Helen Johns Carroll, 99; was gold medalist in 1932 Olympics
Weeks after graduating from Medford High School, Helen Johns Carroll was just 17 when she swam the second leg of the women’s 400-meter freestyle relay team that won the gold medal and set a world record at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
For the rest of her life, she would think about the awards ceremony whenever she listened to “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“To have this medal, hear the national anthem, see them raise our flag … it was very thrilling,” Mrs. Carroll told The State newspaper of Columbia, S.C. in 1996.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh Heavens! This is almost too much.’ I thought I was going to faint, right there,” she said. “I thought, ‘Will they leave me there or pick me up?’ But I took a deep breath and pushed on.”
Mrs. Carroll, who was believed to be the second-oldest surviving US Olympic gold medalist, died of pneumonia July 23 in Tuomey Hospital in Sumter, S.C. She was 99, two months shy of turning 100.
Evelyn Furtsch Ojeda, a runner who won a gold medal with the women’s 400-meter relay team at the same Olympics, celebrated her 100th birthday in April.
Mrs. Carroll and three other swimmers, Josephine McKim, Eleanor Saville-Garatti, and Helene Madison, posted what was then a world record time of 4 minutes, 38 seconds.
She was Helen Johns then, and her name was in the headline of an account the Globe published on Aug. 13, 1932, that was written by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice.
After the games, President Herbert Hoover hosted her and the other US Olympians at the White House. In Medford, more than 10,000 fans watched a parade from the train station to the homes of Mrs. Carroll and another hometown hero, Mary Carew.
Carew ran on the gold medal 400-meter relay team and passed the baton to Ojeda.
Mrs. Carroll also was honored at a dinner attended by 200 people, hosted by the Brookline Women’s Swimming Association. She went on to captain and star on the women’s swimming team at Pembroke College, which was then the women’s college affiliated with Brown University. She is a member of the Sumter, Brown, Rhode Island Heritage, and Medford High halls of fame.
According to her daughters, Judy Player of Greenville, S.C., and Deborah Norman of Sumter, Mrs. Carroll cherished her memorabilia from the Tenth Olympiad.
Mrs. Carroll, who has lived in Sumter since 1957, displayed photographs of the event in her home and also saved a duplicate gold medal and black swimsuit with the USA logo, which she brought to speaking engagements.
“The original medal was stolen on the train ride back from Los Angeles,” Judy said. “But her father, Edward Johns, wrote to the US Olympic Committee, which sent her another. My mother also exchanged her Olympic sweat suit with a swimmer from Japan for a kimono, which she wore and then hung in her closet the rest of her life.”
Helen Eileen Johns was an ocean swimmer in her youth, but when her older sister, Evelyn, worked as a physical education teacher at Brookline High School, she had access to the Brookline pool.
Her father drove her there three times a week from Medford and she paid 35 cents admission. Coaches for the high school and the Women’s Swimming Association predicted she would go far in the sport.
In 1932, Mrs. Carroll was the New England AAU junior 100-yard freestyle champion, and in July of that year she was one of four swimmers chosen for the 400-meter relay team at the Olympic trials at Jones Beach in New York.
“When our names were announced, we headed right to Pennsylvania Station. We didn’t have time to go home,” she told the Providence Journal in 2012. “It was a very bad time in the Depression. … My father’s business was relatively stable. I got to Los Angeles and saw real poverty. I saw signs in windows: Beds 10 Cents a Night.”
The Olympians were feted by Hollywood stars, her daughter, Judy, said.
“Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks held a party for them, and Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the movies, would swim with the women’s team,” Judy said. “My grandparents kept scrapbooks with stories of Helen, and we still have pictures of my mom with President Hoover and Johnny Weissmuller.”
Mrs. Carroll was part of a family noted for athletic achievement. Two relatives from Weymouth are also enshrined in the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame: her uncle Ken Nash, who was a Major League baseball player and head baseball coach at Tufts University, and a cousin, Tom Nash, a football star who died serving during World War II.
Mrs. Carroll’s late brother, Arthur Johns Sr., captained the baseball team at Harvard and coached Winchester at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in the mid-1950s.
Mrs. Carroll graduated from Pembroke in 1936 with a dual major in psychology and economics and received a master’s in special education from the University of South Carolina in 1969.
She married Eugene Carroll, a textile manufacturing executive, in 1937, and they lived in Swansea with their young daughters before moving to Sumter, where she was a special education teacher. Her husband died in 1971.
Mrs. Carroll was interviewed on national television when she returned to Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Olympics for a reunion of the 1932 team. Prior to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the US Olympic Committee invited her to carry the Olympic torch in downtown Columbia, S.C.
“She was 81 and she did great,” said Judy, who added that “although it was a hot day, she walked the half-mile. The streets were lined with people. It was so festive.”
At 97, she was interviewed by NBC about the 2012 Summer Olympics in London for what was known as “the year of the woman” because for the first time, the team of every participating nation included at least one female athlete.
“I love anything that means women are advancing in interest or popularity and setting a good example for people,” she told NBC
A service has been held for Mrs. Carroll, who in addition to her daughters leaves six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Carroll, who established an aquatic program for handicapped children in Sumter, continued to swim until she was in her early 90s at the local YMCA, despite arthritis and a hip replacement.
“I can still picture her now,” her daughter Deborah said. “When she was in the pool it was like time had stopped from when she was a young woman. It was beautiful to see.”