A swim teacher who devoted nearly 70 years of her life to the sport, Nancy Brown passed away on January 1 after an eight-year battle with cancer. She was 83.
Brown was a Pasadena resident, but she had a profound impact on swimmers from Severna Park and statewide. She taught the sport to children on Baltimore area summer swim teams, as well as adults from 18 to over 90 when she founded the Maryland Masters program in 1974.
“I just love seeing them get excited about swimming and teaching them how to swim correctly,” Brown said in a 2015 interview with the Severna Park Voice. “It’s thrilling, really, to see someone change their strokes to something beautiful, because swimming is beautiful when it’s done right.”
Her love of swimming began as a child when she spent every summer at her grandmother's house on the Magothy River, where she would swim all day, earning her the nickname “water rat.” Her strong competitive spirit emerged as a member of the Friends School Swim Team in Baltimore, which she captained in 1953 and 1954. Her math teacher and coach, Larry Peacock, encouraged her to pursue a life of fitness through swimming.
Brown did not compete again until forming Maryland Masters, which she led at the Catonsville YMCA with a group of six people. The program has since grown to over 800 members with 20 teams throughout the state.
In 1986, Brown moved to Anne Arundel County and formed a masters group at the YMCA of Severna Park, which became the Severna Park Community Center (SPCC) in 1995. She led the team to 10 YMCA Masters Nationals championships and numerous top three finishes in the women's, men's and combined team divisions.
Shelly Beigel, the SPCC’s director of programs and partnerships, remembers walking into the building with Brown in 1995.
“She had an unending passion for teaching, swimming and helping people better their lives,” Beigel said. “She worked for the center, but a lot of her time was volunteered. She helped us as we expanded throughout the years, and she made swimming fun. For example, at Thanksgiving, she would come on deck dressed like a turkey.”
Brown held many individual accolades in swimming, including setting a masters world record in the short-course 100-meter backstroke in 1991. That same year, she was featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd section. Brown was a persistent goal-setter and had motivational statements taped to bathroom mirrors throughout her home to keep her focused.
In 2006, she moved into the 70-74 age group and was determined to reach USMS All-Star status, requiring her to capture the most first-place finishes in the age group. Brown ended the year with 44 No. 1 rankings while also setting six USMS national records and nine YMCA national records along the way.
That same year, she also competed in the FINA world championships at Stanford, winning the 200-meter backstroke and bringing home second- and third-place awards as well. She had an impressive 23 FINA World top 10 rankings in 2006. She also set a long-distance national record in the Two Mile Cable National Championship that year.
Brown had another All-Star year in 2011 with 30 USMS first-place rankings despite receiving a rare cancer diagnosis in July. She completed events in all three pool courses while setting four national records before having an extensive 10-hour surgery in September. By April of 2012, she was back in the pool competing at the YMCA Nationals in Fort Lauderdale.
Brown credited her fitness from swimming for saving her life after being diagnosed with an aggressive primary peritoneal cancer in 2011.
“Swimming was a lifesaver for me,” she told the Voice in 2015. “It's incredible what exercise can do to get you through something like that. Physically and emotionally, I can't say enough for it.”
Continuing to compete throughout years of chemotherapy and a clinical trial, Brown accumulated many more individual USMS national top 10 rankings, finishing with 833. She also holds 32 USMS All American honors for posting the fastest time in the country in at least one event during a given year.
As much as she loved competing, Brown loved teaching even more. Her students adored her, too.
“I swam with her 30 years ago and remember her setting records in just about every event she swam at nationals, not to mention what a wonderful person she was!” Laura Edwards said.
“Nancy Brown was so helpful to me when I started out as a swim coach,” said Melissa Albers. “Very helpful and patient with any questions I had.”
In recognition of her 40-plus years of commitment to U.S. Masters Swimming, the organization honored her with the Dorothy Donnelly Service Award in 2015. This award recognizes outstanding USMS volunteers whose contributions stand out in service to local, regional and national programs.
“Nancy is a constant cheerleader, encouraging, supporting, coaxing and, in all ways possible, promoting Masters swimming and instilling enthusiasm for the sport,” said fellow USMS swimmer Kristina Henry, who nominated Brown for the award.
She was also was instrumental in running the swimming portion of the Maryland Senior Olympics from the mid-‘90s to 2005. She was elected into the organization's Hall of Fame in 2005.
In addition to the USMS Service Award, the organization presented Brown with its Fitness Award in 2010 for her outstanding contributions to fitness activities within USMS. She was also inducted into the Friends School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.
Above all else, Brown adored and her family, which included longtime companion Geoffrey Revett, three children, four stepchildren, a sister, three nephews, two nieces, 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.