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Ann Curtis Cuneo

Ann Curtis Cuneo Obituary
Ann Curtis Cuneo Ann Curtis Cuneo, native San Franciscan Olympic swimming champion, died Tuesday at home in San Rafael, California. She was 86. Ann won two gold medals and one silver medal in freestyle events at the 1948 summer Olympic games held in London, England. At that time there were only five Olympic swimming events for women and participants were limited to swimming only three events. She won the 400 meter freestyle, setting a new Olympic Record, and swam a brilliant anchor on the winning 4 by 100 meter freestyle relay. The U.S. team was not favored to win but did so while setting an Olympic Record. Her silver medal came in the 100 meter freestyle. Ann was the premier female freestyle swimmer of her era. She won 34 National AAU swimming championships in her career spanning from 1943 through 1948, a record finally broken by Tracy Caulkins in 1981. Ann was the star freestyler of Hall of Fame coach Charlie Sava. She was a middle distance swimmer and not a sprinter although she won the U.S. 100 yard and 100 meter crowns six times. Cuneo won all 9 of her Nationals in the 400 meter distance and was undefeated leading up to her Olympic 400 meter win. Her other national titles came in the 200-, 800- and 1500 meter events. Ann set two world records, in the 880 yard and 440 yard freestyle events. Ann was taught to swim by the nuns at the Ursuline Convent in Santa Rosa, California where she attended boarding school. At age 11 she began competitive swimming at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. At 15 she tried-out for the Crystal Plunge swim team coached by Charlie Sava. When Ann first swam for Charlie he was not impressed with her abilities. Her mother, Florence Curtis, begged Charlie to include Ann on his team. She trained seven days a week, swimming three miles a day. After two months or so, Charlie recognized he was training a potential champion. Miss Curtis graduated from Washington High School and attended the University of California at Berkeley. Since Cal did not have a women's swim team she traveled twice a day from Berkeley to Treasure Island to train. Because of World War II the Olympic Games were cancelled in 1944, however she was unanimously chosen for the "Mythical Olympic Team" by the International Swimming Hall of Fame. When she finally competed in the 1948 games, Ann was 22 years old. In addition to winning her medals, Ann said another honor was to be invited to Buckingham Palace after the games to meet King George IV and his daughter, then-Princess Elizabeth. When she returned to San Francisco from London she and other Olympians were honored with a ticker tape parade down Market Street. Cuneo was also given the keys to the city and a Chevrolet convertible. Ann married her college sweetheart, Gordon Cuneo, in 1949. Ann met Gordon at Cal where he was a starting forward on the basketball team. Ann Curtis Cuneo was one of the best known sportswomen of her time and was the first woman and first swimmer to win the Sullivan Award in 1944. This award is given each year to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the U.S.A. That same year she was named the Associated Press female athlete. She was a cover girl on the front of Colliers, Newsweek and several other national magazines. Ann was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1966 and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1983. In 1999 the ANG newspaper agency named her one of the "50 Most Significant Bay Area Sports Figures of the Century." In spite of all of the competitive swimming accolades Ann always thought her signature achievement was building and operating the Ann Curtis School of Swimming in San Rafael. In 1959, with three young children and one on the way, Ann and husband Gordon moved from San Francisco to San Rafael, built swimming pool facilities (Gordon built the office, bath house and pump room after work and on the weekends) and opened the swim club. While raising five children, she coached a swim team for 25 years, a synchronized team for 12 years, and built the business into the well-known swim school and private swim club that it is today. For the past 53 years, she has provided a valuable service to the community. It is estimated that over 40,000 students have learned to swim at her school, which continues to draw many customers from the broader Bay Area. Celebrated graduates include Rick DeMont (gold medalist, Munich, 1972 and world record holder in the '70s) and Ben Wildman-Tobriner (gold medalist, Beijing, 2008). Ann's passion and love for swimming moved her to try to provide the best swim lessons to as many students as possible. She credited her teaching progression to her coach Charlie, although she continued to make improvements to her method throughout the years. Sava also designed the teaching pool, which is shallow throughout and allows the students to practice skill repetition to acquire muscle memory. Her daughter, Carrie, now runs the swim program and continues to provide the same high quality for which Ann strived. Her swim instructors and life guards have been older high-school and college students, 16- to 25-year olds. So many of these young adults got their first working experience under Ann's wing. She set high standards and helped shape their professional lives. Her influence is best expressed by a past female employee: "As amazingly accomplished as she was, she was extremely humble, hard-working, and very self-assured. She showed me what it means to be a strong woman, without sacrificing her femininity. She is irreplaceable and has touched so many thousands of people for the better. I am so grateful to have known her and learned from her grace." -Amy Jones. Ann is preceded in death by her husband Gordon and her son Bill Cuneo. She will be dearly missed by her children Carrie Cuneo of San Rafael, Susan Cuneo Starr of Lafayette, CA, David Cuneo of Corte Madera, Brian Cuneo of Truckee, nine grandchildren Kristina Reich, Kara Sanderson, Nicholas Starr, Alex Starr, Curtis Cuneo, Jack Cuneo, Steffen Cuneo, AnnElise Cuneo, Kate Cuneo and four great-grandchildren. Family and friends are invited to a memorial service and reception on Saturday, July 21 in the San Rafael Ballroom at the Embassy Suites Hotel, 101 McInnis Parkway, San Rafael at 1 PM. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Ann Curtis Cuneo Swimming Scholarship Fund at UC Berkeley. Checks may be made to UC Regents, with a memo to the Ann Curtis Cuneo Swimming Scholarship Fund, 195 Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, CA 94720 or call Brian Raney at (510) 643-0888.
Published in Marin Independent Journal on July 1, 2012
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