Meet Gail Roper “The Most Dominant Swimmer Ever”

Gail Roper
(photo courtesy of Christine Shook)

Gail Roper

Meet Gail Peters Roper.  Born in 1929, Gail was not much of an athlete in high school.  The swim coaches pretty much ignored her and Gail ended up teaching herself to do the breast stroke.  She would read books about swimming and then try the various strokes, perfecting them on her own.  Even as she improved and began to get faster, she was still passed over by coaches as “not having much talent”.

But that didn’t stop her.

Continuing in her passion for swimming and fully committing to be her own coach, Gail poured herself into her efforts.  By 1948 she was the New Jersey State Champion, a title she retained for 3 years straight.  In 1952, she became the US National Champion in the 100yd and 200yd breaststroke and the 300yd individual medley and also set record times in these events.  She was featured in the April 1952 edition of Life magazine describing her in this way:

“in a bathing suit, she looked scrawny and in street clothes, wearing glasses with a pink rim and rhinestones, she looked anything but athletic.  But in the water she looked wonderful and became the star of the meet.”

So looks can be deceiving.  Who knew?

Continuing to coach herself, Gail made it to the 1952 Olympic Trials where she qualified first in the 200m breaststroke on the US Olympic team. She later pulled a ligament in her ankle and was not able to compete.

But that didn’t stop her.

She continued swimming, winning a few awards here and there until age 26, which is way past the prime age for swimmers.  She then took some time off from competitive swimming to raise a family.  Not just a little time.  Gail stepped out for 18 years.

But that didn’t stop her. (You notice a pattern here?)

At the age of 44, Gail joined her daughter’s swim team and began setting national records in all four strokes and the individual medley.  During the five years she was in the women’s 45-49 age group, Gail held every short distance record in her age group and also held 14 out of 16 long course records.  She went on to set over 42 world records and win 27 gold medals at the first 5 Masters World Championships throughout the world.  And if that wasn’t enough, she has won over 130 US Masters National Championships and set 53 total records at these meets.  Currently, she has set 166 US National Records from the 40-44 and the 65-69 age groups.

In 1986, doctors diagnosed Gail with spinal stenosis and told her to cut back on her swimming.  You know what I’m going to say about that, right?

But that didn’t stop her.

She did retire briefly from 1990 to 1994 as the Masters coach for the University of San Fransisco and followed her doctors advice to ease up on the swimming.  However in 1994, Gail came out of retirement to set national and world records in the 65-69 age group.  Astonishing! No matter what her age or what doctors said she could or couldn’t do, Gail has proved them wrong.  Sports Illustrated referred to her as “the most dominant swimmer ever”.

Truly amazing spirit!  And you know what?  Today, Gail is an active grandmother of seven and yes, she’s still swimming.

3 Comments

  1. timothy gardner on November 30, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Is Gail still in Sonoma County…now says” missing”? I would like to thank her for all she did for me as a swimmer. Tim Gardner, Rocklin

  2. Darlene Jang on August 9, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    Just wanted to say ‘hi’ to Gail. You were my competitive swimming coach at the Hotel Claremont Swimming and Racquet Club, Berkeley, CA in 1962-1963. I still have very fond memories of those days and appreciated your great techniques in breaststroke. I am so glad to hear your success stories in swimming. My best to you, Darlene Jang, San Francisco

  3. Tonia Trombetta on March 30, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    Hi, Gail!
    So happy to see/hear that you are still loving the water. I have been thinking about you and Florence Carr from our Lynbrook days. I had spinal fusion surgery 2 years ago and was not allowed to swim but now am back strong. Am also a grandmother of 2. Take care and many many more happy laps to you.

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