99-year-old Olympic gold medalist, former world record holder dies

07/24/2014 9:21 PM

07/24/2014 9:44 PM

For Helen Johns Carroll, competing in the 1932 Olympic Games was more than just a chance to perform on one of the world’s most historic athletic stages.

It was a chance to serve her country; a duty, that, according to her daughter Judy Player, she was proud of.

“She stood up there when she received her medal in Los Angeles and said it was overwhelming,” Player said.

Carroll, 99, a gold medalist and former world-record holder, swam the second leg of the 4x100-meter women’s relay.

The mother of two and grandmother of six died Wednesday evening at her nursing home in Sumter. She lived in Sumter for 57 years.

Player said that growing up in Medford, Mass., there weren’t very many pools for her mother to swim in. Initially a runner, her father, Edward Johns, wouldn‘t allow her to swim in any races because of her involvement with running.

After her older sister became a physical education teacher in Brookline, Mass., she invited Carroll to swim in the school’s pool in the winter. One day the school’s swim coach saw her and immediately knew she had potential to go far.

“She came from a very sports-minded family,” Player said. “Her father was from Nova Scotia, and they would always go to the beach and swim in the ocean. Of course, it is very cold and very wavy, and that’s why we thought she became such a strong swimmer.”

In 1932, Carroll, then Helen Johns, qualified to join the U.S. women’s 4x100-meter relay team for the Olympic Games being held in Los Angeles.

At the time, the country was feeling the full depth of the Great Depression. But Player said Carroll remembered Hollywood adopting the U.S. women’s team. She even had the chance to swim with Johnny Weissmuller, himself an Olympic star in the 1920s and the actor who played Tarzan in six movies, starting in 1932 with “Tarzan the Ape Man.”

“She wasn’t used to that kind of sensational thing. But, beside the actual race, being a celebrity was good for her,” Player said.

Carroll, along with Josephine McKim, Eleanor Saville-Garatti and Helene Madison, would win the gold medal, completing the race in 4 minutes and 38 seconds. It was a world record.

“She said she was the second-leg girl,” Player said. “Then, Helene Madison was the third-leg person. She said it was a great team effort and that the American team did consider themselves winners because they were stronger than any other team.”

Carroll went on to attend Brown University, majoring in psychology and economics, and graduated in 1936, according to Player.

While there, she married Eugene Carroll, then moved to Sumter in 1957. While in South Carolina, she graduated from the University of South Carolina with a master’s degree in education.

In 1981, Carroll, along with one of her uncles and a cousin, was inducted into the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame for swimming and diving, according to Player.

“In the long term, she was very proud of what she did in the Olympics,” Player said. “But being an educated person was very important to her.”

Player said that while Carroll was in Sumter she taught special education for 15 years and set up a swimming program for handicapped children, which is still operating today.

In 1996, Carroll, then 81, was selected to be a torchbearer for the Olympic games in Atlanta.

“She really thought she couldn’t do it,” Player said. “She really though it would be too difficult to carry the torch for half a mile. But, we talked her into it, and she had a great time doing it.”

In her older years, Carroll would stay involved with sports and would watch from the sidelines as her grandchildren played soccer and baseball in high school.

“She was an outgoing person and very interesting,” Player said. “She loved different people from all walks of life.”

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