Back in 1976, Janet McDonough was a pioneer of sorts. It was a time when women athletes, refusing to be ignored by universities, were given an equal opportunity to earn sports scholarships. Title IX saw to this.
A decorated Gateway High School swimmer who was the Dapper Dan Female Athlete of the Year, McDonough parlayed the landmark 1972 ruling into a scholarship to West Virginia University. She would go on to a stellar career with the Mountaineers.
“I was at the beginning,” she said of Title IX.
After graduation, McDonough (maiden name, Bieno) took an extended hiatus from the pool, primarily due to “burnout.”
But, when she returned to competitive swimming at age 49, she went right back to making a splash. A big one.
“Swimming has always been a great balancer for me,” said McDonough, 61, a Cranberry resident. “When life or work gets busy, swimming calms me and puts things into perspective.”
It has also put her among the sport’s elite in the 60-64 age group. McDonough is a member of the world’s top-ranked 200- and 400-meter medley relay teams, according to the Federation Internationale de Nation (FINA) — the world governing body for aquatic sports. Individually, she ranks No. 3 in both the 50 backstroke and the 100 individual medley. She ranks fifth in the 100 backstroke.
There is more …
In the United States Masters Swimming (USMS) division, McDonough ranks No. 2 in three events — 50 backstroke, 100 backstroke and 100 individual medley. She is third in the 100 breaststroke.
“For the relays, I connected with two swim friends from the New England Master team at the Pan Am Games in Orlando in July 2018,” said McDonough, who won four gold medals in 2013 at the National Senior Games. “Each of us were top-ranked in our 50-meter events — backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle in the 60–64 age group. My friends had another teammate that was a strong butterflier. Our combined ages averaged just over 60, so we were in the 240-279 age group. With a lofty goal of attempting world records for both relays, which we did not hit, we still landed the No. 1 in the world ranking for 2019.”
Number one. It is a rare achievement, regardless of one’s chosen field. And for those who get there, it can be equal parts exhilarating and humbling.
McDonough leans toward the latter.
“[It] makes me smile for a minute, that’s all,” she said. “Being No. 1 as a relay, I get to share the smile with others.”
Given her athletic accomplishments, one might assume McDonough is a genetic lottery winner. Not entirely true. She is a worker and a grinder.
Each day, she wakes up at 5:05 a.m., and swims from 5:40 to 7 a.m. at the Cranberry YMCA. On non-swimming days, she trains at Total Pursuit Athletics in Zelienople. From there, it is off to her home office (or to the airport for business travel) as a sales representative for ISS Facility Services. She is also a wife (of 34 years to Michael) and mother (of adult daughter Mads).
The pool serves as her sanctuary.
“When I am in the water with my teammates, I do feel ageless,” she said. “When you put on your goggles and get in the pool, no one sees age, just a swim friend.”
First written by Joe Bendel for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 11 March 2020.
Keen to participate in a swimming event at Masters Games? Find out more about the 2021 Kansai World Masters Games here.