Mary Lou Petty Skok’s journey from 6-year-old trick diver at the Spokane Interstate Fair to swimming in the 1936 Olympic Games was the epitome of Depression-era perseverance.
But she was all about hanging tough. Skok was three days shy of her 99th birthday when she died April 2 in Tempe, Arizona.
The first woman elected to the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame in 1974, Skok left behind a trove of stories from her Olympic adventure – from playing pingpong with Jesse Owens aboard the SS Manhattan en route to Europe to attending a party at Joseph Goebbels’ mansion to passing beneath the glower of Adolf Hitler at the Opening Ceremonies.
In Berlin, she battled through a case of ptomaine poisoning to finish fourth in the 400-meter freestyle.
The daughter of Mary and Walter Petty, Skok was a 1933 graduate of Lewis and Clark High School and Spokane’s second Olympian after another LC alum, long jumper Carl Johnson, the 1920 silver medalist. She might well have made the U.S. team in 1932, but Spokane Women’s Athletic Club coach Margaret Mahoney informed her at the last minute that no funds were available to send her to the trials in New York.
“I look back on it now and wonder how we ever did it,” she told The Spokesman-Review in 2000. “We didn’t have anything – no one did. There was no sense of being a pioneer because everything was so day-to-day.”
In 1934, she moved to Seattle to train with the Washington Athletic Club, despite the reservations of her fiancé, Gonzaga alum Bob Skok. When the next Olympics came around, she received financial support from the Elks and Athletic Round Table in Spokane to finance her trip to the trials.
Returning from Berlin, her boat was met at the pier by Skok, and the two were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral – in the office, as she was a Protestant and he a Catholic. They eventually moved to Los Angeles and then Tempe, where they raised two daughters and he established a successful optometry practice. She, meanwhile, turned her athletic pursuits to golf, winning Arizona Women’s Golf Association state seniors titles in 1966 and 1970.