Swimming Pioneer Has WV Mountains in His Heart
Then-West Virginia University Director of Athletics Red Brown had the idea of making swimming a varsity sport prior to the 1955-56 season, following two years as an intramural sport when the Mountaineers only competed in one varsity match.
That is where Pittsburgh native Ronald Gainsford entered the equation, as he was tasked with starting the program from the bottom up. A 1954 graduate of Pitt, Gainsford was a three-year All-American in the butterfly, a Pennsylvania high school state champion in 1946 and a swimmer since the third grade.
Immediately, Gainsford ran into many roadblocks, the most notable one being that there was only one high school in the state that had a swim program.
“Linsly Academy (now The Linsly School) in Wheeling was the only prep swimming school in the whole state of West Virginia,” Gainsford recalled. “It was really hard to get it started because there were only six swimmers in the state that had competitive experience while every other sport had some athletes. There were many high schools that had wrestling and gymnastics teams, and they all had football and basketball.”
Doubling as a physical education instructor, Gainsford immediately decided to look to the student-athletes at WVU that were playing other sports, as well as the members of the former intramural team to help get the program off the ground.
“We had an intramural program, and we had several swimmers from the club team,” Gainsford said. “We didn’t have any scholarships at that time - in fact, most of the minor sports didn’t have them, and if they did, they only had one and it would almost always go to an in-state resident.”
Gainsford quickly began to notice the plethora of outstanding student-athletes that were attending WVU during that time, particularly guys like Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley, Lewis Guidi and Chuck Howley.
Gainsford began to develop relationships through close friendships with Hundley and Guidi, and he even taught West how to swim.
“He came into my physical education class not knowing how to swim a stroke,” Gainsford laughed. “By the end of the first session, he swam the length of the pool. That shows what kind of athlete he is.”
Howley was a different story as the five-sport letterwinner and eventual NFL standout was actually a member of Gainsford’s diving team.
“He came to me and asked if he could be on the diving team. I told him that he could try out, and we’d see how it went,” Gainsford said. “He came out for diving to win a letter, but he was a good diver. He finished second at the Southern Conference meet in his only season.”
Following his three-year tenure at WVU, Gainsford changed career paths and coached at Seacrest High in Delray Beach, Fla., as the head swim coach and assistant football coach. Gainsford recalled a funny story on a bus that took him from the mountains of West Virginia down to Florida for his job interview.
“We were going through West Virginia and this elderly lady was sitting next to me, and she had just come back from Florida,” Gainsford recalled. “She looked out at the window and said, ‘Oh, I miss these mountains. I miss these West Virginia mountains!’ I said to myself, ‘How could anybody miss mountains?’”
Ten years later, Gainsford’s parents became ill, forcing him to return to Pittsburgh where he taught in the public school system for a number of years.
“I came back from Florida on a bus, and we were passing through West Virginia and a young, beautiful girl sat next to me, and I looked out the window and said, ‘Boy do I miss these West Virginia mountains.’ She gave me a strange look, and I knew just what she was thinking,” Gainsford recalled.
Through business ventures, Gainsford began to make it back to West Virginia every week after starting two scuba diving companies. Tygart Lake and Cheat Lake were the scuba diving hot spots, allowing Gainsford to better understand the state and its people.
“This went on for about 10 years, and I became very close and fond of West Virginia,” Gainsford said. “I got to be very close to some of those old-timers who owned grocery stores in the mountains. I’d sit around the potbelly stove and talk to them. Long after I was at West Virginia, it became my second home. I have a fondness for West Virginia culture.”
One of Gainsford’s biggest joys in coaching the Mountaineers was the development of recent WVU Sports Hall of Fame inductee Dan “Cav” Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh became WVU’s first NCAA qualifier and has gone on to have massive success in the U.S. Masters Swimming program.
“He was a beginner swimmer when he came to me,” Gainsford said. “In the first year, he dropped his times almost 15 or 20 yards in a 100-yard race. He got to be a very good swimmer for someone that had never competitively swum.”
Gainsford and Cavanaugh rekindled their relationship nearly 45 years later in 2000, as they each competed in the FINA World Masters Championships in Munich, Germany. Cavanaugh went on to win numerous events, while Gainsford had a fourth-place finish, but it was Gainsford who took on most of the publicity.
Because in 1994, Gainsford received a heart transplant and was back swimming competitively only six years later. Gainsford is believed to be the longest-living heart transplant recipient at the age of 83.
“I went through a real long recovery period, and then I started swimming again to become stronger. I got to be pretty good at the swimming, and I entered a national championship and earned two first places,” Gainsford said. “That qualified me for the world championships, and I went there and got a fourth. I went to a second world championship four years later in Italy and did the same thing.”
Gainsford has now slowed his swimming career, but he is happy with the progression the sport has taken throughout his lifetime.
“It’s grown quite a bit because of the facilities. Most of the swimming in the United States when I was swimming was using little pools - 3-lane, 20-yard pools,” Gainsford said. “Now they have big, beautiful Olympic-size pools. That is probably one of the biggest reasons swimming has really developed.
“There is just something about being 83-years old and not feeling like going up and down a pool anymore!”
Though he may have given up his time in the pool, Gainsford’s heart will always remain behind the sport he helped propel to success at WVU – and those mountains he has grown to love.
Ronald Gainsford, West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU, NCAA swimming and diving
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