Athlete reflects on her trip to the Olympics 60 years ago

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Judy DeRego stands behind a table full of accolades she won at swimming events years ago.This region has a long history of producing Olympians, as Beaverton resident Judy DeRego proves.

Sixty years ago, she represented the United States in the Helsinki Summer Games, swimming in the breaststroke event. Back then she went by Judy Cornell, but when she married a couple years later, the DeRego surname became synonymous with competitive swimming.

Judy was born and raised in Southeast Portland, the daughter of a commercial painter and a homemaker. She graduated from Grant High School in 1951 and continued her swim training at the Multnomah Athletic Club.

Her husband Daniel hailed from Honolulu, Hawaii, and was the youngest of 18 children in what his daughter Terri Fitas calls a “blended family” that lived two blocks from the beach. A prized family photo features Dan in his lifeguard uniform posing beside actors Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis on Waikiki Beach in the early 1950s. This is also where he met Judy, who was on vacation at the time.

Both of them, it turned out, shared Olympic ambitions. Judy had already taken part in the Summer Games in Finland in 1952. A year after he and Judy wed, Dan was headed to Australia to surf competitively during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

“Being from Hawaii, he was automatically a surfer,” Judy said.

Dan died three years ago, but in a retirement home off Scholls Ferry Road, his one-time Olympian wife reflected fondly — if modestly — about her path to Helsinki.

“I started swimming when I was in high school,” she said, “and I just kind of escalated. It seemed I had a knack for it, and it just went from there.”

Nowadays, the details of her early athletic career are foggy. It’s difficult for Judy to recall the names of her Olympic teammates, or to describe what it was like to walk with her fellow athletes during the opening ceremonies. But she does remember enjoying the competitive swimming lifestyle — specifically, the travel — and one Olympic memory sticks out as particularly fond: The welcome parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City that celebrated the return of U.S. Olympians. by: JAIME VALDEZ - Judy DeRego, who is an Edgewood Downs resident, holds a medal she earned swimming in the breaststroke event at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Finland.

So what did domestic life look like, post-Olympics?

“You do talk about it, a little bit, of course, over the years,” Judy said. Fitas confirmed that her parents’ medals and memorabilia were on display in the house she grew up in, but perhaps a more lasting sign of her parents’ shared accomplishments was the pool they had built in their backyard.

And both Judy and Dan parlayed their love of swimming into a profession by coaching at the YMCA and YWCA. Dan managed a swim club for most of his professional life, and Judy retired just over a decade ago.

She lights up when asked if she caught any of this year’s Olympic games, and has nothing but praise for the new generation that competed in her event. She agreed that the camaraderie between competitors of different nations — the well-wishing, the hugs after races finished and medalists were declared — is nothing new. Olympic athletes in her day enjoyed that same kind of sportsmanship.

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