Fort Lauderdale - January 29, 2016 - Evelyn Tokue Kawamoto-Kono, a two-time Olympic Bronze Medalist at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, passed away in Hawaii on January 22, at the age of 83. Born on September 17, 1933, Evelyn had been one of the few remaining figures from the remarkable 2nd wave of Hawaiian swimming greats immortalized in Julie Checkoway’s remarkable book, “The Three Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory.”
Brought up in poverty by a single mom who took in laundry to make ends meet, Evelyn’s program at the age of 9. By the age of 13, she was swimming seven days a week and was breaking local records at McKinley High School. She participated in the 1948 Olympic Trials at the age of 14 and burst onto the national scene in 1949, when, as a “Chunky” fifteen year-old, she broke the American record in the women’s 300 meter Individual Medley (IM) and the 200 meter breaststroke on the same day. A month later, she won both events at the US Nationals, in San Antonio, Texas. Over the next three years, Evelyn dominated the non-Olympic IM event and although she lost her national title in the breaststroke to Penny Pence (Taylor) in 1951, she became the nation’s top female distance freestyler.
On the final day of the 1952 US Women’s Olympic Trials, held at the Broadripple Pool, in Indianapolis, IN, a sellout crowd of more than 3,000 spectators cheered Evelyn on as the 18 year-old University of Hawaii freshman shattered what was considered an “untouchable” American record that had been set by the great Ann Curtis in the 400 meter freestyle at the London Olympic Games.
A month later, in Helsinki, Evelyn broke Curtis’ Olympic record in the 400m freestyle in the preliminary heats, but saw her record erased in the final by Hungary’s Valerie Gyuenge and took the bronze. She won a second bronze medal in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.
After the Olympic Games, Evelyn swam for Penn Hall Jr. College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and was working as a secretary for Pan American Airlines in 1956, when she married her childhood sweetheart, Ford Kono, upon his graduation from Ohio State. Kono was another protege of coach Sakamoto and had won 2 Olympic Gold medals in Helsinki, in the 1500m free and 4 x 200m freestyle relay, and a silver in the 400m freestyle. Several months after their June wedding, Ford won a second silver medal in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay at the Melbourne Olympic Games.
At the age of 30, Evelyn returned to the University of Hawaii to complete her degree while juggling work and family responsibilities. In a 2003 interview, with the Honolulu Star Advertiser, she recalled, “It was so tough because I had to take care of the family and help my husband in his business. But I didn’t waver from my goal. I had to work very hard, but it was worth it.” She became an elementary school teacher before retiring.
According to her daughter, Bonnie Shishido, Evelyn was modest to the extreme and rarely spoke of the swimming career that took her all across America, Asia and Europe. Or, about an event in 1950 that would have future implications for the history of judging and timing in swimming. It was at the 1950 Women’s nationals in High Point, NC, when Evelyn finished in a tie for first place with Marge Hulton, of Atlantic City, NJ, in the 200 meter breast stroke (butterfly). With the three timers for each swimmer showing identical times and the judges declaring each the winner, it was the first “dead heat” in the history of AAU swimming. Rather than giving both women gold medals, as(1960) and Phelps-Cavic (2008) controversies.
Memorial services or plans have not been announced.