Olympic swimmer from Healdsburg still at it at age 91

Gail Roper, the Healdsburg resident who swam in the 1952 Olympics, is back in the pool, just months after a heart attack sent her on an ambulance ride to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

When she was known by her maiden name of Gail Peters, Roper, 91, was regarded as one of the world’s top swimmers. But because of an injury she didn’t fare well in the breaststroke, her main event in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

A year later, she was ranked as the No. 1 women’s breaststroker in 1953, but she did not return for the 1956 Olympics because other swimmers said it would be “selfish” for her to do so, she said. While such opinions kept her from the highest level of competition, they couldn’t stop her from swimming into her 90s.

Later, Roper had seven children, six girls, followed by a son born on April Fools’ Day. She laughs delightedly at the story of having expected another girl and had a girl’s name picked out, and a dress picked out to take “her” home.

Roper, with a June birthday coming up, continues to swim, though she felt ill during a swim session at Parkpoint Health Club in Healdsburg a couple of months ago. She got out of the pool and drove herself to Healdsburg District Hospital to find out she was in the throes of a heart attack. The ambulance raced to Santa Rosa’s Memorial Hospital to get her there in time to save her life. She recounted that during the ride, she thought she might be dying. Between medication, a two-day stay in the hospital, and a mandate from her doctor to “not do too much,” she was back in the pool within two weeks.

The lively nonagenarian has a thirst for adventure and travel, and continues with a lifetime bird-watching list that spans states, countries and continents. She watches birds at her backyard contraption mimicking a tree, where her bird feeders hang. She has visited 49 states in the United States. She also does jigsaw puzzles, watches an eclectic bunch of movies and collects books, 1,000 at the last count. Time spent at home during the pandemic has her itching to move and travel again.

Her itch to swim found her in the Olympic pool in the Los Angeles Coliseum, in 1970, at a meet for swimmers over 40. She swam again the next year in Mission Viejo, and joined US Masters at its inception.

During her time swimming Masters, Roper racked up 104 world records across a number of 5-year age groups, across all five events, in a number of distances. While none of those records held up after sleek, drag-resistant swimsuits were introduced, she’s proud of her records made wearing a traditional swimsuit.

She’s swum with a number of coaches locally — often with groups of senior swimmers in Healdsburg under Coach Steve Skidmore, in Petaluma under Larry Lack, and at Sonoma State University under Robert Fletcher. She also started Masters groups in several towns in the county and coached swimming herself.

She hasn’t competed lately because the pandemic shut down swim meets, and while she swims mainly to stay fit, she still has an itch to compete in the 90-94 age group.

She remembers the introduction of goggles to the sport, and while today the ideal temperature of competitive swimming pools is 77 to 82 degrees, the water in Helsinki was a chilling 71 degrees, which contributed at least in part to her injury during practice.

Roper was the 1997 International Swimmers Hall of Fame Honors Swimmer and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

When she was in her 70s, she became “Patient of the Year” for Medtronic when she received a pacemaker after being short of breath during workouts. She traveled to their headquarters, met the founder and was on the cover of their handbook.

Her birding list now stands at 632, and she’ll keep looking, whether in her backyard or in another state or country. In her own backyard, she spied a black-throated sparrow, only endemic in the Arizona desert. She checked with three books, then called Doug Shaw, who runs the North Bay Birds website. He drove up from Santa Rosa to see it, her ID was correct, and soon 18 birders came to visit to see the unique bird.

She says the bird that was her “grail” was the great gray owl, so she went in search of it, traveling from Yosemite to Vancouver before finally joining a bird touring group in Ottawa, Ontario, and saw an amazing 50 of them over a number of days.

Asked her tips for living a long life, she said she’s never had a lot of money, most of the time being poor, but she has always stayed fit, kept close to her young adult weight, never topping 140, even when she was pregnant. She has always eaten sparingly. She said keeping active, both physically and mentally, is really important and she enjoys feeling the excitement of a new quest.

Now that she’s found her grail bird, her new quest is to visit Idaho, the last state on her list, which she intends to visit when people are allowed to fly freely again. Meanwhile, you’ll find her in the pool.

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