Olympic gold medalist, journalist, sportscaster, and soon-to be-honorary doctorate recipient, Donna de Varona filled many roles in her life. After being honored by five former presidents, de Varona will honor the seniors of the Wittenberg class of 2014 on May 17 by giving the annual commencement address.
The decision was announced on Feb. 7 via email. In a press release written by Ryan Maurer, de Varona is described as “a pioneer in women’s athletics since breaking onto the international scene at the tender age of 13.” When she qualified for the 1960 summer Olympics in Rome, Italy, she already held the world record in the 400-meter individual medley.
The individual medley consists of a single athlete swimming four different strokes within a single race – the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. De Varona went on to break her own record in 1961 and 1962. In 1962, Sharon Finneran, an American swimmer, broke de Varona’s record. Later in the same day, de Varona won it back.
The last year de Varona held the record was 1964, the same year the event was added to Olympic schedule. The current record holder is Ye Shiwen from China.
When de Varona was 17 years old, she was voted “Most Outstanding Female Athlete” by both the Associated Press and the United Press International. She appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated, Look, and Life magazines. She was also the youngest – and one of the first – women sportscasters for a national network when she appeared on Wide World of Sports.
According to her profile on National Women’s Hall of Fame, de Varona attained 37 national championships and two Olympic medals before retiring from competitive sports in 1965. In her retirement, she won two Gracie awards for her radio show entitled “Donna de Varona on Sports.” De Varona was honored by the Hall of Fame in 2003.
De Varona is also a founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation. According to its website, the foundation was founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King and “is dedicated to advancing the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity.”
In addition to this foundation, de Varona has participated in many activities in the fight for gender equality in sports. She served four terms on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, and worked to promote Title IX – the act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education institution receiving Federal funding. De Varona also chaired the organizing committee for the Women’s World Cup in 1999.
“I think it’s great that our class gets to hear such an accomplished person both in the professional and sporting world,” said senior swimmer Will London. “It’s even more exciting for me, as a swimmer, to be able to relate to her and some of her experiences.”
De Varona has been a force for equality in sports since breaking onto the swimming scene as a young teenager. She has accomplished much in both her personal and professional life, and Wittenberg students are expecting an inspired commencement address from a successful athlete, activist, and woman.