Weston woman cherishes late mom's gold
Updated 1:50 pm, Friday, August 10, 2012
The spectacle of the opening ceremonies for the Summer Olympics in London on July 27 attracted millions of viewers worldwide and led some to reflect on the significance of the last London Olympic Games in 1948.
They were the first contested in 12 years because the Olympics were suspended during World War II, and as athletes arrived from around the world, the scars of war were still apparent in the rubble of bombed-out buildings.
"When the Americans entered the arena for the opening ceremonies, they received a rousing applause and standing ovation from the crowd," said Sheila Stolarski, of Weston, pointing out that the ovation was an expression of gratitude for the role America played to end that war, and to help rebuild Europe.
Stolarski knows about the heroes' welcome that the athletes received because her mother, Marie Corridon Mortell, of Norwalk, was among them.
Corridon Mortell was 18 years old when she represented the United States and took home a gold medal as a member of the swim team that won the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, setting a new Olympic record of 4:29.2 in the process.
The Norwalk YMCA, located at 370 West Ave., has created a display honoring her that will remain in the lobby through the end of the 2012 Olympic Games.
Corridon Mortell did not live to see this year's Olympics in London. She died two years ago at the age of 80, but her swimming legacy lives on in her family.
Several of her seven children and 11 grandchildren are competitive swimmers.
Stolarski is a master swimmer who still swims competitively. She just won six events in April at the YMCA Masters' National Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Her sister, Kate Mortell, of Norwalk, swam competitively in high school and college. She is a 16-time All American and Olympic trial qualifier. Another of Corridon Mortell's five daughters, Maureen Koziol, now of Summit, N.J., was also an Olympic trial qualifier.
Sheila's son, Edward Stolarski, 14, has several first-place finishes to his credit, including winning four events recently at the Connecticut Age Group Championships as a member of the Westport/Weston Family Y Water Rats. He is also a member of the Fairfield Prep swim team, which won the State Open in March.
"I tell my nieces and nephews, when they get up on that block to remember that they come from a long line of champions," Kate Mortell said.
"When I swim it's carrying on a tradition. We're keeping it alive, me and my cousins," said Edward Stolarski.
Kate Mortell said watching this year's opening ceremonies helped her put that family legacy and her mother's Olympic accomplishment into perspective.
"This Olympic history and legacy that we grew up with, it was almost too close to home to appreciate it," said Kate Mortell, who is a swimming instructor and lifeguard at the YMCA of Norwalk.
"Since she has passed away it's a more tangible experience for me, and I see the extraordinariness of growing up with this at close range. She was really there, and 1948 wasn't that long ago."
The Norwalk YMCA display includes a replica of Corridon Mortell's Olympic gold medal, photographs and news clippings chronicling her Olympic success. The local Y was selected for the display because it was one of Corridon Mortell's earliest training sites.
"Really, when are you going to have a chance to be up close and personal to an Olympic gold medal, especially one that was earned by someone who swam here in the 1940s?" said Mike Case, CEO of the YMCA of Norwalk.
"Mom took lessons here. This is how she started (her training)," Stolarski said.
Corridon Mortell's Olympic journey actually began in Westport. She learned to swim at the Longshore Club in Westport at the age of 5. She trained there too and won her first swimming competition there when she was age 7.
One of the photographs her family has in the scrapbook on display at the Norwalk YMCA shows Corridon Mortell with Longshore's swimming director Harry Walden standing poolside.
"Swimming was an interest of hers and a summer pastime," Kate Mortell said.
"Her family belonged to Longshore in Westport. She just stood out. She was a natural. Her strokes were beautiful. I think that was a product of her natural talent and excellent coaching."
"That had a lot to do with her success in the Olympics," Kate Mortell said, and beyond.
Corridon Mortell was also a national champion in the 100-yard freestyle in 1948--breaking the existing U.S. record in that event and becoming the first woman in history to break the one-minute barrier in that event with a time of 59.9 seconds during the national AAU championship.
She won the event again in 1950.
Her accomplishments continue to inspire her family, who said they feel compelled to tell her story and share her passion for the sport of swimming to inspire other athletes, even more since her passing.
"Since my mother has passed away, I think we feel a sense of privilege and responsibility to share her legacy, to carry the message beyond ourselves," Kate Mortell said.
Her sister Sheila finished the sentiment by adding, "and to help inspire young children to have hopes and dreams."
"We are stewards of the legacy, of this Olympic legacy," Kate Mortell said.
Meg Barone is a freelance writer.