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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Bill Pierce’s almanac: Legend of Mary Lou Petty

Mary Lou Petty grew up spending her summers swimming at Liberty Lake.  By age 6 she was doing trick diving at the Spokane Interstate Fair.

By the age of 13, she was already the talk of the Spokane swim world.  She set many local records and was the star of the women’s swim team at Lewis and Clark, graduating in 1933.

Mary Lou received an invitation to the Olympic Trials in New York for the 1932 Olympics, but because of the depression, didn’t have enough funds to make the trip east.

She continued to compete, and attracted national attention with her record times. Eventually she wound up at the Washington Athletic Club in Seattle, which needed a member for their free style relay team.

Competing in the National Indoor Championships, she finished 2nd in the 880 freestyle and broke the 400-meter record, winding up as the meet’s high point performer. With the WAC she was part of setting two world marks in the 400-meter race in 1935.

In 1936, she was chosen to compete in the Berlin Olympics in the 400-meter freestyle.  She joined the other athletes below decks on the U.S.S. Manhattan for the voyage to Germany. They weren’t allowed to mingle with first-class passengers.  On the trip, the athletes entertained themselves with various games. Jesse Owens was her ping pong partner.

In Berlin, she participated in the opening ceremonies, and listened to an Adolf Hitler speech before taking to the pool. She eventually finished fourth in the relay, just missing a medal. The high point of her Olympic experience was watching Owens stun the Nazis with his track performances.

Back home, she married fiancé Robert Skok and retired from active competition as a swimmer. In later years, she became active in golf and in 1948 moved to Arizona. There, she twice won the Senior State title.

In 1974, she was the first woman inducted into the Inland Empire Hall of Fame, and in 2006 The Swimming Hall of Fame in Seattle.

Today, she’s remembered as one of Spokane’s very first Olympic athletes.  She passed away in 2014 in Tempe at the age of 98.

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