Ann Curtis was widely regarded as one of the greatest female athletes of the 1940s. A swimming phenomenon, she won 34 national Amateur Athletic Union championships, more than any woman before. She lost a chance to compete on the international stage when the 1944 Olympics were canceled because of World War II — but she came back to win two gold medals at the 1948 London Games.
Miss Curtis, 86, died June 26 at her home in San Rafael, Calif. She had complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said her daughter Carrie Cuneo.
Miss Curtis’s Olympic victory was the culmination of a historic run in women’s sports. In 1944, she became the first woman and the first swimmer to receive the James E. Sullivan Memorial Trophy, an award given to the outstanding U.S. amateur athlete. The same year, the Associated Press named Miss Curtis, a San Francisco native, woman athlete of the year. In The Washington Post, her prize was announced with the headline “ ’Frisco Mermaid Voted Tops.”
At the time, swimming starlet Esther Williams had recently appeared in her first aqua role in the musical “Bathing Beauty” (1944). Miss Curtis reportedly turned down movie offers to pursue her sport, but she continued to capture national affection with her radiant smile as she ascended from the pool wearing the demure swimsuit of the era. Nail polish was her only form of war paint.
The International Swimming Hall of Fame inducted Miss Curtis in 1966 and included her on the “Mythical Olympic Team” of 1944 — the team that would have competed that year had the Olympics not been canceled. Miss Curtis’s father had died from wounds he receiving fighting with the Marines in the Pacific, according to an online tribute by Leslie Mitchell, a student of California sports history.
When the 1948 Olympics opened in London, the world had gone a dozen years without the sporting event. The Games assumed a symbolic importance — of the end of the war, London’s return to pageant and normalcy after the German bombing during the Blitz and, for Miss Curtis, a long-awaited chance to swim against the world’s top athletes.
As the American teams headed to London, Miss Curtis was featured on the cover of Newsweek. In the 100-meter freestyle, she slipped as she dove into the pool and fell two-tenths of a second short of first place.
Years later, she told the San Francisco Chronicle that she felt as if she “had let down the world.”
But she won a gold medal for her Olympic record-breaking performance in the 400-meter freestyle, and a second gold by carrying the U.S. team to victory in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay.
Ann Elizabeth Curtis was born March 6,1926. Her first swimming instructors were the Ursuline nuns at the convent boarding school she attended as a girl in California.
She was practicing at a community pool in San Francisco when she caught the attention of an onlooker who recommended her to Charlie Sava, coach at the Crystal Plunge swim school in San Francisco.
Sava, who, like Miss Curtis, is in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, trained her with a grueling regimen. Under his supervision, she swam with her feet bound together and while pulling weights.
Sava began entering her in championships in 1943, when she was 17, and announced that “the world has never seen a girl swimmer” like Miss Curtis.
She studied at the University of California at Berkeley while preparing for the Olympics. When she came home from London, San Francisco welcomed her with a ticker-tape parade, a key to the city and a convertible.
By accepting the car, Miss Curtis became a professional athlete and could no longer participate in amateur sporting events.
In 1959, she founded the Ann Curtis School of Swimming in Marin County with her husband, Gordon Cuneo, a semi-professional basketball player she had met at Berkeley. She was known publicly by her married name and taught swimming and synchronized swimming until several years before her death.
Her students have included at least two Olympians, Rick DeMont and Ben Wildman-Tobriner.
Gordon Cuneo died in 2010 after 60 years of marriage. Their son William Cuneo died in 2008.
Survivors include four children, Carrie Cuneo of San Rafael, Susan Cuneo Starr of Lafayette, Calif., David Cuneo of Corte Madera, Calif., and Brian Cuneo of Truckee, Calif.; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
The 1948 Games were dominated by U.S. teams and have recently received renewed attention in anticipation of the upcoming Summer Olympics in London. Miss Curtis once remarked that she would forget about her Olympic experience until another round of Games began and she turned on her television.
“I know that glassy look in a medalist’s eyes,” she said, according to the Berkeley Web site. “You’ve thought about it, you’ve visualized it, you’ve swam it. But nothing compares to the real thing.”