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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.

“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.

It didn’t come into prominence as a sport until the middle of the 20th century, however. Elston had a lot to do with its growth.

Many competitive swimmers trained at Crystal Plunge, at the foot of Lombard Street, and water ballet shows were put on to raise money to compete in swim meets across the country. Elston said she would coach the younger swimmers.

“I guess I just did it because there was a need,” she said of coaching at the tender age of 13. “It was so different then. You really had to be a strong swimmer first and foremost. The rest was learning the routines.”

Elston went on to work with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, starting the Merionettes in 1956.

As founder and head coach, she was credited with developing 51 National AAU champions who collected more than 300 first place finishes in international and national competitions.

And she coached the team that won the 1971 Pan American games.

“She did the most to create the quality and class that gave her sport the world recognition that led to World Championships and Olympic acceptance,” according to her Hall of Fame entry.

Elston moved to Santa Rosa in 1973 with her four children, in part because she wanted to return to a place where she had so many great memories as a child.

“I’ve always felt at home in Sonoma County,” she said. “I feel like I’m a native.”

She opened the Marion L. Kane International Synchro School in Santa Rosa, eventually landing a home at Oak Park Swim & Racquet Club, where she has coached club teams and trained swimmers ever since.

This weekend, her team, Redwood Empire Synchro, is heading to compete in the U.S. Open Synchronized Championships in Henderson, Nev .

Like many of her teams, this one is comprised of swimmers Elston has trained for years.

One of Elston’s longtime students is Santa Rosa resident Alex Cox, 22, a top-ranked collegiate swimmer at the University of the Incarnate Word, which finished fifth overall in the national championships this year. Cox began training with Elston when she was 10 years old and living in Marin County. Her family was willing to make the drive to Santa Rosa so she could train with Elston. Eventually, they moved north so Cox could work with Elston full time.

“She has so much knowledge of the sport and of life, really,” said Cox, a Rincon Valley Christian graduate who will be competing this weekend in duets and team divisions. “She’s a really good teacher, especially with technique. She lives and breathes the sport all the time.”

Elston says her swimmers make all the hours she spends on coaching worth it. She deflected questions about her own career to shower praise on Cox and others she has trained.

“They’re beautiful people and talented young women,” she said, noting their club team lacks the facilities and the funds to develop swimmers to compete at the very highest levels of the sport. “We don’t have a deep pool to swim in all-year round, which other clubs have. And raising money has been difficult.”

Elston, who manages the Oak Park club and lives nearby, said she has no plans to retire from coaching.

She doesn’t make every trip with her teams though. But she said she will be designing and choreographing a large aqua show next summer to help raise funds for travel expenses and other costs the team incurs.

“I’m going to do this as long as I can do it,” she said, adding she doesn’t often dwell on her accomplishments. “I still feel pretty good. I honestly do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or elizabeth.cosin@pressdemocrat.com.