Bridges: `Every four years it's nice to reminisce'.
COLUMN: CENTRAL MASS. IN THE OLYMPICS
Alice Bridges Roche possesses at least two things not many other 92-year-olds have, a cell phone and an Olympic bronze medal.
Reached on that cell phone last month in Carlisle, Pa., where she makes her home these days, Mrs. Roche was quite happy to talk about that bronze medal, won in the 1936 Berlin Olympics which were, given the circumstances of the day and the perspective of history, perhaps the most significant games of the 20th Century.
"It was a long time ago," she said, "but every four years it's nice to reminisce."
While she has not lived in this area for years, making her home in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Mrs. Roche graduated from Uxbridge High in 1934 and learned to swim in the pool at the Whitin Community Center in Whitinsville. It was there that she, swimming as Alice Bridges, perfected her skills in the backstroke, and it was the 100-meter backstroke in which she finished third in Berlin.
She was edged by two swimmers from the Netherlands. Nida Senff won the event in 1:18.9 followed by Rie Mastenbroek in 1:19.2. Bridges' time was 1:19.4. The finish was so close that, in an era before electronic timing, it took the judges five minutes to determine the order of finish and twice Bridges' name was posted for the silver medal.
Winning a medal of any color was a most unlikely accomplishment given all that went into Bridges even getting to Berlin.
It was the depths of the Great Depression and money for the American Olympic effort was so tight that Bridges went to the games only because supporters back in the Blackstone Valley raised $500 to pay for the boat trip over. Then, on the trip, the leading American female backstroker, Eleanor Holm Jarrett, was kicked off the team for drinking. She was considered to be the only American with a chance to take a medal in the 100-meter backstroke, but Bridges came up with a stunning performance and eventually returned to the United States as a hero.
She has frequently returned to the Blackstone Valley for events recognizing her achievements. And while the '36 Olympics happened 72 summers ago, Mrs. Roche's memories of the event are crystal clear and momentous. At a luncheon for her in 2006 when a bridge in Uxbridge was named after her, for instance, she casually leaned over to someone sitting in the next chair over and said, "I met Hitler, you know."
That happened during the team introductions. During a May television interview with Chuck Rhodes of WHTM-TV in Harrisburg, Pa., Mrs. Roche said, "I just stood there and looked at (Hitler) and I though, `you're supposed to be so famous and you're just so ordinary looking.' Of course, I didn't have hate in my heart then for him, but when I think about him, I have a lot of hate."
Olympians were truly amateurs in 1936 and after the excitement of capturing the bronze medal finally died down, Alice Bridges went about the business of life. She got a job at a pool in Trenton, N.J. and while there met her future husband, Joseph Roche, with whom she shared a 50-year marriage. She became a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother and a great-great grandmother.
Through all of that, and even into today, she swam.
"I swim almost every day," said Mrs. Roche, who turned 92 on July 19, "or as much as I can. At least three times a week. I've been very fortunate with my swimming. It has been one of the most important things in my life."
She is looking forward to the upcoming games.
"Absolutely. I'll watch as much as I can. I'm very interested," she said, but even though Dara Torres, 41, is in the Olympics for a fifth time, Mrs. Roche is not contemplating a comeback.
"Oh no," she said. "These days, I just do a couple of laps."
She is never too far away from her bronze medal. She brought it with her to the ceremonies in 2006 in Uxbridge and from time to time now, people will inquire about it. "I have it locked up safely," he said, "but if anyone asks to see it, I can get it for them, and I'm happy to show them."
The passage of 72 years has only made it look brighter, no doubt.
Olympics: 1936 (Berlin)
Sport/event: Swimming/100-meter backstroke (bronze medal)
Central Mass. connection: Graduated from Uxbridge High in 1934 and learned to swim in the pool at the Whitin Community Center in Whitinsville
What is she doing now: Lives in Carlisle, Pa.
Coming tomorrow: Soccer player Mike Burns of Marlboro
CUTLINE: Alice Bridges