Terri Strunck sat in a black folding camping chair next to Bob, her husband of 41 years, on an unseasonably cool late-afternoon day at Murphys Park. For many people passing by, perhaps on their way to a picnic or to splash around in the nearby creek, they may have not taken a second glance at the husband and wife enjoying each other’s company.
But if they did do a doubletake, they may have thought the only thing they saw was a happily married couple, proud parents or loving grandparents. What the passersby didn’t know is with each step they took away from Terri’s direction, they were walking further away from an Olympian.
And even after nearly 57 years from not only swimming the 400-meter freestyle during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but bringing home a bronze medal, Strunck is still considered an Olympian. As the U.S. Olympians Association’s motto states: “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.” Never former; never past.
“The Olympics, it’s in my soul,” Strunck said. “It’s part of me and it always will be. It’ll be part of me forever.”
Born to swim
Terri (née Stickles) Strunck, 75, was introduced to the water at a young age. Born in San Mateo in 1946, Strunck and her older brother, Ted, grew up learning how to swim during summer vacation trips to Bass Lake in Madera County. Ted, who is older by four years, showed an early interest in swimming and quickly became one of the top swimmers in the country. He later graduated from Hillsdale High School in 1960 and went to Indiana State University on a swimming scholarship.
As many younger siblings tend to do, Strunck followed her older brother’s lead and became a young swimming phenom. At 10, Strunck began taking lessons to become a competitive swimmer and joined the San Mateo Marlins, a local swimming team near her home. She didn’t swim her first meet until she was 11 and by 12, Strunck began breaking national age group records.
“It was just God-given talent,” Strunck said.
Although she was making a name for herself in the pool, Strunck thought her true talents were in skates. Strunck had dreams of being a roller derby star. And if swimming and roller derby weren’t enough, Strunck was also a Yo-Yo champion and made the California State Yo-Yo championships three years in a row.
But it was when Strunck watched the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, she decided that one day she’d be an Olympic athlete.
“When I was 10, I said that I wanted to go to the Olympics,” Strunck said. “The Melbourne Olympics were on TV and the United States swimmers and Australian swimmers were the tops in the world and I remember watching them and I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, that is really neat. I want to do that.’”
Training for Tokyo
After swimming with the San Mateo Marlins for several years, Strunck joined the prestigious Santa Clara Swim Club in 1961. There, she trained with swimmers who had previously competed in the Olympics or would eventually find themselves in an Olympic pool. Nevertheless, Strunck was always practicing with world-class swimmers.
“When you are in that environment, it rubs off,” Strunck said.
Before qualifying for the Olympics, Strunck left the United States for the first time to compete in the fourth Pan American Games, which were held April 20 to May 5, 1963, in São Paulo, Brazil. She got a first-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle (1:02.8) and placed second in the 200-meter freestyle (2:18.4).
“Nowadays, they have World Championships, Pan Pacific Championships, World Tour Championships and they are traveling all the time all over the world,” Strunck said. “In those years, we had the Olympics and the Pan American Games. That was it internationally for us.”
Following the success of the Pan American Games, Strunck set her sights on the Olympics and the next stop was Astoria, New York, for the Olympic trials. There, she placed second in the 400 and her childhood dream of being an Olympian came true.
“I made it,” Strunck said of her thoughts after qualifying for the 1964 Olympics. “I still had the Olympics to go, but yeah, I’m an Olympian.”
One shot, one moment
Before making the trip from the United States to Tokyo, Japan, Strunck and her teammates traveled to Los Angeles for a training camp, where they spent countless hours in the water at the LA Coliseum pool. Once the training was complete, Strunck boarded a plane for Tokyo.
It had been nearly 19 years since Japan surrendered to the United States to end the second World War, but any resentment or hard feelings for what transpired two decades prior were long gone by the Japanese community.
“They were very friendly and overly receptive,” Strunck said. “They would do anything for us. And it wasn’t just us; it was that way for all the athletes.”
Upon arriving in Tokyo, Strunck, who was just 18 at the time, was introduced to the Olympic Village. There, she was surrounded by thousands of athletes from all over the world and she enjoyed the experience as much as she could, while still understanding that she had a job to do and to not lose focus on the task at hand.
But did she enjoy her stay at the Olympic Village?
“Are you kidding? There were 5,000 of the healthiest athletes from all over the world,” laughed Strunck. “But we were there for a purpose. The swimming was the first week of the Olympics and my race was the last day. So, I had to watch for a week.”
Before an event took place or a medal was won, perhaps the most memorable moment for any Olympic athlete was the opening ceremony. For Strunck, the ceremony was one of the highlights of the whole experience.
“The opening ceremony is the pinnacle, and everybody has to do it at least once,” Strunck said.
With the pomp and circumstance out of the way, Strunck’s biggest issue was getting out of her own head. Her competition did not take place until the seventh day. So, for a week, she had to wait for her turn to finally take her shot at glory.
“It was hard because you are thinking about it all the time and you are training and watching all your friends get medals,” Strunck said.
Finally, her day arrived. After years of training and sacrifice, all of Strunck’s hard work came down to one race. And no matter what she did, Strunck couldn’t calm her nerves.
“One race determined whether I got my goal or not,” Strunck said. “I was freaked out. When I was on the starting block, I looked down and my knees were shaking. I was looking around the bleachers and I saw people I recognized. But I just kept thinking, ‘This is it.’”
As if competing in the Olympics wasn’t frightening enough, it didn’t help that an all-time great was swimming in the race. Only a couple of lanes away was Australia’s Dawn Fraser, who had already won gold in the 100-meter race and had also won gold in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics.
And finally, with the world watching, Strunck got to compete.
“I didn’t feel really good, but I knew that I had to swim as hard as I could,” Strunck said about her memories of the race. “You have to pace yourself in the 400.”
Ginny Fuldner, from the United States, was the first to finish and she did so in 4:43.3. The second to finish, also an American, was Marilyn Ramenofsky, with her time of 4:44.6. And placing third, with a time of 4:47.2, was Strunck.
“I was happy that I got a medal because Dawn Fraser was eating me up that last lap,” laughed Strunck. “With her being a 100 freestyler, she kind of loafed through the whole thing and then sprinted at the end. I beat her by a few tenths of a second.”
At the medal ceremony, the American trio of Fuldner, Ramenofsky and Strunck stood proudly on their respective podiums with medals around their necks and the national anthem playing loudly for all to hear.
“That was incredible,” Strunck said. “I just kept thinking, ‘I did it.’ I got a medal and thank God I didn’t have to swim another five yards because Dawn Fraser probably would have beat me. But that moment, that’s what you live for.”
Life after Japan
Strunck left for Japan with hopes and dreams and came home with a bronze medal. But after the thrill of the Olympics began to subside, Strunck had to return to normal life. Like her older brother, Strunck attended Indiana State University. Because she missed the fall semester due to the Olympics, Strunck began in the winter of 1965. There, she wasn’t an Olympic swimmer, rather, just another student.
With no women’s swimming, she would still train with the men’s team. Later in 1965, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) president Jack Kelly put a swim team together that toured Europe and Strunck made the cut. During the tour, she swam in England, Wales, toured France and were guests of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier while in Monaco. The European tour of 1965 turned out to be the last competitive swimming Strunck did in her career.
In 1966, while still attending Indiana State University, Strunck made a bold decision to leave college and join the Peace Corps.
“Sargent Shriver was the head of the Peace Corps, and he gave a big speech at Indiana State University and I went right up afterwards and I said, ‘OK, where do I sign up for the Peace Corps?’” Strunck said.
She signed a two-year commitment which ran from 1966-68. Strunck went to Cali Colombia where she was able to continue to swim and began coaching the Colombian National Team. She coached Colombian team in the 1967 Pan American Games and then coached the squad in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
“I don’t regret anything about the Peace Corps,” Strunck said. “You learn to look at the United States from the outside looking in and you learn to understand how people see us from the outside looking in, which has changed the way I am when I travel in foreign countries. Not that many Americans have a way to grasp that. When people ask me if I’d do it again, I say, ‘No,’ but it’s an experience that I think every American should do once, but not twice.”
It was while she was in Colombia that Strunck met Álvaro Mejía, who was a Colombian long-distance runner. Mejía competed in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the 1972 Munich Olympics. He also won the 1971 Boston Marathon. Shortly after the Mexico City Olympics, Strunck and Mejía got married and had their only child, Christopher, in 1971.
The couple divorced in 1975 and Strunck became a police officer in 1977. But after eight years in the Redwood City Police Department, Strunck was looking for a change.
“I wanted to get away from police work,” Strunck said. “Being the first female police officer in a 72-man police department in Redwood City was hard. They tried to do everything to make me look like I couldn’t make it.”
Strunck met her future husband Bob in 1979 and got married in 1985. That was the same year the two took a Memorial Day weekend trip to Calaveras County and decided it was where they wanted to stay.
It doesn’t matter where Strunck is in the world, when the Olympics start up, regardless if it’s the winter or summer, she is glued to her TV.
“Every Olympics means something to me,” Strunck said. “I still get tears in my eyes when they bring in the torch and play the Olympic hymn.”
Terri Strunck has been many things: A mother, grandmother, San Mateo County Sports Hall of Fame member, a police officer, a Peace Corps member and competitive swimmer. But the thing that she will always be, and can never be taken away, is being an Olympian.
“Once an Olympian, always an Olympian. Never former; never past.”