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This week's girls swimming and diving state meet will be the 48th conducted by the Minnesota State High School League in the modern era, which began in 1975.

But this year's meet is actually more of a centennial. When the swimmers gather Friday and Saturday at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center, the 100th anniversary of the first swimming state meet for girls will be four months away.

From 1924 to 1942, about a dozen schools on the Iron Range held an annual swimming meet.

The finances that mining generated for communities made swimming an Iron Range sport. Dorothy McIntyre, who was listed by the Star Tribune among Minnesota's 100 most important sports figures of the century for her decades representing girls and women's sports, described the relationship this way: "Taxes from the iron mines resulted in beautiful schools with pools that were the centerpiece of their school district."

That's how Rita Garcia, an alumna of Virginia who is keeping girls swimming history alive, tells it, too.

"Some of the pools at the high schools on the Iron Range were considered the best in the nation," she said. "The Biwabik Natatorium was considered the best. The Biwabik pool and the Virginia pool were considered Olympic pools."

The Minneapolis Journal reported in its March 9, 1924, edition that the "first competition to determine a state championship in any form of athletics for girls" would take place in Biwabik later that week. The meet was expected to draw 100 entrants from nearly all the area high schools.

The March 14, 1924, edition of the Virginia Daily Enterprise said that nearly "1,000 enthusiastic" fans had gathered for the meet.

Over the next 18 years, Virginia, under the direction of coach Jean Healy, won the meet 14 times.

An Olympian turns up

One of the highlights of the era came in 1932, when Chisholm's Anne Govednik broke the U.S. high school record in the 100-yard breaststroke. Two weeks after the state meet, 16-year-old Govednik swam at the AAU national meet, where she broke the AAU world record in the event.

Govednik then competed at the U.S. Olympic swim trials and finished second in the 200-meter breaststroke to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. That summer, Govednik and Evelyne Hall in track and field became the first women from Minnesota to compete in a Summer Olympics, in Los Angeles.

In 1942, the 19th annual swim meet was held. Nashwauk won, ending Virginia's run of 13 consecutive titles. That meet was the last state meet held for girls in Minnesota in any sport until 1972.

An arrangement of trophies won by Virginia’s teams in the early girls swimming era.
An arrangement of trophies won by Virginia’s teams in the early girls swimming era.

Provided by Rita Garcia

The demise of girls swimming mirrored that of girls basketball in the state. During the 1920s nearly 200 schools in the state fielded girls basketball teams. After a recommendation by the National Amateur Athletic Foundation in mid-1920s that interscholastic athletic teams for high school girls be replaced by intramural teams, the number of teams started to decline. In the 1930s, the State Department of Education recommended that schools drop interscholastic athletics for girls.

In fall 1939, superintendents voted to discontinue sponsoring swimming, but they reconsidered and the meet was held through 1942. Only seven teams competed at the final state meet, on Feb. 21, 1942.

More than 25 years passed before girls high school sports re-emerged in Minnesota, and it was even longer before girls swimming made its way back.

In December 1968, the MSHSL Board of Directors adopted a bylaw to allow girls interscholastic activities. The first state meet was track and field in 1972. Swimming reappeared in 1975.

Virginia, after dominating the first era of the state meet, was among teams that competed at the first MSHSL state meet in November 1975 — held at Hamline and won by Minnetonka. Virginia Rantala coached the Virginia team; she swam for Eveleth at the state meets from 1940 to 1942.

"Ever since that day, I've been hoping they'd have a change of heart [about dropping swimming for girls]," she told the Minneapolis Star.

Save the trophies

When Garcia, who competed in track and field and volleyball in high school and was student manager for the swimming team, returned to Virginia High School for a class reunion several years ago, she learned that the high school building was scheduled to be torn down and replaced by Rock Ridge High School, which serves the students of Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert.

Garcia came across the trophies Virginia had amassed from those early swimming championships.

"All of the trophies were sitting there," Garcia said. "The school was going to be torn down and there was no plan for what to do with the trophies."

Garcia has those trophies now, and she has great pride in Virginia swimming.

"Coach Healy created quite a legacy with the success of her teams at Virginia," she said. "She got seventh- and eighth-graders started, and her coaching strategy was fantastic."

Garcia has spent time sharing her insight into the early history of high school swimming in Minnesota.

"I made a presentation [at the History Center] with photographs and posters," she said. "I wanted people to know that there was somebody before Edina."

Correction: The communities served by Rock Ridge High School were corrected to Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert.