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August 25, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Cover story: Golden days -- In the 1960s, Portola Valley's Pokey Watson became the youngest American swimmer to win a gold medal. The record still stands. Cover story: Golden days -- In the 1960s, Portola Valley's Pokey Watson became the youngest American swimmer to win a gold medal. The record still stands. (August 25, 2004)

By Jennifer Nuckols
Special to the Almanac

My mother was only 10 years old when a young American swimmer named Pokey Watson won a gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Until this day, my mother still remembers -- and uses -- that peculiar name, especially with her children. "Come on, you pokey watson, you, hurry up!" has been a standard entreaty from my mother for years.

Until recently, "Pokey Watson" has been little more to me than an endearing term in our family lexicon. Then I accidentally stumbled across her name in a magazine article about Bay Area Olympians. There she was: Pokey Watson of Portola Valley. I began asking people around the office, "Did you know Pokey Watson was from Portola Valley?"

Although some of our veterans remember her, a common response was: "Pokey who ?"

Obviously their mothers did not use such a sophisticated moniker when trying to get their children to hurry and finish their chores.

A few Google searches, scrapbook hunts and phone calls later, I found myself on the phone long-distance to Hawaii with the real Pokey Watson -- Lillian Watson Richardson, who is now 54.

I was too embarrassed to tell her just how familiar I was with her name but gradually began to discover the real woman behind our household lingo.

She said that she had only 20 minutes to talk but graciously extended the interview for about an hour, even though the next day she was leaving to go out of town -- to an Olympic swimmers' reunion at the Olympic trials in Long Beach, California.

One of the first things I learned was that "Pokey" was a nickname given to her by her father when she was an infant, and it just stuck.

In a way that was ironically incongruent with her father's cute alias, Pokey won two Olympic golds: in Tokyo in 1964 -- at age 14 -- as a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay team, and in Mexico City in 1968 -- at age 18 -- for an individual 200-meter backstroke, in which she set a then-Olympic record of 2:48:8.

She describes the Olympics as a magical experience.

"You're in an elite group of athletes and there is an instant bond, a great sense of camaraderie," she says.

Other noteworthy achievements include setting four national age-group swimming records in one weekend when she was 14 years old, setting American records in the 100-yard and 500-yard freestyle, and wiping out Dawn Fraser's world record in the 200-meter freestyle with a time of 2:10:5 when she was 15 years old.

She is also the youngest American swimmer -- male or female -- to not only win gold, but to ever medal at the Olympics, a record that Amanda Beard was within 169 days of breaking in 1996. But for 40 years now, Pokey has held onto this record.

Ladera swim club

Her swim career began as an 8-year-old at the Ladera Oaks Swim and Tennis Club when her family moved to Portola Valley in 1958. In order to swim year-round, she joined the Palo Alto Elks swim club with coach John Williams.

Coach Williams recognized her talent and when she was only 11, and encouraged her to train with coach George Haines, the coach of the world-renowned Santa Clara Swim Club.

"Coach Williams started me thinking (about the Olympics)," says Pokey. "It was my goal from that point on."

That moment was the beginning of hundreds of hours spent not only in the pool, but also in the car, as her parents drove her back and forth between Portola Valley and Santa Clara, often twice daily, for more than four years. (Interstate 280 had yet to be built.)

"My parents provided the opportunity for me and allowed it to happen, which was really great of them," says Pokey.

After she graduated from Portola Valley School and finished her freshman year at Woodside High School, her father was transferred to work out of San Jose. She graduated from Santa Clara High School in 1968.

At the conclusion of the 1968 Olympics, Pokey had two mutually exclusive options: continue to pursue swimming at the club level or pursue a college education. In those days, colleges had only negligible opportunities for female athletes, and competing at the club level was too all-consuming for a full-time college student.

"I was ready to go to college, and there were a minimum number of programs at the college level," says Pokey. "Most girls quit (swimming) if going off to college."

At this point in the interview, I began to feel slightly indignant as I was made to understand the plight of female athletes before the federal statute Title IX, passed in 1972, required equivalent government spending for both male and female athletic programs. It was hard for me to swallow, and to even fathom.

Ms. Richardson went on to receive her bachelor's degree in history from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1972, then coached at a private girls' high school. Once Title IX did pass, she coached at the University of Southern California.

Her husband, Allen Richardson, was an All-American swimmer at Yale University, and at one point held the national high school record for the 100-yard breaststroke. He never made the Olympic team but trained at the Santa Clara Swim Club in the summers, which is where he and Pokey met.

He did, however, maintain other connections with the Olympics by serving as the chairman of the Federation Internationale Natacione Amateur (FINA), and he oversaw drug testing at all Olympic games from 1980 to 2000, says Pokey. He was also an orthopedic surgeon and the chief of sports medicine at the University of Hawaii.

He and Pokey married in the Portola Valley Presbyterian Church in 1971, and later settled in Hawaii. But for those wondering whether she still maintains her local connections, know that her name is etched into the cement in the garage of the Portola Valley home that her parents built. She came and saw it again last year with her sister.

Pokey gave up coaching when she and Allen decided to start their family.

"Coaching and being a mom are kind of incompatible because practices are at the same time that you want to be home with your kids," she explains.

She has three children and the oldest two, Andrew, 22, and Annie, 20, play water polo for the University of California at Berkeley and at Claremont McKenna College, respectively. Puna, 18, played volleyball for St. John's University in New York last year as a freshman.

Dr. Richardson died of cancer in the fall of 2003, and Pokey cried as she shared what a hard year it has been for their family. He was 56.

I asked her what it was like for her children to be the offspring of an Olympian, and she instantly called her daughter Annie to the phone to speak with me.

Annie said that her parents never pressured her but were encouraging of her athleticism.

Having a mother Olympian is "definitely cool and inspiring," she says. "It's fun to brag about her. ... All my friends come over to look at her medals. She still gets fan letters from people."

I am sure one person who would love to send her a fan letter is my own mother. She was the first person I called after the interview.

Jennifer Nuckols is an Almanac intern and will be a senior at Stanford in the fall. Like Pokey, she is majoring in history. She enjoys swimming and loves the Olympic Games.

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