Road to the Olympics
Susie Shields White Recounts Success & Challenges
Writer / Julie Yates
Susie Shields White is busy living life to the fullest. She and her husband, Jim, enjoy hosting their adult children and
grandchildren at their lake house in Michigan, where there is ample room for everyone. The entire family takes part in everything that living on water offers: beautiful views, sunsets, boating and especially swimming. Swimming has always been a huge part of White’s life. While her children were growing up, she drove endless hours to swim lessons, practices and swim meets, both school and club team sponsored. For many years, she taught and coached competitive swimming. However, one thing many people don’t know is that she is an Olympic medalist. White won the bronze medal in the 100-meter butterfly for the US Women’s Swim team at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics.
A recent visit back to her hometown, Middletown, brought back memories of her competitive swimming days. While in the Louisville area she attended her Eastern High School reunion and got together with old friends. A 1970 graduate, she was able to tour the school and view the athletic trophies. Inside one case is a proclamation stating her title as an All-American high school athlete. This honor is given annually to only the most outstanding athletes in participating sports. It was a bit of a revelation to her daughter, Jennifer, who was traveling with her.
“I hadn’t really told my kids about my swimming career. I had never gone to a high school reunion but had planned on going to the 50th. It got cancelled because of COVID, so the class decided to do a 52nd reunion. My brother, who was less than 15 months apart from me, died three years ago at age 66. I felt now is the time to go and my daughter urged me to do it. She wanted to have a mother-daughter road trip and to see the house I grew up in,” White says.
The 1968 Summer Olympics were notable for many different reasons. They were the first to be broadcast live and in color. The Mexico City location holds the record as the Olympic site with the highest altitude in the history of the games. Accounts state that some crowds were not always polite to athletes from other countries and some participants took the opportunity to make political stands. But to then 16-year-old Susie Shields, it was the experience of a lifetime.
“There was a whole process to qualify to swim in the Olympics. In today’s world, I would have to pack up and train somewhere on either the East or West Coast, but I was at home. I did well at Nationals (1968; Lincoln, NE). I made the time cuts for the Olympic Trials which were held two weeks later (Aug. 24-28 in Los Angeles, CA.). If a swimmer placed among the top, they were on the Olympic Team. I placed second… I was only beat by about .001 of a second,” White says.
In 1968, there were six weeks between the Olympic Trials and the actual games. So, in the fall of her junior year of high school, White came home after the trials and immediately headed off for US Olympic Swimming Team training camp. It was held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The location was chosen for its altitude; it was hoped that it would get the athletes used to conditions in Mexico City.
“I had never been away from home for any long period of time- not even for camp. It was stressful and scary. We were all thrown together with all these kids I didn’t know. Some of the kids knew each other because they had trained together at the same swim club. We were all different and I was a nobody. Everyone was talking about all their trips, and I had never gone out of the country. One of the girls was the legendary Deb Meyer, who set a record for the long distance 800-meter freestyle. Another record holder was Catie Ball, who was considered the best breaststroke swimmer in the world. I was a sprinter… but even though we all were different, we all worked with the same coach and we had to get used to his style,” she says.
“I came home from training, packed up again and left for Mexico City where I spent two weeks plus some days. During the opening ceremonies, while in the parade, I was struck by how far down United States is in the alphabet. I was there for the closing ceremonies, too. The Olympic Village was great for the time, but when I see on television and in pictures of what it looks like now, I feel things have really evolved. The village had different areas. There were female dorms and men’s dorms. The different countries ate together. I was so homesick. I told coach Sherm Chavoor, ‘I just want to go home!’ He told me he did too, but I couldn’t leave,” White says.
White still had to prove herself to get to the finals. First, she was required to swim a preliminary event in which 24 women competed. She was in the fifth heat where she placed first. Her performance qualified her to go on the semi-finals. From there, she made the cut to be one of the eight participants in the finals. Her time of 1:06.20 put her in third place and made her a bronze medalist.
The only disappointment was that her race was not televised. Her parents had come to Mexico City to watch her, but friends and family had gathered in front of the television back home. The networked blacked out worldwide. The cause of the problem was never revealed.
White was 20 years old and in college during the next Olympics. She no longer competed, although she coached in the summers and taught swimming lessons throughout her time at the University of Louisville. When she graduated high school in the 1970s, there were no collegiate swimming program for women.
“When I first got back, I was all over the news. I would be out shopping with my mom, and I’d hear someone say, ‘Look! There she is!’ The only swimming at the college level was synchronized swimming in Florida, which is very demanding and a whole different sport. I could have continued training on the East or West Coast, but I didn’t want to leave home and I just wanted to get on with life,” White says.
After graduating, White taught in inner city Louisville. She married her husband, Jim, and the two of them moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for him to continue his education at Carnegie Mellon University. Together, they have lived in six states but traveled back home often. She taught 4 and 5 year old children for a total of 32 years. While raising her own children, she took time off and immersed herself in the demands of being a swim parent.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it all. For a family to do swim team and club swim, you must be all in. It’s a passion. We are water people! Some of my grandchildren are in competitive swimming now,” she says.
“Would I do it all over again? Yes! In today’s world I would probably have to leave home to train but back then, it was a wonderful time in my life. I was strong and athletic. I heard a young athlete say, ‘I hit my spunk at the right time!’ That’s how I felt. I did it and that’s it,” White says.