Poolside with Former Record-Holding Swimmer, Olympian and Biology Professor Marilyn Ramenofsky '69
In many ways, Marilyn Ramenofsky ’69 has led two very different lives, though both reflect a deep love for movement and physicality. In her current career, she conducts academic research on the physiology and behavior of bird migration; in an earlier era, she was a freestyle swimmer setting world records and winning an Olympic medal by the age of 18.
A national champion by 17, she set the world record for the 400-meter freestyle three times in 1964, pushing the record down to 4:39.5. After being accepted into Pomona in the spring of that year, Ramenofsky had one more errand to run before beginning college: the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where she won silver in the event. “It was pretty scary,” she says of the feeling of swimming on the world stage. “The pressure was incredibly intense.”
Ramenofsky says her rapid rise to the international spotlight was largely due to her training at the Phoenix branch of the Amateur Athletic Union with legendary swim coach Walter Schlueter. “I had never been competing at that level before,” she says, “and then suddenly my times we’re dropping and I was shooting to beat the people on top.”
At Pomona, the lack of a women’s swim team--a common phenomenon in the pre-Title IX days--caused Ramenofsky to shift her focus to other activities “It was probably a good thing,” she says, looking back, “because there were a lot of opportunities at Pomona and I was keen to get involved.” A botany/biology major, Ramenofsky conducted thesis work with professor Dwight Ryerson on algae structures, solidifying her love for both zoology and academia in general.
After pursuing advanced studies in zoology, she taught for three years at Vassar before joining the faculty at the University of Washington, where she has been for the past 20 years. This summer she returns to the Golden State, having accepted a position as a biology professor at UC Davis. “It’s great to be back,” she says. “I’ve missed California weather!”
Throughout her career, Ramenofsky has remained engaged with the swim world. She still swims as much as she can, and has been involved in coaching for numerous teams at the high school and college level, even leading the University of Texas to the state championships in 1971. She also has been following the 2008 Olympics in Beijing with excitement and high hopes. “It’s great to see older women like [Dara] Torres still swimming,” she says with admiration.
While her career could hardly be described as conventional, Ramenofsky views her two distinct paths as swimmer and academic as stemming from similar interests: “With both, I was focused and driven by some bizarre attention to detail,” she says. “The academic side of life is not all that different. It’s just more terrestrial than aquatic.”--Adam Conner-Simons '08