Ronald Gainsford: The Patriarch of WVU Swimming

  • By Jonathan Harkey
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  • September 19, 2013 10:27 AM
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This is the first of a season-long series that will feature updates on WVU swimming and diving alumni, as well as getting to know members of the current team.

At the age of 84, Pittsburgh resident Ronald Gainsford has a relatively active lifestyle. For most people at that age, staying active is one of the most difficult tasks to undertake. For Gainsford, he’s actually just slowing down with sports, and focusing his time on different activities, such as writing.

In his new book, Aging with Dignity, Gainsford’s autobiography chronicles his life in four parts, starting with his early life of growing up in the Pittsburgh area during the great depression and World War II. The second part of the book, which discusses his experiences with collegiate athletics, and coaching at the collegiate level, is paramount to the history of WVU athletics.

In 1955, when football and basketball dominated the athletic landscape of West Virginia, then-Director of Athletics Red Brown made the decision to move swimming from a club sport to the varsity level.

The first head coach of the new varsity program was Gainsford. A Pittsburgh native and high school standout in swimming and wrestling in Pennsylvania, Gainsford was coming off three-straight years of All-America honors at Pitt.

Gainsford immediately faced challenges with assembling this new program.

“They had two different coaches in the two years before I arrived, but it was just students who were coaching, and it wasn’t that big of a team,” said Gainsford. “When I came, we had a nucleus of about seven or eight swimmers who had experience with the club team.”

Swimming as a sport was still relatively new to the Mountain State as well.

“There was only one high school team in the whole state of West Virginia, which was (then) Linsly Academy in Wheeling,” recalled Gainsford. “Fairmont State was the only other collegiate program in the state.”

Gainsford also was an instructor in physical education at WVU, teaching basketball, tennis, and wrestling as well as swimming. He recalls teaching some WVU greats such as Jerry West and Rod “Hot Rod” Hundley in his classes.

“Jerry West was in my freshman swimming class, as well as Rod Hundley, who I became really good friends with as he had the apartment next to mine in the center of downtown Morgantown,” reflected Gainsford.

Following three years of teaching and coaching at WVU, Gainsford departed Morgantown to teach and coach at Seacrest High in Delray Beach, Fla.

“I went down to Florida for about eight years where I coached high school swimming and assisted with football,” said Gainsford. “I came back up to the Pittsburgh area due to illness in the family.”

After teaching in the public school system for several years, as well as working with scuba diving companies in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Gainsford began suffering from heart failure and in 1994 at the age of 64, he underwent a heart transplant in Pittsburgh.

Typically, after someone undergoes a heart transplant, they begin to slow down, in terms of how physically active they are. But for Gainsford, receiving a heart transplant was the first step back into the pool.

“The difference between most people and me is that when they receive a heart transplant, they usually are not very active or competitive,” said Gainsford. “But for me, I went the opposite direction. My athletic instinct kicked back in during recovery and I went back into competitive swimming.”

Six years after his transplant, and four decades after he last competitively swam, Gainsford was back competing in the master’s level in swimming, not only against people that were sometimes younger than him, but swimmers who did not recently have a heart transplant.

“I began to compete because of my recovery, because my body was so weak,” reflected Gainsford. “I ended up going to two master’s world championships, first in Germany in 2000, when I was 70, where I placed fourth, then in Italy in 2004.”

Gainsford also continues to surpass all expectations for his health, including going on 20 years with a heart transplant.

“I have never heard of, or met someone who has been living for 19 years with a heart transplant, and is in there 80s,” said Gainsford “There aren’t even many people at my age who are highly active, who have not had a heart transplant.”

While he may not be swimming in the pool anymore, Ronald Gainsford continues to impress even at his age, staying physically active, as well as continuing his work in writing. And although his time in athletics may be over, Gainsford will forever have a place in the history of West Virginia swimming.