The names that adorn the plaques at the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame include some of the greatest sports figures in our nation’s history.
Last month, UC Davis adjunct professor Marilyn Ramenofsky — a world-class swimmer in the 1960s — joined those prestigious ranks, taking her place among trailblazers, legendary Olympians, record breakers and champions.
The silver medalist at the 1964 Olympic Games was inducted in an April ceremony at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack, N.Y.
Ramenofsky grew up in Phoenix, where she began recreational swimming, with the main goal of keeping up with her older brother and sister. At one point, her mom didn’t think she had promise in swimming and had her try her hand at diving. But Ramenofsky stuck with her strokes and, at age 15, joined a local swim team that was coached by someone who knew a thing or two about water — a World War II Navy veteran.
Her mother was quickly proven wrong as Ramenofsky was named an AAU All-American swimmer for three straight years, beginning in 1962 at the age of 16. As she spent more time in the pool, she discovered she had a real mind for the sport and is credited with perfecting the freestyle stroke by figuring out that raising her hand high up out of the water would decrease turbulence.
That discovery pushed Ramenofsky to even greater heights as she set the world record in the 400 freestyle three times when she was 18. One of those record-breaking swims came in the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials, where her 4:39.5 sent her to the Summer Games later that year in Tokyo.
“The races were held in huge beautiful stadiums with tons of noise,” Ramenofsky said. “There was a lot of press covering the event and the psychological competition in the room was very intense, unlike anything I have experienced before.”
Still, Ramenofsky managed to win silver in Tokyo to add to the gold medals she captured at the 1961 and 1965 Maccabiah Games — an international Jewish athletic event. Her other accomplishments included a world record in the 220 free event.
But in the 1960s, Title IX had not yet been instituted, so women did not have much opportunity to have a career in sports. For Ramenofsky, this meant the hardest part of her swimming career was after the Olympics.
She attended Pomona College, which had no women’s team, so she was forced to train with the men’s squad. And while an athlete of her caliber in this day and age would go on to swim professionally, earn endorsements and make a living off her talent, Ramenofsky had to give up her sport.
When Ramenofsky lectures UCD students about her experience at the Olympics, she always tells them to continue with their education as much as they can.
“No matter how good you are, in sports, anything can happen,” she told The Enterprise. “It is only because I went and got an education that when my sport carried me as far as it could go, I could still do something I love.”
That job that she loves is working as an adjunct professor in UCD’s neurobiology, physiology and behavior department, where she studies bird migration and environmental control in the migration of songbirds. She also teaches some classes.
As far as her recent induction into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, Ramenofsky found it to be a “very nice experience” overall.
Her whole family was there, including her two daughters Anna and Emma, who came up from their homes in Baltimore, and her husband John Wingfield, who is also an adjunct professor at UCD. Ramenofsky also got to make a speech, which says she always loves to do because it gave her a “chance to thank those who really deserve to be recognized.”
Notes: Apparently, brains run in this family. Wingfield holds an endowed chair in the department of neurobiology, physiology and behavior at UCD. He is on leave and working as the assistant director for biological sciences at the National Science Foundation. … Anna recently graduated from Goucher College and is working as the head bartender at a craft cocktail bar in Baltimore. Emma just graduated with a master’s degree in archeology from the University College of London and is working at a major art museum in Baltimore.