Santa Rosa swim guru's large footprint (w/video)

  • Members of the senior team practice one of two routines at Oak Park Swim and Racquet Club in preparation for the 2014 U.S. Open Synchronized Swimming Championships this week in Henderson, Nev. Photo taken in Santa Rosa, on Tuesday, July 15, 2014. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Marion Kane Elston has been a swim coach for 67 years. She founded San Francisco-based Merionettes, a decorated synchronized swimming team that amassed 14 consecutive national titles. Since 1973, she has run a synchro school in Santa Rosa with many of her swimmers earning national titles and earning scholarships at the top college teams in the country.

At 80, the former competitive speed swimmer, who set a record for swimming the length of the Golden Gate Bridge when she was 19, has been a witness to the sport of synchronized swimming from its earliest days. She has seen the sport change from a time when it was a major draw to today when competitors struggle to raise money to compete for 10 spots on the U.S. National Team. She has developed moves in the sport that have been incorporated into the DNA of most routines. She has designed, choreographed and coached two World’s Fairs water shows and traveled the world as “the first great synchronized swimming coach,” according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which inducted her in 1981, a rare achievement for a coach.

But, says the longtime Santa Rosa resident, none of that could have happened without the Russian River.

Synchronized Swimming


“That’s where it all started,” said Elston, who swam competitively under her maiden name Marion Olson. The San Francisco native was a junior National AAU Speed Swimming Champion. “When I was a very young, my family would spend our summers at Odd Fellows Park. My sister and I would get in the water on the first day and swim the entire summer.”

While her sister wanted to be a swimmer, it was Elston who excelled at the sport. She swam competitively as a junior and says she nearly missed qualifying for the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

On Nov. 7, 1954, Elston set a new record by swimming the Golden Gate. Elston covered the ⅞ -mile distance in 25 minutes, 42.6 seconds breaking the previous women’s record of 29 minutes, 30 seconds, set by Katherine Flaherty in 1917.

Elston said other swimmers dove off boats to start, but she wanted to swim from shore to shore

“I had to touch the land on both sides,” she said.

Elston began coaching as a teenager while she was swimming competitively as a member of a swimming club in San Francisco called Crystal Plunge.

The sport of synchronized swimming, a combination of swimming, dance and gymnastics, has origins in different parts of the world but is generally believed to have begun as water ballet.

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