Posted May 1, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Bradburne relishes Olympic memories

Olympic swimming medalist Mary Wayte Bradburne
Olympic swimming medalist Mary Wayte Bradburne speaks during a news conference for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival on Friday. Dennis Grundman/Daily

By Jeremy Stafford - jstafford@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Mary Wayte Bradburne sat down on a fluff of a couch in the First Presbyterian Church in Winchester. Her eyes drank in the scene as the other Apple Blossom Festival celebrities -- Roger Brown, Ken Mease and Kelly Wright, to name a few -- sipped from plastic water bottles and munched on sandwiches.

Even Olympic gold medal-winners can be guilty of being swept up in the moment.

"It's kind of an amazing thing, isn't it," Bradburne said, "when you kind of get into the inner-workings like this?"

Bradburne, who won gold medals in the 200-meter freestyle and the 400-meter freestyle relay in the 1984 Olympics, has experienced the festival a handful of times from the outside, but never from the inside.

"What amazes me about this is just the volunteers and the community spirit, just how everybody rallies around it," Bradburne said.

And Bradburne knows a thing or two about rallying around a cause: With a "hodgepodge" group of swimmers, Bradburne won silver in the 400-meter medley relay in the 1988 Olympics.

That silver medal may shine a bit brighter than her two golds, if only because of the dire circumstances surrounding the race.

The United States' 1988 400-meter medley relay team had fallen to pieces: Some of the original members dropped out of the race because they weren't swimming well, while others dropped out for personal reasons.

The team was reassembled at the last minute, and comprised of women with no experience swimming together, with no relay exchange practice, with no coach.

Bradburne was one of the few on the team with any international swimming experience; few American supporters sat in the stands -- what chance did the patchwork team have against the East Germans?

And those East Germans, they stared and they joked and they snickered at Bradburne and her American teammates.

What chance?

"They didn't think we were gonna do anything," Bradburne said. "And hardly any of our teammates were up in the stands. It was the last race of my life, and I was like, 'You know what, you guys ... this is what we're gonna do.'

"I was kind of the mother hen because I had a lot of international experience."

The snickering East Germans took gold, but the mishmash Americans came away with silver, and when Bradburne speaks of the race, it nearly chokes her up: "It's probably one of the proudest races of my life."

How different that second-place finish must have felt from the gold she won in the 200-meter freestyle in 1984, a race she had four years, not four moments, to train for.

Of that race, Bradburne remembers only the final 25 meters: A mad dash against fellow American Cynthia Woodhead, who at the time held the world record for the 200.

Bradburne, for four years, played that race out in the pools of her mind. Time after time after time, in her mind, she beat out Woodhead for gold.

"I just was blessed to win on the right day in the right race," Bradburne said. "I looked in the mirror every single day and said, 'Beat Cindy Woodhead.'"

"I had been beating her over and over for four years, until, when it came down to the Olympics, she was the one to beat."

Since retiring from swimming, Bradburne has been inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, to which she donated her 400-meter freestyle relay gold medal. During the 1992 Olympics, Bradburne was the women's swimming color commentator for NBC. She tried her hand at covering football and basketball for television, but she said it became an impractical career choice.

Currently, Bradburne owns a boutique public relations firm, which she operates from her Shenandoah Valley home.

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