As an athlete, how can you top competing in the Olympics? Clara Lamore Walker took part in the 1948 London Games, and thought that was the peak of her career as a swimmer. But happily, this Rhode Island native was wrong.
Walker died earlier this month at age 94, but not before she set more amateur records than any swimmer in the world, male or female. “For an athlete who assumed she had reached her personal best, even if it was short of a medal, Mrs. Walker roused herself to a remarkable comeback,” the New York Times wrote in her obituary.
Back in the Pool at 54
“When Clara Lamore climbed out of the pool at the 1948 Olympic Games in London after swimming the 200 meter breaststroke as a member of the United States Women’s Olympic Team, she swore she would never do it again,” reports the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) website. At 22, she had been swimming ten years and had won three U.S. National Championships. This is an incredibly apt time to use the phrase, “she threw in the towel.”
It was as if all the years away from the water didn’t matter.
Over the next 32 years, she worked for a telephone company, spent seven years in a cloistered religious order, and became the first female graduate of Providence College in Rhode Island. For seven years, she was married to a Navy Officer, who died in 1970. She then taught school and became a guidance counselor.
When her doctor recommended swimming for her chronic back pain in 1984, she thought she would do it for three days a week just until her back improved. On a lark, she entered a Masters Swim Meet (Masters is the designation given to amateur competitive swimmers above the age of 18). Not only did she win her race, she set a world record for the 50-yard breaststroke for her 50-to-54 age group.
“It was as if all the years away from the water didn’t matter,” the ISHOF website notes. “It was as though she were alive again back in the Olneyville Boys Club [her former swim club], her world defined by the borders of the pool.”
Anatomy of a Comeback
Competing in her respective age groups as she continued to compete, she set 484 Masters National Records and 184 Masters World Records. The first Masters swimmer to be inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame, she was undefeated in the pool for a decade and was named the Outstanding Masters Swimmer in her age group for eight years.
Speaking to ESPN, John O’Neill, Providence College’s current swimming and diving coach, called Walker “an extraordinary woman” and “one of the most focused and driven athletes I have ever worked with.”
We at NextTribe make quite a fuss saying that there is still so much to accomplish and contribute after the age of 50. It may sound like a cliche at this point. But the life of Clara Lamore Walker proves how real and rewarding that idea is.