Melissa Belote learned to swim at 2 to take the first step to do what she wanted: leap off the diving board at Springfield Swim and Racquet Club. At 10, Belote was such a good swimmer that she began training year-round with coach Ed Solotar even thought that meant hunting all over the Washington area for an available indoor pool during the school year.
At 12, Belote qualified for the U.S Nationals. Three years later, she won the 100- and 200-meter backstroke at the Olympic Trials, setting a world record in the latter. Later that summer, Belote burst onto the nation’s sports scene by winning the 100 and 200 in Munich, adding a third gold medal in the 4×100 medley relay.
Now the swimming coach at her children’s alma mater, McClintock High in Tempe, Az., and an age group coach at the Rio Salado Swim Club nearby, the 55-year-old Belote Ripley enjoys talking about the days when she was America’s princess of the pool.
“I always loved the water,” Belote Ripley said in an exclusive interview for this column. “When the swim club would open up, I’d want to be the first one in the pool and the last one to leave. I used to give the lifeguards a hard time because anyone under the age of 12 was supposed to leave the water by 6PM if a parent wasn’t with them. I’d ride my bike the mile home. We’d shovel down dinner and all go back to the pool.”
As she headed to the Olympics as a world record-holder, Belote was still too young to drive. But she was not looking to have fun.
“I was like a kid going to Disneyland for the first time: ‘Wow, look at this! Wow, look at that!’ “ Belote recalled. “But even at 15, I knew I had business to do. My coach subscribed to all the swimming periodicals throughout the world and we had somebody from the State Department translate them so going into the Olympics, I had full research on the top 25 backstrokers in the world. I knew how they raced their races from their splits and we found pictures of all of them so I knew what they looked like.”
If those swimmers didn’t know much about Belote, they found out soon enough. While she was favored in the 200, she was seeded seventh before the preliminaries in the 100, a race whose outcome would determine whether she would swim in the relay for a near-sure medal.
“When I hit the wall, the first thing I did was look up at the giant time board and there was a 1 by my name,” Belote Ripley remembered. “I had to look back at the starting block to make sure that I was in Lane 4; that this was actually really happening. I had missed the world record by a couple hundredths of a second. I broke it in the 200 and we broke it in the relay. I really felt the 200 was my race. Winning the 100 was a bonus and the relay was just a benefit of the bonus.”
Belote returned home having missed the first three weeks of her sophomore year at Lee High. She would miss 86 days that year because of various commitments as an Olympic champion.
“When I got home, I thought would just go back to school, but my whole world was flipped upside down,” recalled Belote Ripley, who wrote papers while traveling overseas and earned A’s in all but one class despite her frequent absences. “I had a press conference at the swim club. I had to go to Capitol Hill and the White House. And then there was Melissa Belote Day with a parade from the house to the high school where there was a big ceremony on the football field. We were averaging up to 200 letters a day. They would just say Melissa Belote, Washington, D.C. and they would get delivered to my house. I would go to a football game and people would ask for my autograph. It was just amazing.”
Belote went on to win six national titles at Arizona State, one of just two schools to offer swimming scholarships for females back then. She returned to the Olympics in Montreal in 1976, just missing making the team in the 100 and finishing fifth in the 200 – behind two East Germans, a Soviet and a Canadian friend of hers — despite setting an American record.
“I’m almost more proud of what I did the second time around because it was such a grind getting back there,” she said. “When you’re the best in the world and you’ve got the world record and the Olympic gold medals, what do you strive for? You didn’t get money to train back then. You didn’t get people taking care of you. I was a student. Swimming wasn’t dominating my life.”
Three years later, Belote retired from swimming, but she has really never left the water. After two and a half years in sales for Xerox, she began coaching. Her daughter Rachel swims for Missouri. Her son Erik swims for Towson. And she has been thrilled to see the development of swimming in the Washington area, which has produced three local Olympians for whom she was cheering in recent days.
“I thought I would coach for a couple of years and figure out what else I wanted to do, but it’s been 31 years and I’m still coaching,” said Belote Ripley, whose Olympic medals were stolen during a burglary in 2010. “I love coaching 12-and-unders. They’re sponges. They just want to learn. They want to seep everything in and get better.”
Just like that girl from Springfield who couldn’t get enough of the pool back in the 1960s.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin