Born: Feb. 18, 1955
Hometown: Vancouver, BC
Coaches: Howard Firby, Deryk Snelling
1972 Olympic Games, Munich, Bronze, 200 Backstroke, 2:23.22
1971 Pan Am Games, Cali, Colombia, Gold, 100 Backstroke, 1:07.18
1971 Pan Am Games, Cali, Colombia, Gold, 200 Backstroke, 2:24.73
1971 Pan Am Games, Cali, Colombia, Gold, 4×100 Medley Relay, 4:35.50
Donna-Marie Gurr’s swimming career was all about overcoming adversity and performing under pressure.
Gurr, a Member of the Order of Canada, has an Olympic bronze medal and three Pan Am Games golds in her extensive trophy case. As impressive as those accomplishments are, the Vancouver native is even prouder of overcoming a serious injury to medal at the 1970 Commonwealth Games.
After a breakout summer in 1969, she was diagnosed with a joint disorder in her left leg. Gurr narrowly avoided surgery but was forced to train wearing a lightweight fiberglass cast, walking with crutches outside the pool. Not wanting to miss another chance at an international Games, she had the cast removed twice: to qualify for Trials and again at the Commonwealth Games Trials in Edmonton. She made the team in 100- and 200-m backstroke.
“I remember standing on the top podium on crutches,” says Gurr. “The cast came off after six months and I couldn’t move that leg. I’d lost all muscle tone, my leg was like a toothpick. It took a while to get going and I could never swim medley after that because I couldn’t keep my feet together in the butterfly.”
She won three medals at Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. She followed up with three golds and a silver at the 1971 Pan Am Games in Cali, Colombia. During the 200-m backstroke final, the outdoor pool’s power failed mid-race. Gurr had to re-swim the final later in the night, but overcame adversity to touch the wall first.
“Nobody knows how it would have turned out if we’d waited until the next day. All I know is it’s the only time I ever beat (American) Suzie Atwood, who was the world-record holder,” Gurr says. “I always seemed to do better when the pressure was on.”
Injuries popped up again before the 1972 Olympic Trials, as she experienced spinal problems and tendonitis in both shoulders. But again Gurr persevered, sneaking into the Olympic final in Lane 8 then earning a bronze medal at age 17.
Gurr credits much of her success to coach Deryk Snelling of the Canadian Dolphin Swim Club, which also boasted Olympic medallists Leslie Cliff, Bruce Robertson and Bill Mahoney.
“We ruled the pool,” Gurr says. “Deryk was a good coach. He would get us prepared for big events, we’d be in the best shape at the time and we just went for it.”