Born: March 7, 1947
Town: West Orange
Virginia Ruth Duenkel was born March 7, 1947 in Orange and grew up in West Orange. The Duenkels were members of the St. Cloud Swim Club, a popular venue run by Angela Sansone. Ginny’s parents and two brothers were all avid swimmers, but she had not interest in the water, so she just hung around the pool in the summertime. Finally, her dad just picked her up and threw her in the pool. She was 9 at the time and soon it was hard to get her out of the water. Later, Ginny trained at the YMCA in Summit.
Under the tutelage of coach Frank Elm, Ginny started turning in world-class times in the backstroke at the age of 15. She was only as a sophomore at West Orange High School. She made the U.S. swimming team and competed in her first major international event shortly after turning 16: the 1963 Pan American Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Ginny was a member of the 4 x 100 medley relay team, and swam the first leg—backstroke—followed by Cynthia Goyette, Sharon Stouder and Donne de Varona. The US team won the gold, outdistancing Canada by 2.6 seconds.
In 1963 and ’64, the women’s backstroke was one of the most crowded and competitive events in the sport. In qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, Ginny set a new world record in the 100 meters and was among the favorites when the Summer Games (they actually took place in October) began two weeks later. Neither her parents nor her coach could afford to make the trip.
Ginny won her qualifying heat with a time of 1:08.9. In the final the following day, she finished third behind US teammates Cathy Ferguson and Kiki Caron to take the bronze medal. No fewer than 6 of the swimmers competing for 100m backstroke medals had set world records at one time or another.
Ginny considered the medal a defeat and cried when it was placed around her neck. After the race, a coach explained that everyone at the Olympics had elite physical talent—it was what was between the ears that determined the outcome of most races. Laser-focused on her second event, three days later, Ginny won her qualifying heat in the 400-meter freestyle. The next day she took the gold medal with a time of 4:43.3, a new Olympic record. American swept the medals again, with Marilyn Ramenofsky winning the silver and Terri Lee Stickles the bronze. More than 10,000 people turned out the following November to celebrate Ginny Duenkel Day in West Orange. Ginny was still a senior at West Orange High.
Ginny did not compete in the 1968 Olympics. She married Chris Fuldner and had three children. They lived in Denver briefly and then moved to Missouri, where Chris’s family had a business. In the 1980s, Ginny started a swim team in the town of Monett and built it into a perennial champion. She was enshrined in the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1985.
In 2014, Ginny returned to West Orange for a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of her double-medal triumph in Tokyo. The event was held at the Ginny Duenkel Pool on Cherry Street.