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Beulah Detwiler Gundling

The first time she tried to swim, Beulah Detwiler Gundling sank like a stone to the bottom of the pool.  Today, she is honored as the lady who made synchronized swimming a beautiful sport.  A native of Cedar Rapids, Beulah’s first inclinations were to music and dancing.  These interests proved helpful to her later on as she worked for the evolution of swimming, changing it from a mere sport into an art form.

Encouraged by her parents, Gundling enrolled in swimming classes at the YMCA when she was 14 to learn to swim and dive, but her first attempts in the water were a disaster.  She went to the Cedar Rapids Public Library and checked out instructional books on how to swim.  Using what she had learned, Gundling went to Ellis beach every day during the summer until she taught herself how to float.

By the time she graduated Magna cum laude from Coe College in 1938, Gundling had increased her abilities; she considered swimming laps boring.  It seemed to her that she had gone as far with her swimming as she could.  Upon seeing a Dolphin swimmers show as the University of Iowa, however, she started to see swimming in a whole new light.

After getting a job as a secretary to one of the top executives in the Cedar Rapids, Chamber of Commerce, Gundling fulfilled her lifelong dream of taking lessons.  She began to conceive the idea of combining her music, dance, and swimming interest into one.  In the early 1940’s, she composed a solo routine and helped to organize the Ellis Aquacade, a synchronized swimming exhibition performed by the Aqua Symphonettes.

On her husband’s urging, she entered the 1948 Outdoor Nationals in Des Moines, performing a duet with Noreen Fenner.  The pair finished in 10th place out of a field of 14, but they benefited from seeing the routines of other groups.  After more contests in Canada, California, and Chicago, Gundling was invited to the 1951 Pan-American Games in Buenos Aires as an exhibition soloist for the U.S.  Her performance spurred the judges to include synchronized swimming in the 1955 games as a competitive event for the first time, in which she then went on to win the gold medal that year.  She went on to win two other international competitions, performing exhibitions at those events that didn’t include synchronized swimming, including the Olympic Games. 

In 1965, Gundling was among the first inductees into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  After retiring, Gundling and her husband were leaders in the International Academy of Aquatic Art, and she was a noted instructor of synchronized swimming, teaching on four different continents.  She wrote five textbooks on swimming, as well as an autobiography, Dancing in the Water.  Beulah Detwiler Gundling was, in her time, the authority on the art of swimming.



(Article on Beulah Detwiler Gundling as it appeared in the March 5, 1953 issue of the Cosmos)

Famous Aquatic Star, '38 Coe Grad Performed in Olympics Last Summer

Rated by swimming experts as the foremost synchronized swimmer in the world today, Beulah Gundling of Cedar Rapids, a Coe grad of 1938, is enthusiastic over her work. She has given exhibitions in five countries and represented the United States at the 1952 Olympic games at Helsinki, Finland, last summer.

Quiet and modest, Mrs. Gundling explained that her swimming career, which includes an invitation to appear before Queen Elizabeth of England next summer, began when she entered an AAU Outdoor National meet at Des Moines in 1948. Later she entered the Canadian Dominion Championship meet at Toronto and placed first in the synchronized solo division. She was the first American woman to place in the competition, which was then 25 years old.

"Synchronized swimming is swimming with music, combining strokes and stunts," Mrs. Gundling said. "I design my own costumes and routines after I find a particular record, listen to it and see what ideas it expresses. More than 90 stunts are listed in my handbook and they may be combined, varied, or new ideas added to them," she added.

For the past three years Mrs. Gundling has placed first in Chicago, Detroit, and Elinor Village, Fla., in the solo synchronized swimming division of AAU competition. At the Chicago meet she qualified against 250 competitors from 28 states and Canada, was a representative to the Pan-American games at Buenos Aires in 1951. After exhibitions there, synchronized swimming was voted in as a competitive sport for future Pan-American games.

Probably the highlight of her career so far was representing the United States at the Olympics. With her husband, Henry Gundling, her coach and manager, she left the United States in July in an official Olympic plane for Helsinki, accompanied by the full swimming team.

“Our first performance was before the International swimming Federation officials, after we had been there about a week,” Mrs. Gundling said. “The United States and Canada are considered pioneers in synchronized swimming and we did things people of other countries hadn’t ever seen.”

Climaxing these exhibitions was a special performance for the Duke of Edinburgh, who was so impressed that he scheduled a performance before Queen Elizabeth to take place on the Gundlings’ trip to Great Britain in August.

"We stated in private homes in Finland, as housing coordination’s are critical there," Mrs. Gundling said. "The people thought of everything to make our stay pleasant, even so far as to sleep on cots in the kitchen so we could have the bedrooms. When we left they brought flowers to us at the boat," she said.

Over 7,000 performers were at the Olympics last year, the largest attended games of all time.

Not content to give up swimming during the winter, Mrs. Gundling plans to travel to Northwest College at Natchitochos, La., this weekend to conduct a clinic and give exhibitions. In May, Mrs. Gundling will be guest star in a swimming exhibition at UCLA, and in June the couple are scheduling a trip to Bermuda for the annual water show there.

After their trip to England in August, the Gundlings will go to Israel for the Maccabiah games, which are the Jewish Olympics.

Mrs. Gundling started swimming in Cedar Rapids as the YWCA when she was 13 years old. Her love of music, necessary to this specialized type of swimming, was developed in dancing lessons at Coe under the tutelage of Miss Edna Dieman.

At Coe, she participated in the Colonial Ball and May Fete, plus serving as a Cosmos reporter.


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