Like Esther Williams, the legendary star of those splashy Hollywood musicals that featured synchronized swimming, Olympic gold medalist and Cal swimming champion Ann Curtis Cuneo has lived a charmed life--just add water.
Cuneo, Cal's first swimmer to win the gold medal when she competed at the 1948 Olympics in London, began her swimming career one summer while attending school at a convent in Santa Rosa.
"It was hot. The nuns taught swimming. And I swam well for my age," Cuneo said. Cuneo went on to become a defending champion for the Crystal Plunge swim team of San Francisco, training there for eight years before coming to Cal in 1943.
She had racked up 31 national titles and won 11 consecutive high-point trophies by the time she participated on the U.S. Olympic swim team.
To prepare for the Olympics, Cuneo trained at Treasure Island in the Navy's 50 meter pool.
"I arranged my class schedule around my swimming. I remember Brutus Hamilton, the track and field coach, talking with my professors and asking them to be flexible."
Between training sessions at Treasure Island, Cuneo and her swimmates performed "water shows" for Navy personnel. The synchronized swim routines made popular in movies of Esther Williams were a hit with the servicemen.
Cuneo said one of the highlights of her swim career at Cal was meeting Williams at a national swim invitational in Los Angeles.
"She was very hospitable to us," Cuneo recalled. "She invited us to the MGM studios and showed us her wardrobe and pool."
In the first Olympic competition, Cuneo slipped on matting and placed second in the 100 meter freestyle. She made up for lost points in the relay, winning the gold in the 400 meter freestyle and the 400 meter free relay.
Cuneo remembers the final race the best. "In the water, I could hear the crowd roaring. I realized the British swimmer was creeping up on me. All I could think of was giving it my all at that instant."
"I forget all about it in between games, until I watch it on television," she said. "I know that glassy look in a medalist's eyes....You've thought about it, you've visualized it, you've swam it. But nothing compares to the real thing."
Cuneo and the other Olympians were honored with a ticker tape parade down Market Street in San Francisco. Cuneo was given keys to the city and a Chevrolet convertible.
She opened her own swimming school in San Rafael 37 years ago and is now cultivating the next generation of Olympic swimmers.