WEST ORANGE, NJ - On a sunny July day in West Orange, Ginny Duenkel Fuldner came home to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of her Gold and Bronze Olympic medals as the new Spray Pad was dedicated to two long-time unsung local heroes.
Spry and exuberant at 67, Duenkel visited the township pool named in her honor as local dignitaries and township historian Joe Fagan recounted her success - and in her mind, failure, at the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo. Fagan introduced Duenkel and shared her astounding rise to fame. As a young girl in 1957, West Orange resident Ginny Duenkel was afraid of the water. In exasperation, her father tossed her into the pool at the St. Cloud Swim Club, where she not only learned how to swim, but under the direction of her swim coach Frank Elm, worked towards the implausible goal of an Olympic berth.
After setting a world record in the Pan American games at the age of 15 in Brazil in 1963, Duenkel qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, where she promptly failed to gain a gold in "her" race, the 100 meter backstroke. With a pep talk from an Olympic coach that belongs in the record books, Duenkel grasped the importance of a positive mindset and went on to win the gold in the 400 meter freestyle, making her the first, and only, 17 year old West Orange High School student to become a multiple medal winner at an Olympic game.
Though not a world record, Duenkel's time in the 400 meter freestyle was 4:43.3. The current world record is held by Federica Pellegrini of Italy, who in 2009 clocked in at 3:59.15.
"Hometown legends will endure forever," noted Fagan, as he brought Ginny Duenkel Fuldner to the podium.
"West Orange is home to me," said Duenkel, who graciously accepted West Orange Wave Swim Team apparel and encouraged the young swim team members. "It's been terrific to see people I haven't seen in 50 years!"
"You're already a step of me," she said, saying how many of the kids were younger than she was when she learned to swim at the age of 9. "Follow your dreams, your big desires, work hard, and have determination."
The assembled crowd included township council members Sue McCartney, Vic Cirilo, Patty Spango, Jerry Guarino and Joe Krakoviak. West Orange Mayor Rob Parisi welcomed Duenkel and thanked Rec Director Bill Kehoe and team for the completed Spray Pad project.
The project was not without controversy as various township residents and Councilman Krakoviak decried the project as an unnecessary expenditure. Funding came from Open Space monies, the Colgate Foundation, and budgeted township monies.
Joe Pelose of the Department of Public Works spoke about Tim and Dennis O'Boyle, brothers that grew up in West Orange and spent years working at the pool, even providing support years later after they moved out of town.
"They (Tim and Dennis) were always here when you needed them," said Pelose, a close friend. "They were proud to work here and they were so humble they'd probably be trying to get off the stage if they were here today, saying, let's get in the pool." Both brothers passed away and their families were on hand to cut the ribbon dedicating the new Spray Pad in their honor.
"They touched all our lives," said Pelose.
Following the dedication, Duenkel awarded medals to the swim team members during the ceremonial Swim Meet, and a luncheon was held at the Elks Lodge on Main Street.