“Whatever you do, don’t ever let anybody put you in the trunk of a car.”
--J. Ronald Gainsford, 2006, over a pasta dinner in the Polish Hill section of Pittsburgh
Today’s vlog is the first in an occasional series of profiles of teammates I’ve become friends with thanks to a shared interest in swimming. Ronald, now 79, was at one point the fourth fastest butterflier in the world. He missed out on the Olympics, alas, because two of the guys faster than him were also both US citizens, and the team only took two American representatives in the fly.
Such factoids are probably the least interesting things about Ron, who grew up in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh back in the days when this was known more for thuggery than the University. At age 10, he and his friends offered to “protect” the cars of people who came to watch Pitt football games. Those sports fans who paid indeed got protection. Those who didn’t got flat tires.
A couple years ago, when I was swimming regularly at Trees Pool atop “cardiac hill” in Oakland, Ron would regularly remind me to be careful, claiming he knew personally at least three murderers within a block of the pool.
One, who suffered some form of insanity, had bludgeoned his victim to death with a hammer. Because of this, Ron would always keep his hand in his gym bag as we walked through the streets to the pool. He showed me once what he kept in there, but I can’t say what it was.
I did, however, ask him how “they” could know what his hand was holding.
“Oh,” he told me. “They know, all right.” Then he laughed the way guys do who don’t ever let other guys put them in a trunk of a car.
I’d like Ronald even if his pearls of advice hadn’t, at least theoretically, saved my life.
About nine years ago, I wrote a story on Masters swimming for my former employer, Men’s Journal magazine. Like most men’s magazines today, this publication was so obsessed with their youthful demographics that a guy past 40 doesn’t stand a chance of making it in as an athlete. I am pretty sure the following passage, which was my favorite part of that particular story, ended up on the editorial room floor.
I will paste it in here because I think it will give you another idea of what Ronald has been through, and why he’s such an admirable fellow, and why swimming seems to offer all of us some real hope for salvation:
When it comes to inspirational tales of the heart, there’s one man on our team who clearly trumps everybody: Ronald Gainsford, a 70-year-old retired Pittsburgh public school teacher. In 1953, Ron was rated fourth in the world in the 100 and 200 yard butterfly. He missed the Olympics only because, he says, "the three guys ahead of me were also from the U.S."
I first met Ron over the lunch hour when I spied him swimming laps at the Y. You could tell immediately from his form that he was a great swimmer, so I tapped his shoulder in between laps to recruit him for our team. He stood in the shallow end and pointed to a huge scar running down the center of his chest. "I’d love to," he told me, "but I’m not supposed to compete. I’ve had a heart transplant, and my doctors don’t want me to go too fast."
Ron told me he’d suffered a minor heart attack at age 55, followed by a devastating one in his early 60s. His heart was too badly damaged to be helped by bypass surgery, so his doctors kept him alive via medications, knowing that his only ultimate hope was a transplant. For five years, he told me, he’d lived "a nursing home quality of life"--unable to even walk the 25-yard length of a pool without stopping to rest.
Just after turning 65, with his heart now pumping only one-sixth the normal blood volume, Ron finally received a donor heart from a 25-year-old guy killed when his pickup truck slid off an icy road. Though the surgery went well, Ron developed a staff infection that came close to killing him again. The day we met at the Y, Ron had just started swimming again and was trying to build up to 20 easy lengths a day.
All of which helps explain my utter astonishment when, eight months later, I run into Ron here in Baltimore. Not only is he competing but he’s swimming some of the fastest times in his age group.
"What’s happened to you?" I ask him.
"After I talked to you in Sewickley," he explains, grinning, "I just kept slowly, slowly building up my distance in all the strokes. I went from 400 yards a day to 1800 yards. I said to myself, Hey, you’re getting pretty good at this, maybe too good for just recreational swimming.
"So I went back to my cardiologist and told him I wanted to compete again. I underwent a full catheterization, and the results came back great. My doctor said, ‘I don’t see any reason why you can’t compete if you really want to do this.’"
The Baltimore meet, it turns out, is Ron's third since getting the thumb’s up. In April, he medaled in several events at the highly competitive US indoor nationals. In July, he placed 4th in breaststroke, 6th in butterfly, and 10th in backstroke at worlds in Munich. Even as his times continue to drop, he’s refuses to take full credit for the accomplishments. A day doesn’t pass, he says, without him thanking the young guy whose heart beats inside him.
"Whenever I talk about my races," he tells me minutes before the freestyle relay, "I always say we swam well."
I’m not sure how many septuagenarian swimmers visit my vlog, but if you know any guys who same in the early 1950s, and perhaps competed at or against the University of Pittsburgh in those days, I would truly appreciate you passing this vlog on to their attention.
Ron is talking about possibly swimming at the Worlds Masters meet when he turns 80. He did swim at the world transplant games recently, and I think he would do really well at the regular games, as well.
Ronald, a life-long bachelor, lives alone. He goes to the Sewickley YMCA pretty regularly. I’ve tried to talk him into joining the computer world, what with email and Facebook and USMS forum discussions. But he won’t go for it. If you have a spare moment and think of it, send him a postcard.
I’m sure it would make his day. And you will have a friend for life.
J. Ronald Gainsford
167 Carnation Avenue
Pittsburgh , PA 15229-1001