Swimmer Spotlight: Steve Darnell 2


Steve Darnell
Age 61
LaCamas Headhunter Swim Team (LHST)
Retired Corporate Finance Executive

Steve Darnell

Steve Darnell

I have ALWAYS loved to be in the water, on the water, or by the water.  So when I was asked to write this article, I realized that water has ALWAYS been a key part of my life.  I grew up near Wilmington, Delaware, & my mom taught me to swim when I was about 4-5 years old.  She had been a lifeguard and swim instructor as a teenager, and had gone swimming in Lake Erie during the summers as a kid.  At age 6, I started swim lessons at the YMCA which in those days was men-only; no women were allowed inside.  So the little boys took swimming lessons NAKED!  You can just imagine about a dozen little six-year old boys running around naked, jumping off the diving boards, climbing on the water polo nets, and throwing the water polo balls at each other.  It must have been quite a sight, but seemed natural to us at the time.

For the next 6 years I spent every day during the summer at the community pool.  My brother and I would ride our bikes to the pool in the morning for swim team practice, then stay at the pool all day long playing “Marco Polo”, swimming and diving from the 1-meter and 3-meter boards.  The first time I went off the 3-meter board at age 7, I did a belly-flop and knocked myself unconscious, so the alert lifeguard had to pull me out of the water.

My dad taught us to canoe on the Brandywine River, and to sail on the Delaware River.  He also taught me to use a sextant, which mariners have been using for centuries to determine their ship’s longitude on long ocean voyages.  For family summer vacations, we would sometimes go to the New Jersey shore to swim in the ocean, or to a lake cabin in the Pocono Mountains to swim, sail, and canoe there.  During our early teenage years, my brother and I attended YMCA summer camp on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.  There, we could swim and sail and canoe every day to our heart’s content.  That’s where I learned to water-ski.

During high school, I was on the varsity swim team.  But I wasn’t fast enough to be among the two best swimmers on our team in any event, so the coach made me swim the 100-yard fly, since no one else wanted to do it.  In the meet races, sometimes I was ahead at the 50-yard mark, but usually finished 3rd or 4th out of 4 swimmers.  I earned my (American Red Cross) Senior Lifesaving certification, and then my Water Safety Instructor certification.  I was a lifeguard at multiple pools & taught Senior Lifesaving classes for the next 5 years–that kept me busy during high school and college summers, along with teaching swimming and coaching junior swim teams.

Attending Yale University, I had no chance at all of making the varsity swim team.  Yale swim teams had dominated intercollegiate competition for a good part of the 20th century, producing outstanding swimmers like five-time Olympic champion Don Schollander (who now lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon).  Yale coaching legend Robert Kiphuth led the Yale team to an astounding dual meet record of 528 wins and 12 losses over 42 years, and served as the U.S. Olympic team head coach five times.  I was happy to serve as Captain of an intramural swim team instead.  I taught Senior Lifesaving classes in the main 25-yard competition pool with varsity swim coach Phil Moriarty (also in the International Swimming Hall of Fame).

After college, I moved with one of my Yale roommates (also a varsity swimmer and lifeguard) to Los Angeles.  We lived right on Sunset Boulevard for a while.  Once I moved to Santa Monica, every weekend morning I would walk or ride my bike to the beach, there to swim in the Pacific Ocean.  I always looked for Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Terminator) and Lou Ferrigno (the Incredible Hulk) working out on Muscle Beach in Venice (near Gold’s Gym) but never did see them there.  I tried surfing one time with a friend at Dana Point.  Never stood up on the board for more than 1.5 seconds before wiping out.  But I had fun trying.  I think you have to start surfing at age 6 to be successful at that water sport.

While pursuing an MBA degree at UCLA, I did as much studying as possible (sometimes not much) in between swims at the outdoor 50-meter pool on campus.  Hundreds of students did the same thing, lying on towels with textbooks on the grassy areas in the sun until it got too hot, then we’d jump in the pool to swim a few hundred meters to cool off.

I worked for ARCO in the Los Angeles corporate headquarters from 1982-1985, then transferred to the Financial Planning & Evaluation group at ARCO Alaska, in 1985-1994.  In Alaska, it was too cold to swim in Cook Inlet.  More importantly, the tides were much too dangerous.  But it was still wonderful to take a picnic lunch to watch the whales cavorting in Turnagain Arm (named by Captain Cook when he failed again to find the fabled Northwest Passage) in the summer.  Up on the North Slope of Alaska, at Prudhoe Bay, the Beaufort Sea ice pack would only recede from shore for a few weeks every summer.  A few intrepid swimmers would take a quick dip in the 27F (salt) water each summer.  That cold swim never appealed to me.  But I was able to WALK on the Beaufort Sea, on about 8 feet of ice, in 24-hour darkness in the winter with ambient air temp of -60F.

We watched the sea otters in Valdez harbor use their paws to hold a rock and crack open clams to eat.  Traveled in a float plane to remote Katmai National Park, to watch (from less than 15 meters away!) the huge coastal brown bears catch salmon in the waterfalls of the Brooks River.  Went whitewater rafting in the Matanuska River, and the Nenana River near Denali National Park.  Both rivers are glacier-fed, thus they are a milky light green color from all the rock sediment scraped off by glacial flow, and are a near-constant chilly 34 degrees.

Living in Alaska, we liked to get away to the Hawaiian Islands every year during the winter.  So I’ve had a chance to swim and snorkel off many beaches on Maui, Kauai, Oahu, and the Big Island.  My favorite two water memories over 30 years:  para-sailing offshore Lahaina and Ka’anapali, and swimming/snorkeling with the giant sea turtles in Kapalua Bay (2014).

I’m now retired from a career as a Corporate Finance executive.  My two biggest projects were managing the financial aspects of a major natural gas handling expansion for the Prudhoe Bay (Alaska) oil field (about $1.5 billion) and negotiating the sale of a national residential mortgage portfolio for about $8 billion.  Over the years, I worked in Finance for Control Data, Computer Sciences, ARCO, First Interstate Bank, and Hewlett-Packard.  Those companies moved me around from L.A. to Denver to L.A. to Anchorage, AK, to Scottsdale, AZ, to Vancouver, WA.

My first exposure to Masters Swimming was in 2000 or so.  I saw an article about Masters Swimming competition at the State Games of Oregon, and went as a spectator to check it out.  I really expected to see dozens of swimmers like Mark Spitz and John Naber and be intimidated.  But the competitors were mostly average folks like you and me!  I realized they mostly wanted to stay fit and have fun, and did not expect to set records.  Then I met a friendly guy in the stands named Bob Bruce, and he convinced me to give it a try.  So I registered, trained for a year, and entered my first swim meet at the 2001 USMS National LCM Championships in Federal Way, WA.  Swam 4 events, and got three 16th places and one 12th place.  The enthusiasm and friendly support from everyone was overwhelming, and I was hooked!

I really believe that it is important to give back to the communities to which we belong.  One of my major volunteer commitments since January, 2005, has been to serve as the Records Chair for OMS.  A bonus is the opportunity to work with the other enthusiastic volunteers who serve on the OMS Board, who make the Masters Swimming experience fun and rewarding for all.  As Records Chair, my responsibilities include maintaining and updating these sets of records:

  • Oregon SCY records (individual, relays)
  • Oregon LCM records (individual, relays)
  • Oregon SCM records (individual, relays)
  • NW Zone SCY records (individual, relays)
  • NW Zone LCM records (individual, relays)
  • NW Zone SCM records (individual, relays)
  • Oregon Pentathlon records (SCY, LCM, SCM)

As the OMS Records Chair, I was honored to receive one of the USMS Dorothy Donnelly volunteer service awards for 2013.

As far as my local OMS team, I joined LaCamas Swim & Sport Club in 1997 when they had just one indoor pool with 3 lanes.  Later the club added an outstanding covered outdoor 25-meter pool for serious swimming.  Nancy Vincent and I are probably the longest-tenured team members from LaCamas, even before Bert Petersen joined our team as coach and built the program up to 40+ swimmers.  Many of us continue to be inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of older OMS swimmers like Willard Lamb and Dave Radcliff, and hope to continue swimming to that age and beyond.

In the last year or so, my swimming has been limited by a right shoulder rotator cuff injury, which was made worse by a bad fall playing tennis last summer, when I also fractured a rib.  So I’m only swimming about one hour per week.  But I have recently adopted Pickleball as my new #1 sport, and it serves as good aerobic cross-training for swimming.  My first Pickleball tournament was at the Tualatin Hills Rec Center in September, 2015, and my second tournament was in Vancouver at the end of January.  I won a Silver Medal in Men’s 3.0 Doubles, and a Silver Medal in Mixed 3.0 Doubles.  I’m psyched to have two sports that I really enjoy, and hope to continue for decades!

I hope that most of you will train for and enter the 2016 Summer National LCM Championship meet, even if you’re not a super-fast swimmer.  OMS is hosting the event, so there are no excuses to skip it.  I can’t meet any of the qualifying times, but everyone is allowed to enter at least 3 events, so I will swim the 3 backstroke events.  The Nationals will be a wonderful experience, so I hope to see you there.

This photo above was taken at my favorite Pacific Coast location at Depoe Bay, Oregon.  Thanks for reading my aquatic story!


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2 thoughts on “Swimmer Spotlight: Steve Darnell

  • Ginger

    I love your article – very factual but interesting. You are so talented and really intelligent so I appreciate you sharing both your skills and knowledge with everyone. Thank you for all you do.