Date: February 1st, 2006
Seven years ago, Ruth Colley had the opportunity to re-live her dream when Olympic gold medalist Frank Havens invited her to compete in the 1998 Nike World Masters Games. Colley was the first American woman to qualify for the United States Olympic Kayak team for the 1952 Helsinki games. Unfortunately, because she was the only woman to qualify for the 10-person team, she never got the opportunity to compete.
Colley's love for the water started when she was a child.
"I think I went from the womb to the tub… for as long as I can remember…water has intrigued me."
Colley participated in numerous swimming and diving competitions which led to Red Cross Life Saving badges, and then to Small Craft summer camps where she met canoeists. In 1949 at the age of 19, Colley joined the prestigious Washington Canoe Club. After many canoe trips, friends encouraged her to take up competitive kayaking and to train on the Potomac River for the upcoming Olympics.
Her trainer ended up being Frank Havens, who was going for the gold medal at the 1952 Olympics. Colley recalls that Havens was a tough trainer. "No alibis for skipping practice. You say you have a cold…Get out here and paddle, you'll sweat it out."
Colley's rigorous training paid off as she easily made her way through the U.S. Olympic trials for the women's 500-meter. Unfortunately the captain of the 1952 canoeing team was chosen from Yonkers Canoe Club, rivals of Washington. He claimed that there was no chaperone or accommodations in Helsinki for a single woman on the team and he ended up choosing an alternate male who never competed. However, Colley believes that the decision was also based upon the result of her training with the Washington Canoe Club, instead of the Yonkers Club, where the eventual U.S. captain wanted her to train.
"Because I did not train with the Yonkers team, it appeared to be a bit of sour grapes politics. I cried buckets of tears at the disappointment. It was unfair and definitely a male-dominated decision."
Colley went on to finish college. She moved to California, married and raised three children. Colley also picked up another sport, tennis, and became an accomplished player. However, nothing could replace the feeling of having lost the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. When another opportunity arose to compete on an international basis, Colley had to try again. Havens informed Colley that Washington Canoe Club members were planning to participate in the Nike World Masters Games in Portland, Oregon. She was told to "get in shape" and they would save a place on the team for her. Having no Potomac River in sight or any other waterway for practice, Colley began training in her pool for a year preceding the Nike games.
"I didn't go to have fun. I wanted the environment that I had previously. My expectation was to go for the gold."
And that's exactly what she did. Colley competed in eight races, winning four gold and four silver medals. Following the Nike Masters, Havens and Colley went to Whistler, Canada, and won in the Canadian Canoeing Nationals.
"At the conclusion of the races and with four gold medals and four silver medals in hand, it certainly brought to mind the likelihood that I may have won or placed in the 1952 Olympics."
Colley founded the Redlands Racquet Club, winning 15 annual championships - singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. She was named the first Mrs. Tennis in Redlands and went on to create a junior development tennis program for children, where she taught for 18 years.
At age 77, Colley continues to play tennis weekly with local top women players. She's an avid and accomplished golfer and writes a monthly column on women's golf for the Redland's Women's Golf Association. This year, Colley won the Super Seniors Gross Championship and the Seniors Low Net Championship.
"My future plans are to continue growing and discovering new options in life. Staying physically active is a must and I'll never be found sitting in the rocking chair saying, poor me, poor me. My motto is, keep moving or they'll plant you!"
For more information about the World Masters Games, contact the International Master Games Association.