January 25, 2010

Like Mother, Like Son

The following story originally appeared in the Winter 2009-10 issue of the Brown Bear Magazine.

When Brown swimming and diving captain JD Pinto ’10 had friends over to his house when he was growing up, they all wanted to see one thing: his mother’s Olympic gold medals.


“Kids would come over all the time and put them on and want to touch them,” said Pinto. “We would have team dinners in high school and my teammates would always ask about them.”


Pinto’s mother, Donna de Varona, was the world record holder in the 400 individual medley at just 13 years of age, but the event was not contested at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. She did, however, qualify for the U.S. squad as a relay alternate, becoming the youngest member of the U.S. team.


“I had never been further east than Oklahoma,” said de Varona, who was born in San Diego. “We stopped in New York on the way to get outfitted, and then went on to Rome. It was an extraordinary experience.”


Four years later, de Varona was back at the Olympics, this time in Tokyo, and with very different expectations. No longer a “kid” at 17 years old, and with her specialty added to the event schedule, de Varona felt the pressure of being the favorite.


“I had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and posed for Life, and I think I would have really let myself and the team down if I didn’t perform at my best,” said de Varona.


There wasn’t any letdown. de Varona won her signature event by a whopping 5.4 seconds and helped lead Team USA’s 4x100 freestyle relay to a 3.1 second win over Australia.


After her second Olympic Games, de Varona started working with ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” She was a founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation, served on President Gerald Ford’s Commission on Olympic Sports, testified in Congress in support of Title IX legislation, and continues to advocate on behalf of Olympic athletes today.


Having a parent with such an impressive list of accomplishments could be a burdensome shadow to overcome, but Pinto believes that his mother has taught him a great deal about being a competitor, teammate and leader.


“Swimming should be about bringing out the best in everyone,” said Pinto, who ranks 12th on Brown’s all-time performance list in the 100 butterfly. “I learned that from my mother. Her biggest accomplishment isn’t her two gold medals. Her passion is making the world a better place. If you approach things from that perspective, I think everyone can win.