Norwalk's Golden Girl -- In 1948, Mortell left London with a legacy
This is the second in a series of stories featuring former Olympians from the area as we look back during this year's Summer Games on their Olympic experience.
Marie Mortell couldn't wait for the 2012 Summer Olympics to get here. She even said so in an interview four years ago during the 2008 Games.
You couldn't blame her, either. After all, the first week of competition is always swimming, her favorite sport. That alone got her excited every four years.
But this year's Olympics were going to be even more special since they were being held in London, the same city she won a gold medal in swimming at the 1948 Summer Olympics as a member of the U.S. 400 meter freestyle relay team.
Back then she was an 18-year-old young lady from Norwalk, Connecticut known as Marie Corridon, and it would be 60 years before the city would produce another Olympic medalist when rower Dan Walsh won the bronze at those 2008 Games.
But Marie Corridon Mortell is still the only Norwalker to ever win Olympic gold.
Sadly, Mortell passed away May 26, 2010 at the age of 80, a little more than two years away from the Olympics she badly wanted to see.
"She would've been glued to the TV," her daughter, Sheila Mortell Stolarski, said from her Weston home the other night. "She would've been excited to see all the swimming. But I think she would've been a little disappointed the 400 meter relay (her mom's Olympic event) only get the bronze.
"She was talking about these Olympics even back in '08," Stolarski added. "She thought it was really neat that they were going to be back in London. I think she would've been ecstatic.
"But she got excited every four years. She lived for that."
Marie Corridon was actually born in Washington, D.C., but moved to Norwalk when she was two and grew up in East Norwalk.
"My father (Dr. J.Donald Corridon) was from Norwalk so when he was through with medical school my father and mother came here," Mortell said in an interview in August 2008 as the Summer Games in Beijing were about to begin. "I still go back to Washington and I love it, but I've always considered Norwalk my home."
And for a good part of her life, it was. She attended St. Joseph School in South Norwalk, learned to swim at the local YMCA, and was only seven years-old when she won her first competitive race at the Longshore Country Club in Westport.
By time she was 12, Corridon won her first major title, the 100 free at the Senior Metropolitan Championships in New York. Soon she began swimming AAU meets around the country and by the time she was in high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Stamford, she was regarded as one of the best swimmers in the country.
In fact, as a freshman at Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y., Norwalk's Marie Corridon became the first American woman swimmer to break the one-minute barrier in the 100-yard freestyle when she won the national AAU championship in Daytona, Fla., with a time of 59.9 seconds.
"It was like running a four-minute mile," she said during that interview in August 2008. "I didn't expect to do it so it was a surprise to me also."
It also earned her an invite to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Detroit, where she finished second in the 100 meters to qualify for both the individual event and as a member of the relay team in the upcoming Olympics.
An 18-year-old Corridon was one of 300 American athletes -- and one of only 38 women -- to go to London for the 14th Summer Olympiad, and the first in 12 years because of World War II.
"Mom said there was still a lot of rubble all over the streets leftover from the war," Stolarski said.
They were also the first televised Olympics and on Aug. 6, 1948, an American audience back home saw Corridon swim the opening leg on the U.S. women's 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay team that set a new world record with a time of 4:29.2, beating Denmark by four-tenths of a second and the favored Dutch by more than two seconds.
Back in Norwalk, Corridon's hometown celebrated. Mike Errico, the sports director at radio station WNLK, dubbed Corridon "Norwalk's Favorite Daughter" and the city threw a parade for her when she returned.
"I was 13 at the time and it was an exciting thing for Norwalk in '48, especially right after the war," Jim Corridon, Marie's younger brother said in 2010 after her sister's passing. "She definitely put Norwalk on the map and drew a lot of attention to our little town. Most of the swimmers back then were from Florida and California. There was a lot of hoopla in Norwalk after she won."
But while 64 years has passed since she won her gold medal, Marie Corridon Mortell's legacy still lives.
In fact, it was alive and well on Monday. The Norwalk YMCA remembered her during a ceremony attended by Sheila and her sister Kate, who brought their mother's gold medal to show the young swimmers in attendance.
"My sister and I want to keep her place in Norwalk history alive. I think it's important to keep that legacy and her memories going," Stolarski said. "I know there are a lot of older people still in town who remember my mom, but we want a lot of younger people to know who she was, too.
"You should've seen the look on all the kids' faces when we told them she was the only gold medal winner from Norwalk I think she would've been so pleased to see all those young people touching her medal and watching how they smiled. It was beautiful."
The Mortell sisters brought the actual medal their mother won, but a replica of the medal that their mom had made for her seven kids will be on display in the Norwalk Y's main lobby for the duration of the Olympics for others to see and appreciate.
"Mom was very humble about her medal," Stolarski said. "Unless you knew mom pretty good, you might not she was an Olympic gold medal winner. She was humble about it."
She was even humble about around her family as her seven kids were growing up.
"No, never. She was just Mom," Stolarski said. "She was just Mom. She never even talked about the gold medal.
"But if you did talk to her about it, she would make sure you knew she wasn't a former Olympian."
"There's a bond with all Olympians," Marie Mortell once said. "And we never want the word 'former' or 'ex' put in front of Olympian. We're always Olympians. I saw a headline in a paper once that said 'ex-Olympian.' We're not ex-Olympians. Once an Olympian, always an Olympian."
"That was on of her favorite sayings," Stolarski laughed. "And she loved being around other Olympians. She spent time with Kristine Lilly and met Dan Walsh after he won his bronze medal."
Mortell met Walsh the night the city of Norwalk threw a celebration dinner for him. At the end of the night, Norwalk Mayor Dick Moccia presented Walsh with a key to the city, and then surprised Mortell with one of her own … 60 years after her Olympic moment.
"That was such a nice surprise for mom," Stolarski, who accompanied her mother to the dinner, said. "She didn't expect that. She just wanted to be there for Dan."
Back in 1948, Marie Corridon could have very well won a second gold medal, an individual one in 100-meter freestyle. While the 262 U.S. men Olympians flew to London, the 38 women went by ship.
"Can you imagine if they did that now," Stolarski asked.
Less than a week after the Olympic Trials, Corridon and her teammates boarded the SS America and on board was a small pool that the swimmers trained in during the trip.
"They would have belts tied to our waist so when we were swimming we'd go nowhere, but we still got our training in," Mortell explained. "But it caused me to get bursitis in my arm and I had to stay out of the water for three days and I lost time training.
"I had swelling in my upper are and I couldn't lift it or do anything. By the time we got to Europe it was a little better."
But it wasn't 100 percent and she was eliminated in the 100 free semifinals.
"If I didn't have the injury, I felt maybe maybe I could have won the gold medal in that event, too," she said.
Fortunately, by the time the 400-meter freestyle relay came up, Corridon felt better and swam the opening 100-meter leg in 1:09.2, setting the tone for the Americans' exciting first-place finish.
Many felt she would have won the 100 meters, too, and many thought four years later a 22-year-old Corridon could have contended for another gold medal, or two, at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
"After the '48 Olympics, it was all about seven kids," Stolarski, the fifth oldest of her seven kids, said. "But she stayed in swimming through us."
Indeed, all five daughters were outstanding swimmers at Norwalk High. Kate and Sheila helped lead the Bears girls swim team to their only state title in 1977. Maureen and Kate both made it to the Olympic trials, while Sheila just missed qualifying, and Margaret and Marie also enjoyed stellar careers. All five received college scholarships for swimming.
And all 11 of Mortell's grandchildren are swimmers, too. Last weekend, Stolarski's son, Edward, won four events at the Connecticut Age Group Championships, while his cousin, Jack, won two. Mortell's two grandsons finished one-two in the 100 and 200 backstrokes in the 13-14 age group.
"Before the race, they said to each other, 'Let's keep it in the family,' " Sheila, who recently won six events at a Masters swim meet, said.
Now Stolarski hopes her mother's gold medal will inspire more young swimmers, like the ones at the Norwalk Y on Monday who got to touch the medal.
"It should inspire young people to have hopes and dreams," Stolarski said.
Ann Curtis, the last living member of that 1948 U.S. gold medal-winning 400-meter relay team, just passed away this spring in California. Jackie LaVine of Illinois and Brenda Helser, also from California, both passed some time ago, and then Mortell in 2010.
So the four of them are all together again, and, who knows, maybe they're watching the 2012 Summer Olympics in London from above, 64 years after they won the gold there.
If they are, then Marie Corridon Mortell got her wish after all.