Watching Rio brought back fond memories for Lititz’s 1976 Olympian

By on August 31, 2016
Marie Jonik Myers, wearing her Team USA warm-up jacket, was a member of the first women’s rowing team to go to the Olympics, 40 years ago this summer. --Photo by Bruce Morgan

Marie Jonik Myers, wearing her Team USA warm-up jacket, was a member of the first women’s rowing team to go to the Olympics, 40 years ago this summer. –Photo by Bruce Morgan

The year of Jenner, Leonard, and Jonik

America’s bicentennial was much more than a patriotic milestone for Lititz’s Marie Jonik Myers. It was magical.

In 1976, 40 years ago, Myers, originally from Havertown, was an alternate for the U.S. women’s rowing team that would compete in the Montreal Summer Olympics.

Her twin sister Ann was also selected as an alternate, making that summer twice as memorable for the Jonik family.

After gaining a high ranking in Philadelphia rowing races in 1975, Marie, then 22, and her sister competed in Boston, garnering a spots on the team. The following year, women’s rowing was added to the Olympics for the first time and Myers’ team would bring home a bronze medal.

“I was so glad we went to the Olympics together,” Myers said, referring to her sister. “I did the best I could, and I’m satisfied with what I did.”

After returning home to Pennsylvania, she married, moved to Lititz, raised a family, and taught preschool for many years. She now works at the Lititz recCenter.

But the sense of being an Olympian has always remained with her.

Watching Olympic competitions on TV now is bittersweet.

 

Marie (left) and Ann with Jim Dietz, a sculler for the men’s rowing team, in Montreal. Images provided by Marie Jonik Myers

Marie (left) and Ann with Jim Dietz, a sculler for the men’s rowing team, in Montreal. (Images provided by Marie Jonik Myers)

 

“I have my memories and I also think about all the other athletes and the memories they’re going to bring home,” Myers said. “I get goose bumps thinking about it.

“It changes your life,” she added. “It’s been 40 years and we’ve been reminiscing…on Facebook…with photos, and one of the girls is putting together a slide show.”

Myers remembered how thrilling it was to discover that women would be able to row in the Olympics.

“It was exciting,” she said. “Our coach made the path as easy as he could for us.”

That year, Harry Parker, men’s rowing coach for Harvard, was chosen to be the women’s Olympic coach.

“It was quite a surprise to all of us,” Myers said. “He was an iconic coach; winning everything. We would just do anything for him; he was so respected.”

From practice rowing on the Schuylkill and competing in local races to heading for Montreal was quite a journey, Myers said.

The 1976 Olympic games were filled with sports royalty, including one actual royal, Princess Anne of Great Britain, who competed on her nation’s equestrian team.

It was the year Bruce Jenner won the gold in the decathlon, Romanian Nadia Comaneci dominated gymnastics, and Sugar Ray Leonard boxed his way into history.

With all athletes living in the same Olympic Village and eating in two dining rooms, occasionally you’d rub elbows with some of the more famous individuals, she said.

 

The opening ceremony for the 1976 Olympics. Somewhere in this crowd of athletes are Bruce Jenner, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Marie and Ann Jonik.

The opening ceremony for the 1976 Olympics. Somewhere in this crowd of athletes are Bruce Jenner, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Marie and Ann Jonik.

 

“You got to see them around; you’d run into athletes that were famous,” Myers said. “We’re all equal, we’re all there to compete…but when you see someone like Olga Korbut…she’s the rock star. We went up to Olga to say ‘hi’ at the lunch table. That was exciting.”

Myers didn’t get to meet Jenner, and said the decathletes were pretty much busy “rock stars,” too.

Her team was able to watch events when they weren’t competing or practicing, and she was there when Jenner won the gold.

Security was tight even back then, Myers said.

A fence completely surrounded the Olympic Village where the athletes lived during their stay in Montreal.

“You couldn’t leave your room without your name tag, and security guards were everywhere,” Myers said. “We didn’t let it bother us, but we noticed it as soon as we got there.”

Testing for drugs was also ongoing.

“Right after a race, you might be taken right out of your boat for random drug testing,” Myers said.

After the games ended, a number of athletes continued to attend Olympic functions over the years, and she eventually met Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz and had a photo taken with gold medalist decathlete Rafer Johnson in Boston.

For this year’s Olympics, Myers didn’t single out a favorite sport to watch, other than rowing, but was impressed with one individual.

“I do need a T-shirt with (Jamaican sprinter) Usain Bolt on it,” she said. “He’s a fabulous athlete; you can’t trick anything he does. It’s not magic; he’s just good.

“I’m in awe of everybody,” she added. “It shouldn’t be a popularity contest; everybody deserves a pat on the back, because win, lose, or draw, they all made it to the Olympics.”

 

The Joniks are a rowing family. This is Marie’s mother, Mary Prior, a founding member of the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club in the early 1930s.

The Joniks are a rowing family. This is Marie’s mother, Mary Prior, a founding member of the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club in the early 1930s.

 

Rowing doesn’t have the popularity of gymnastics or figure skating, but it will always be her sport.

“When we went to Montreal, we were just purely passionate athletes; no drugs, no funny business…we were just doing what we loved,” she said. “Today the process is so different; it’s daunting. It’s non-stop traveling and racing.

“Rowing doesn’t get a lot of attention,” she said. “It’s not a money-making sport, and it’s not all that popular with the public. Not a lot of people even know about it.

“People were there (in 1976) watching us compete, but it was probably one of the cheaper events.”

The good news is that in the past three consecutive Olympics, the U.S. women’s rowing team has won gold, Myers pointed out.

“That heightens interest,” she said. “In between that, they’ve won world championships. They just love what they’re doing.”

The sport of rowing is truly in her blood.

Her mother, Mary Prior, was a founding member of the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club in the early 1930s. Her father, Ed Jonik, was a long-standing member of the Fairmount Boating Club, and all four of Marie’s older brothers and sisters participate in the sport.

“They all had fabulous rowing careers, so I wouldn’t have chosen golf,” Myers said, laughing.

When she started, women’s rowing wasn’t getting the respect it deserved. It was treated more like a novelty.

“There were no bathrooms for us, no changing areas, no boats, which was the way it was back then,” she said. “The men had locker rooms, the girls had nothing. Women getting into the racing scene were looked at differently (than men).”

The federally mandated Title IX changed all that. The amendment states that people can’t be excluded from participating in a sport or discriminated against based on gender if the educational program of which they are a part receives federal funds.

“They finally welcomed us and we got our own boat, so that was great,” Myers said.

She joined the famed Vesper Boat Club at the age of 17, while still in high school.

A number of notable people have been a part of Vesper, including Jack Kelly, brother of actress Grace Kelly.

 

Women’s rowing made its Olympic debut in the summer of 1976. Twin sisters Marie and Ann Jonik were alternates on the team, which won a bronze medal in Montreal.

Women’s rowing made its Olympic debut in the summer of 1976. Twin sisters Marie and Ann Jonik
were alternates on the team, which won a bronze medal in Montreal.

 

“The first boat we ever had was named ‘Grace Kelly,’ and she actually came and christened the boat,” Myers said. “I’m very proud of that club.”

Finding female rowers to compete against in the early 1970s presented a problem.

“There were no other clubs for us to race against. Our coach would pack us up and take us to New England; to Madison, Wisconsin; New York…We had to travel to race against colleges,” she said.

Now 62, Myers continues to compete and still loves the sport.

“I stay in shape, I still row and I still race,” Myers said. “So, when I get a phone call, I’m ready to go.

“I still get nervous,” she added. “I think the day I don’t get nervous is the day I take up tennis.”

Myers missed the Master’s Regatta National Championship in Worcester, Mass. this past year while recovering from foot surgery. More than 2,100 people participated in the event.

“The competition is fierce,” she said.

Next year, she will be rowing in the national championship when it takes place in Oakridge, Tenn. Meanwhile she has races coming up in Philadelphia in September and October, and she’s still bringing home medals.

A few weeks ago, Myers rowed in a race near Philadelphia with her sister and brother.

“It’s more about….it’s a family affair,” she said. “The fact that our parents raced together and now the kids, 50 and 60 years old, are racing together, that’s kind of cool.”

Marylouise Sholly is a veteran journalist and freelance contributor to the Record Express.

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