Olympic gold medalist shares memories with local kids

Jane Brown
Jane Brown

She stood before a watching world, still in high school but wise enough to realize a moment of a lifetime could have been passing.

Forty-eight years later, the scene remains as clear as a pool for local swimming instructor Jane Brown.

The time was 1968, the place Mexico City. The Summer Olympics were ending, and Brown and the rest of the American athletes celebrated with the other national teams at the closing ceremonies. She had a gold medal from the 4x100-meter swimming freestyle relay, a bronze from the 200-meter freestyle and a sudden bittersweet feeling.

She turned to Gary Hall, a legendary swimmer and eventual 10-time world record holder.

“He stood next to me and I was in tears, and I looked at him and I said, ‘This is it for me. I won’t be at the next one, but you will be,’ ” Brown recalled. “He just put his arm around me and comforted me.”

Turns out, she was half right.

Hall made the 1972 Games in Munich, but so did Brown to her surprise. She had dropped out of collegiate swimming before deciding to train in earnest for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Her push led to another 4x100-meter freestyle relay gold medal.

Today, the medals still shine as brightly as her passion for the Olympics. A former collegiate coach, she traveled this summer to the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Neb., and couldn’t wait for the 2016 Olympic Games that began Friday in Rio de Janeiro.

“I get excited every time,” she said.

She recently brought her Olympic memories and trio of medals to a school library reading. Children took turns draping the lustrous disks around their necks, feeling the tug and weight against their chests that elite athletes across the globe yearn to experience. Olympic gold medals can become talismans to some, a tangible link to health and good fortune — as Brown found out once.

“The most memorable moment visiting with my (gold) medal was at Hershey where I visited a floor where children were fighting for their lives and parents were hoping for miracles,” said Brown, who lost her 3-year-old sister to leukemia.

“Some parents there put the medal around their own necks for good luck. Some of the children, even the babies, had the medal put in their hands. It was extremely emotional for me.”

For Brown, though, her medals represent the love that carried her to Mexico and Germany.

“When talking about my Olympic experiences, I try to always mention the incredible support I got from my wonderful parents, family, coaches and friends,” she said.

Growing up near Philadelphia, Brown (neé Barkman) started swimming competitively at 7. Four years later, she began her path to the Olympics by training with renowned swimming coach Mary Freeman at the Vesper Boat Club in the city.

At 17, holding the national 100-yard freestyle record, she qualified for the U.S. team. It was a different era in women’s swimming — no collegiate scholarships, goggles or sleek suits— but today’s athletes could relate to her thrill at representing her country.

At an Olympic Games famous for Bob Beamon’s world-record long jump and the Black Power fist salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Brown contributed to history by completing an American sweep of the 200-meter freestyle and helping set an Olympic record in the 4x100 relay final. She also saw Jesse Owens at the Olympic Village.

Back home, she went on to swim at Indiana University but wound up transferring to Salem College, a small women’s college in Winston-Salem, N.C. Swimming fell by the wayside — until her family and friends, reminding her she still held a national record, wondered if she would give the 1972 Olympics a shot.

Her father delivered a pep talk: Her family was completely behind her if she went for it. That sealed the deal. In the fall of 1971, she dived back into training, first at Wake Forest University, then back in Philadelphia, the laps leading her to the team trials.

“I was astonished to be in the Olympic trials, let alone making the team,” she said. “Just mind-boggling.”

Again, she was part of history. The games would be forever known for Mark Spitz’s seven gold swimming medals and the terrorist attack on the Israeli team, but Brown’s 4x100-meter relay team set a world record in its final, narrowly beating out East Germany.

Unlike later female Olympic stars, Brown and her peers received little recognition afterward. Sponsors, endorsements, awards: All that was yet to come. A national pantyhose company did ask Brown to show off her calves in a commercial, but she was busy with school and declined.

But if she didn’t benefit financially, the Olympics gave Brown something else: a lifelong commitment to swimming. She became the head women’s coach at Princeton University, and also coached at Tennessee, Old Dominion, Penn State and, as a volunteer, Brown.

Nowadays, in addition to her regular job as an elementary school teacher, she teaches swimming to all ages, as well as works with Paralympic athletes at the invitation of her friend, Teri Jordan, the Penn State Ability Athletics program director.

Brown has been inspired so much from working with athletes Brett Gravatt, Nick Adcock and Sean Brame, she wants to continue Paralympic coaching in her retirement.

“I have to be busy,” she said. “If I could be busy in a sport that has been so much a part of my life, and with people I enjoy so much, that would be such a fabulous step for me.”

Competing in two Olympic Games also supplied perspective to Brown, who after all the years considers her three grown children, not her medals, as her greatest accomplishments.

She knows how much luck it took for swimmers to reach Rio, to climb to their sport’s pinnacle when a fraction of a second often separates elation and heartbreak. Do your best, she tells her young swimmers, and you’ve already won.

It’s a hard message to absorb, but Brown understood it in Mexico City.

After she walked off the award stand for the 200 freestyle, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter approached her. Wasn’t she disappointed with finishing third?

“I was spellbound and hadn’t been coached as to what to say,” Brown said. “I just looked at this man and said, as I would say today: ‘I was lucky to be in the Olympics at all, let alone win a medal.’ ”

Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Send ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast. net.