brown’s best-seller, “The Boys in the Boat” about the American rowing team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, that the anniversary dawned on her.
“One of the things they did, they got together every decade for a ceremonial row,” she recounted. “So I was trying to think when my next decade was and I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s this year!’ It was a huge cause for reflection. I’ve been reflecting a lot over the last several months.”
Bradburne began swimming on the Island as a young girl, joining the Mercerdale Swimming Club, which is now the Mercer Island Youth & Family Services Thrift Store at Mercerdale Park. She began swimming year-round when she was eight years old, after asking her mother, ‘Who are these kids that are beating me and why are they beating me?’
She trained under coach Jack Ridley while swimming with the Chinook Aquatic Club, and she credits Ridley for preparing her to be an Olympic swimmer. Though she admits her feelings about being an Olympian have changed tremendously over the years.
“At first, there was this sense of ‘Is this really real? Could I repeat it?’ That’s why it was important to go back to the ‘88 games. Also, there was this sense that I would trade it all away for a normal childhood because there is just this element of insanity that goes hand in hand with that type of training and intensity.
“But I never dreamed of the benefits and the doors it opened. It was like an automatic free pass to being legitimate. Even in a job interview or ordinary conversation, if someone finds out I won a gold medal, I no longer have to prove I know how to set a goal or complete a job. Those become table stakes instead of proving ground and that is significant in any walk of life. That has been wonderful.”
Watching video clips of the 1984 women’s 200-meter Olympic race, one may be surprised by Bradburne’s cool demeanor before the event. When she waved to the crowd during pre-race introductions, Bradburne appeared calm and collected, even breezy. She said there were a few important factors that contributed to her state of mind immediately before the race, beginning with her preparation.
“I knew that I would’ve done nothing different leading up to that point,” she said. “I’d done everything I possibly could have to prepare; there’s nothing I would’ve changed in my training or prep.”
The next piece was upon spotting her brother Mike, with whom Bradburne says she shares a twin-like quality, her brother yelled his sister’s nickname “Grandma!” which helped ease some pre-race tension. Finally, when she lined up with the other swimmers for the event, Bradburne said she felt something she hasn’t experienced before or since that Olympic race.
“When I actually got behind the block, it was like God wrapped his arms around me and I felt the most unbelievable peace I’ve ever felt in my life, to that and since that point. After having that experience of incredible peace wrapping around me, the race was sort of secondary. Everything past that is crazy.”
Bradburne said up to the race, she wasn’t very religious, something that changed since she retired from swimming. She’s read about other athletes having similar experiences on the grand stage, and said she was just happy to be there and to be ready.
“It’s like on any given day, this could’ve been anyone else’s race and you know that. The world is celebrating you and in your head, you’re thinking, ‘I’m not Michael Phelps. I’m not Janet Evans.’ To have everything line up at the right time for my perfect race is humbling. It’s incredible.”
After the ‘84 Olympics, Bradburne returned to the summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988, winning a silver medal in the women’s 4x100-meter medley relay and a bronze medal in the women’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay. She retired shortly after, returning to the ‘92 games as a color commentator.
These days, Bradburne is limited in her swimming. She’s dealt with tendonitis in her shoulders and legs, which she admits isn’t altogether a bad thing. “[When I swim], I start easy and it’s fun, but as I get faster, I get too ambitious. I think the injuries are good for me,” she said.
After moving back to Seattle with her family three years ago, Bradburne has been meaning to take her kids to the pool that bears her name, even though she said she’s never recognized when she’s gone back. “Most people think I’m dead, it’s pretty funny,” she said with a laugh.
Bradburne said she has heard about the repairs needed at Mary Wayte Pool and stated that the pool should be named after the benefactor who returns it to its former glory, whoever that may be.
“The area has a rich history and heritage of good and great swimmers, so the thought of one more pool possibly shutting down makes me sad,” she said. “If I had unlimited resources, I’d do something about it.”
While reflecting over the past three decades, Bradburne asked herself what in her environment led to her obsession with getting to that place where succeeding is so important. She acknowledges that the culture of where she grew up definitely played a significant role. Recalling the accomplishments of her friends and peers growing up on Mercer Island, she believes people on the Island surround their children with a sense of ‘this is just what we do.’ Because you’re a part of that kind of high-achieving culture, you don’t know any different. You don’t notice it.
“In this whole period of reflection, I’ve seen how much it means to me to have grown up on Mercer Island and have those friends and teachers,” she said. “My graduating class was extraordinary, they were good to each other. It means so much to me to have been raised on Mercer Island.”
For the YouTube clip of the 1984 women's 200-meter freestyle, visit www.youtube.com.