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Retired Olympic swimmer calls Shelbyville ‘home’

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When Loretta Barrious Larsen participated in the 1956 Melbourne, Australia Olympics, synchronized swimming was an exhibition team feature.

Times have certainly changed, says the retired swimmer, who moved here in 2020 to be near family, who had already taken up residency in Bedford County.

 Having watched faithfully the recent Olympic games on T.V., the Oakland, Calif., native proudly talks about the days she served as one of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Goodwill Ambassadors. Her synchronized swimming career, which was pretty fast and furious, took her on a world tour of 22 countries as a very young girl.

“As compared to the way they do synchronized swimming now, ours was so different. Now, it is so much more athletic. That was a criticism of it going into the Olympics, because they said, ‘it’s more of an art.’ They don’t call it synchronized swimming anymore; they call it artistic swimming.”

 She is well aware that cross-training is now necessary to compete. During her generation, it was more about grace and poise, i.e., the style associated with the late swimmer Esther Williams.

Larsen is adamant, however, that her group of swimmers were still physically fit. It was hit the water at 6:30 a.m. and suck up the red eyes by soothing them in milk drops.

The moves of her day were certainly derived as an art form, comparable to ballet. The troupe was in charge of their own costumes; she remembers making those along with her family.

She notes her competition attire included thousands of sequins and yes, there was for photo shoots plenty of makeup and finger nail polish. “The costumes they wear now are just very simplistic. Do I wish we had those.”

The headdresses back in her day were made out of metal. Then there were the routines—some which aren’t allowed today.

“We would form a chain, where you would hook your feet around the neck of the person in front of you . . . make a circle under water. I don’t see them doing that now. What they do now is easier to synchronize.”

She said the music accompaniment is certainly different. They had to practice, a lot to their music to stay in, well, sync.

With rule books in hand from the 1950s, she notes how her synchronized era was not for the faint of heart. You had to especially like to travel, fast, and be mature.

By the way, she says in photos, such as those of her which were in the Saturday Evening Post of 1955, she was the “skinny, dark-haired one,” surrounded by all the blondes. Her group was famous for such stunts in the water as “tandems” and “somersault tucks.”

Photos of her gals then seemed to emphasis the gams. The whole idea, she says, was something the older generations frowned upon.

“The first trip I took to Japan, my grandmother was just having a fit about it,” she said. “We had chaperones. My father said to her ‘I can’t afford to send her to those places, so I’m going to let her go. If she doesn’t know right from wrong by now, it’s too late.”

But the family grew to be very proud of her accomplishments, she recalls. Even her dad, who would suffer from ill health, supported her endeavors.

It was through her neighborhood and events that she became involved in swimming. She was asked to swim at a private club with a training card, then the opportunity came to help others.

“In my era, you either became a nurse or teacher.”

The rest is history for this Olympic medal winner. She was soon invited to be a part of synchronized swimming—something that would change the course of her entire life.

She cherishes those days of her family’s support, though none of her family ever saw her perform live. There was no extra money, so she had to get creative with many of the costumes.

 Larsen did something almost unheard of for her time; she started performing synchronized swimming at the young age of 14.

“I still have some of the names of some of the stunts we did. There were anywhere from four to five . . . later on, eight. I noticed now in the Olympics there are now teams of eight.”

An Oakland, California native, the retired Olympian is now a southerner, making her home in Shelbyville since 2020. Her husband of 55 years passed away and she decided to move here to Bedford County to be near her children.

She has met several friends and says Kay Bartley has become one of her “besties” and swimming partners at the Rec Center. Larsen and Bartley recently talked about her story, that is, what it was like being a young girl traveling all over the world, representing her country in such a glamorous role.

Despite having to “hit the water at 6 a.m.” Larsen embraced the ability to represent her country. She was also in Special Services with the U.S. Military Far East Tours in 1954-1955 and in 1960. For this reason, this year’s Tokyo Olympics had her really interested.

She talked about how Special Services was unlike USO, as those performers were paid. “We were part of the military. If there was a military pool in Japan, Korea . . . I was in it. We went three or four years in a row. We were in Tokyo so many times. That was so many years ago and everything has changed.”

The former Olympian swam in a diving pool in Korea, because the main pool had been bombed out during the war. Her group became more and more recognized as they traveled.

Her troupe was so glamorous to the world, they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and were in a movie called, “Dancers of the Deep.” They were also seen on various game and talk shows of the era.

She admits the synchronized swimming in 2021 is much more athletic. Though, because she stayed so physically fit, Larsen said she’s still swimming laps with ease at the Shelbyville Recreation Center pool.

“She’s 83, with no arthritis or those gimps,” adds Bartley.

Larsen says locals may not believe it, but they have one of the best recreational pools around at the Rec Center. She knows as she’s been in many world-wide.

Having had the opportunity to travel like she did to so many places was no doubt the opportunity of a lifetime. She admits some of the trips turned out better than others, of course.

She remembers her group being escorted quietly out of the Middle East once for various political reasons at that time.

Larsen’s team was one of the pioneers in the area of synchronized swimming. Before completing her college degree, Loretta was “All American” in synchronized swimming for each year of her career, which was 1955-1960.

In 1955, she and her team received a gold medal at the Pan American Games at Mexico City. She performed at the Olympics and did many exhibitions in synchronized swimming all over the world following that event.

She was an exhibitor at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. At the International Sports Festival in 1958 in Spain, she won the gold medal and a trophy. She won championships in Mexico, each year, through 1958.

Like all great athletes of her time, Larsen said it was finally time for her to retire and take up another career around 1960. In 1961, she completed her bachelor of arts degree in physical education in California and later taught.

Upon moving to Hawaii in 1966, she coached synchronized swimming and put on swim shows at the YMCA in Kaneohe, Hawaii. She would later become an accredited gymnastic judge.

Upon returning to California, she would teach special education in an elementary school. Her talents don’t stop there.

Larsen worked for a design production department in linen and hand embroidery-all from China. She was able to use her life-long hobby of sewing in that work.

While she never thought of settling down as a very young girl, like most of her peers, the time came, she says, when marriage did became a reality. She now misses her husband, she says, who passed from Leukemia; they had many great memories together, but she’s starting new ones here.

With such a fulfilling life, some have asked Larson if there is anything she’d change. From the water to having her family now by her side, she says, ‘No.’

“I loved every minute of it,” she says with a smile, noting many of her synchronized teammates remain in touch.

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