Even though she had won three Olympic medals as a high schooler, when star swimmmer Ellie Daniel enrolled at Penn she hadn't been recruited as an athlete... by any college coach.
Ellie Daniel, a 1976 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and one of the Ivy League's winningest Olympians, credits learning to swim at the relatively late age of 11 with helping her make the decision on her own that it was something she really wanted to do. A few years later, when she went with her father to watch the National AAU championships in Philadelphia, near her hometown of Abington, Pa., the die was cast.
"You know how kids are hero-worshippers?" she was quoted as saying in the May 1973 Pennsylvania Gazette. "Well, I decided right then that I was going to be like them. I was going to be an Olympic medal-winner."
That determination took her through years of training with Philadelphia's renowned Vesper Boat Club, starting out with the B team ? which meant swimming in what she calls "a dump" at the aquarium, underneath the art museum. A year later, she was promoted to the A team, which practiced at the University of Pennsylvania's Weightman Hall pool and was coached by Mary Kelly (then the wife of Jack, brother of Princess Grace of Monaco).
After only one year, Daniel came in eighth in the National AAU 1,500-meter freestyle, but after that, she switched to the butterfly ? and won seven national championships. Daniel says the butterfly came easily for her because she's double-jointed in her back and her strength is in her shoulders.
After winning two gold medals in the 1967 Pan American Games (in the 100-meter butterfly and 400-meter medley relay), Daniel went to her first Olympics ? the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. There, she won a gold medal in the 400-meter medley relay, a silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly, and a bronze medal in the 200-meter butterfly.
By the standards of the 1990s, it is startling that, with Daniel's pre-college accomplishments, not a single coach at any university recruited her. Going to Penn seemed natural for her, however, because she'd been training there since she was 14 and found it a conducive environment for continuing her swimming. She liked that "it was close to Vesper, I could get a good education, and I felt I was part of the school already."
Because the Games began in mid-October, Daniel had to wait until the following September before becoming a Penn freshman, where she decided upon a double major in psychology and elementary education. At Penn, she trained with both the men's and women's swim teams, but then took 14 months off to prepare for the 1972 Olympic Summer Games, to be held in Munich. There, she swam under her world mark by two full seconds in the 200-meter butterfly, winning the bronze medal in the midst of a record-setting race, and came in sixth in the 100-meter butterfly.
Although Daniel had starred for the Penn women's swim squad in 1970 and 1971, she decided at that point to retire from competitive swimming. She felt she wanted to have time for some activities in her life other than swimming, and she liked the idea of going out on top. "My father always said," she recalls, "'Better to leave the party at the middle and to remember it at its best than to wait around.'"
Now a deputy district attorney with Los Angeles County, Daniel served on the United States Olympic Committee from 1977 through 1980 and on the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee from 1979 through 1984. She was a member of the Penn Hall of Fame's inaugural class a decade ago.
And she says of her own Olympic experiences: "I'd love to do it again. It gets in your blood. The only trouble is that it goes by too fast. It's such a high. You say, 'Wow, was I really there!' Being an Olympian ? that will stay with you always. Even though the public forgets, you have your own self-satisfaction."
This story was originally published in Silver Era, Golden Moments, the 25th Anniversary celebration book of women's athletics in the Ivy League.