Keena Rothhammer (1957–)
Keena Rothhammer, who was a talented and versatile swimmer, became one of the leaders of the U.S. national teams at both the 1972 Olympics and the 1973 World Championships. Rothhammer was the first Arkansas native to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming and set multiple world records over the course of her career. Over her short career, Rothhammer held two world records, ten American records, and fifteen individual national records.
Keena Ruth Rothhammer was born on February 26, 1957, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Grant Roy Rothhammer and Dianne Becker Rothhammer. As their daughter’s swimming potential became clear, the family left Little Rock for southern California, where she was coached by the legendary George Haines at the Santa Clara Swim Club in Santa Clara. There, Rothhammer thrived, making the 1972 Olympic team at fifteen years old.
In an Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, where the swimming spotlight never left Mark Spitz, Rothhammer turned in an epic performance. Not only did she win the gold medal in the women’s 800-meter freestyle, she defeated Australian legend Shane Gould and became the youngest person to ever win the event. Also, on the way to winning the gold medal, she set and then reset the world record in the event on successive days. Rothhammer also won the bronze medal in the women’s 200-meter freestyle. (While tragic for everyone involved, the terrorist attacks on the Israeli team added an extra layer of trauma for Rothhammer and other Jewish competitors.)
The following year, swimming at the 1973 World Aquatics Championships, Rothhammer won the 200-meter freestyle and finished runner-up in the 400-meter freestyle. That effort would prove to be her final bow on the international stage, despite being only sixteen. Following the 1973 World Championships, Rothhammer retired, the victim of severe migraine headaches that she had been suffering with since junior high school. She continued to stay involved with the sport, having participated in swim clinics for more than 15,000 young swimmers, and was especially active working with local Special Olympics programs.
Rothhammer later attended the University of Southern California, where she studied broadcast journalism. After a short time as a color commentator for CBS television sports, she ultimately ended up pursuing a career in financial services, working as the comptroller for a number of companies, including MBS Land Surveys based in San Luis Obispo, California.
For all her accomplishments in the pool, Rothhammer’s greatest legacy in terms of her place in U.S. swimming history arguably centers on her pivotal role in the successful effort to get the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to change its strict, long-standing rule on women’s racing suits. Until 1974, American female suits were required to have a skirt around the hip. Their East German counterparts, however, who were becoming increasingly dominant in the water, competed in skintight suits—and usually won. With Rothhammer and her family leading the lobbying effort, and with her mother—a swimming entrepreneur who would eventually gain a patent for a suit that was easier to put on and take off, a method aimed especially at helping the elderly and disabled—ultimately suggesting a bikini lining that addressed the concerns about modesty that seemed the only real impediment to the American adoption of the “skinsuits,” change was achieved. The success of the Rothhammer-led effort, coming after she had retired but in time for the 1976 Olympics, restored at least an element of parity to the international swimming landscape, making the race results a product of swimmers’ training and efforts and not their equipment.
Rothhammer has enjoyed a successful career in business. She married Scott Weisbly in 1976, but they later divorced. She and her second husband, John Zorovich, live in the San Luis Obispo area. Rothhammer was among the first inductees into the Arkansas Swimming Hall of Fame.
For additional information:
Campbell, Jule. “Light, Tight, and Right for Racing.” Sports Illustrated, August 12, 1974. https://vault.si.com/vault/1974/08/12/light-tight-and-right-for-racing (accessed April 12, 2023).
“Keena Rothhammer.” International Swimming Hall of Fame. https://www.ishof.org/honoree/honoree-keena-rothhammer/ (accessed April 12, 2023).
“Keena Ruth Rothhammer.” Olympics.com. https://olympics.com/en/athletes/keena-ruth-rothhammer (accessed April 12, 2023).
William H. Pruden III
"*" indicates required fields
No comments on this entry yet.