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Albina Osipavičiūtė in her official Olympic swimsuit. She won honor and pride for both the United States and Lithuanian Americans.

Go for the Gold!

BY RAMUNĖ ZDANAVIČIŪTĖ

2010-03-15-LHERITAGE-02

IT HAS BEEN WELL OVER 80years since Albina Osipavičiū-tė won two gold medals at the when the United States bettered the world record.And so our gifted East Coast girl brought back two golds, which touched the hearts (and wallets) of many local Worcester residents who raised an additional $4,000 for Albina’s college tuition. While visiting San Francisco in 1929 Albina improved her own world’s record by swimming the 100 meter in a minute, nine seconds.1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam,the Netherlands. Despite the fact that she passed away some 46 years ago, she still remains an inspiration to the youth of Jacksonville in down state Illinois near its capital Springfield. The Olympic spirit still remains enkindled in the hearts of her son David Akenand granddaughter Kristin Jamison.Throughout the years sports fans have enthusiastically witnessed Olympic accomplishments of Lithuania’sswimmers Arvydas Juozaitis (bronze medal, 1976 in Montreal), Robertas Žulpa (gold medal,2000 in Moscow) and Lina Kačiu-šytė (gold medal, 2000 in Moscow),yet few of us probably know that Lithuanian Americans also have a swimming hero who left her mark in United States Olympic history.

Poster of the 1928 Summer Olympics.
Poster of the 1928 Summer Olympics.

With a bit of tenacity,anything is possible for an immigrant

Albina Liucija Kazimiera Osipavičiūtė (Osipowich) was born in a Lithuanian immigrant family on February 6, 1911 in Worcester,MA. As a youngster she participated in local swimming competitions.In 1926 she won the Amateur Athletic Union’s first prize at the New England Water Sports Festival.However, her major sports achievement occurred at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. The Osipavičius family was not financially capable of sending their talented daughter to the event. Luckily, local Worcester residents raised sufficient funds for Albina’s trip to the Netherlands.Although she placed only third in the 100 meter free-style at the 1928 final trials, this seventeen year old Lithuanian American gal went on to the Olympics tow in a gold medal with a new world record. That’s notall! Albina also won a gold medal in the 400 meter relay when the United States bettered the world record.

And so our gifted East Coast girl brought back two golds, which touched the hearts (and wallets) of many local Worcester residents who raised an additional $4,000 for Albina’s college tuition. While visiting San Francisco in 1929 Albina improved her own world’s record by swimming the 100 meter in a minute, nine seconds.

Later Albina enrolled in Pembroke College (an affiliate of Brown University) where she continued her swimming activities. For the record we’ll remind our readers that she was an avid field hockey player as well. Upon completion of her studies in 1933, Albina was employed as an order manager in a major department store. In 1936 she married heart-throb, Brown university basketball team member Harrison Van Aken, Jr. Two years later Albina was appointed water sports instructor at Providence College, and eventually the YMCA program coordinator in Schenectady, New York. Unfortunately,Albina Osipavičiūtė passed away at the young age of 43on June 6, 1964.

It’s not necessary to always win

Our spokesman is Albina’s son David, who was more than pleasant and accommodating when asked to be interviewed.He’s 66 years old and is enjoying the life of a senior citizen in downstate Illinois near Springfield. Until the age of fourteen David lived in Syracuse, NY, later Lynchburg, VA. Later, the family moved to Arizona where David attended Northern Arizona University. He was employed in the steel industry until the early 1970s when that industry started collapsing. After his mother’s death,David came to visit his father (Albina was separated from her husband Harrison) in Chicago. There in the “Windy City” David met Linda whom he soon married. The young couple settled down in Linda’s hometown in down state Illinois. The Van Akens have two children – David,Jr. and Kristin. For many years Linda was a Jacksonville District 117 elementary school teacher while her husband was an engineer for the Illinois School for the Deaf.It was in Jacksonville where a while back I met David toreminisce about an outstanding Olympian and dynamic Lithuanian American – his mother Albina Osipavičiūtė.

Albina with her father Kazys Osipavičius.
Albina with her father Kazys Osipavičius.

– David, did your Mom instill any Lithuanian patriotism in you and your brother while growing up?

– I don’t know. Uniquely Lithuanian – no, not really.I think her basic principle was the right and the wrong concept. The main thing is that you treat people well.We were aware of their family’s opportunity upon arriving to the United States from the Old Country and how well my grandfather had succeeded by working for the same company for some thirty years. But patriotism to one particular country – no. The main thing was to be happy residing here.

– Obviously, Lithuanian was not spoken at home,but were there Lithuanian phrases you understood?

– Lithuanian was always spoken at my grandparent’s house. They spoke Lithuanian primarily with my Mom.I don’t remember those words now, but I do remember asking my Mom what all the swearing was about in Lithuanian. Apparently the word I frequently heard, “šitas“means “this”.

– Were you close to your grandparents?

– I used to love the trips to Worcester, MA to visit them. You’d go down the street over there in their neighborhood and hear three or four languages spoken –Yiddish, Lithuanian, Italian and English – it was just great! All the people seemed so warm and wonderful. It was quite a mix. My grandma was a “stay-home mom”and my grandfather started out working for a funeral home. He was a driver – that meant in the early days a horse and buggy, and only later – a hearse. He did that for years and years until he retired. I remember visiting my grandfather at work. I’d be tired and he’d take me upstairs and put me in one of the caskets. They were so soft and comfortable. I remember my mother becoming mad when he crossed my hands while lying there and took my picture. I was only four or five years old at the time. Obviously my Mom did not inherit my grandfather’s sense of humor.

An attractive, athletic couple: Albina and husband Harrison Van Aken.
An attractive, athletic couple: Albina and husband Harrison Van Aken.

– Your mother passed away when you were only twenty years old. What do you remember about her?

– She was very strong – strong-willed in the sense of right and wrong. Obviously she had determination because you don’t get to where she did in achievements like the Olympics without having a tremendous strong sense. I always knew that. She realized that not all people were as strong as she was. She was compassionate in passing on the ideals of right and wrong to us, her children.

– Yet, you did not have that much of a chance to experience those ideals she had fostered?

– You’re right. I went away to school and when I came back to Lynchburg (my parents had already been separated)my mother had passed away. That was probablyin my freshman year in college. What she died of – Idon’t know. I think on the death certificate it stated “illhealth.” Whether they indicated “cardiac arrest” I cannot tell you. All I remember is they said she was ill for along time. Afterwards my father remarried. My relationshipwith my stepmother was compatible. She seemed to be a nice person.

– What was that one singular characteristic of Albina that you remember?

– She was a super Mom. But you have to remember,so much of our lives revolved around sports both for my brother Harrison and myself. There were a number of incidents in life that revolved around a swimming pool.One episode was when I was being a bit funny getting off the high board. I was going to arch my back a little bit more than I should doing a jackknife. I wrenched my back and after I hit the water and went down I could not move – and then, there she was out of nowhere! She never took her eyes off of me – yet no one else noticed.She gently took my hand and brought me up. Had she not been there… well, I don’t know whether I’d be talking with you today. There was another time when we were at the local pond and apparently somebody was too far out and was going down. The lifeguards ran to help, but they commented that somebody flew by themat such speed they could not believe. Mon was hauling the individual back onto the shore before the lifeguard sever hit the water. After that she spent three days on the couch because she had strained her back muscles so badly.She was always there – my good Mom!

– Did she ever flaunt her popularity after the Olympicsas “the fastest in the world” ?

– In all honesty I don’t believe so. I remember her talking once that she was invited to give an exhibition and she almost had to be pushed into it. As a child I never heard about her Olympic glory although I knew of it. After all we had a room full of her trophies and medals and prizes at home – yet she never reminisced about that summer in Amsterdam. She did not need that kind of praise.

– And was Albina proud to represent the United States at the Olympics? Or was there a part of her that revealed her identity as an immigrant’s daughter – a Lithuanian American?

– I do remember her saying that she was looking for other Lithuanians at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.She was proud of her heritage even abroad at the Games.

Did Albina ever travel to Lithuania as a child or adult?

– No, she did not. Frankly speaking, she did not have enough money even to go to the Olympics. Local residents raised the needed amount of money for her trip to the Netherlands.

Albina with son David.
Albina with son David.

What did Mom do after she graduated from college?Did she pursue a swimming career?

– She attended Pembroke College (affiliate of Brown University ), met my dad, married and moved to Connecticut.To my understanding she was the head of theConnecticut Outdoor Resources, including swimming.Actually she was making more money than my dad didwhen they first got married and started out on their own.Dad began working for a bank and then moved on to“General Electric.”

I think your daughter Kristin accurately sums up her grandmother’s achievements by stating that “her story is the quintessential American dream!”

– That’s pretty close because to come from an immigrant background, a loving home (which in my opinion is 90 percent of everything, and yet not having the monetary advantages to do so well is truly amazing. I think Kristin is right.—

– Your father was an influential businessman, your mother – a prominent sports icon. Yet both of them were humble and led a rather simple life…

– Compared to his position – yes. He ended up a shead of the overseas operations for “General Electric.”In the 1950s he was in the upper one percent of the income level and yet he drove a Ford. He was not ostentatious either. My mother was definitely not – not in her clothing nor jewelry where she definitely could have been.

– Albina was well-loved, and as I jokingly say “amplyfed” during her tour through the Lithuanian American communities here in the United States after the Olympics.

– That’s correct. The night before she broke her own world record in San Francisco, Albina participated at a Lithuanian outing where she had eaten way too much and stayed up too late. The following morning Mom met a girl from California – I guess one of the top swimmers in the nation. When Albina hit the 100 meter race on one side of the pool she’d normally be well ahead of the competition – but that was not the case that particular day. She had to pour out all her energy because she did not want someone else to beat her – a world record holder. Mom beat her and set another record.

I remember something else: during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, the German swimmer Britta Steffen won the 100 meter free-style, catching world record holder Libby Trickett of Australia at the last stroke.Steffen touched in 53.12 seconds, bettering her own Olympic record of 53.38 set on the lead-off leg of the 4x 100 meter free-style relay. And yet, more than 80 years ago Albina Osipavičiūtė’s Olympic record was 1 minute,11 seconds!

David Van Aken proudly displays his mother’s Olympic gold medals and other memorabilia.
David Van Aken proudly displays his mother’s Olympic gold
medals and other memorabilia.

A favorite question of journalists is “What would have been if …?” Was Albina happy as an Olympian?Did she value such glory? Or did she prefer to be somebody else?

– No, I think she was happy with herself. She learned from everything she did. She was very intelligent – an English major at Pembroke. Albina liked to read. She liked people and was very much her own person. I think her education and her Olympic experience came together to make her truly what she was. Frankly, I don’t think she was ever effected by the doubt side in anything.

– Your parents never attended another Olympics after Amsterdam in 1928 neither as competitors nor spectators. To my knowledge, the same goes for you and your family? Any explanation?

– I don’t know why Mom and Dad didn’t. After all they did have the economic means to do so. What I can say is that my dad went for years without ever taking a vacation. He was that committed to doing well. They were both very frugal, but frankly I do not know why they didn’t. As for my family, we had high hopes the next Olympic Games would be held here in Chicago(this is where I realized my interviewed David was a die hard Illinois patriot), but our former governor “sort of screwed everything up”, and we lost that honor. If you’re going to imply I inherited frugality from my parents –now, maybe you’d be correct in assuming such. Frugality would not have been the case maybe 40 years ago,but then of course I was not earning that kind of money that I could afford such a trip. Once the kids came, it was a paycheck to paycheck situation. However, now it would be a totally different scenario – boy, would I love to go!

– And many Olympics later Albina’s legacy remains to date… and not only at the Van Aken home!

– As you get older you realize the tremendous feat itwas back in Amsterdam the summer of 1928. Getting back to the kids, both my daughter and I speak publiclyat the local schools here in Jacksonville. You have to keep in mind that these are youngsters who never held an Olympic gold medal in their hands. Hundreds of thesekids have a unique opportunity to feel Mom’s accomplishments right in their own palm. When I was growing up and watching the Olympics on TV, I later realized –My God, wow – my Mom was THERE and came home a WINNER. That has always been awe-inspiring.

– Do you and your family swim?

– We had the kids start when they were very young so they could swim well. Mother never pushed us to swim although both my brother and I did compete on local level. She did not push it because she did not like the idea of taking kids away from home, something they were doing in the 1950s – putting them in camps, sometimes for the entire year. She never pushed us to swim competitively nor did we. Our kids learned early – and they are pretty good swimmers. And so were we – obviously

The Olympic spirit never dies…

The term “Olympic spirit” is an often-referred to but perhaps vaguely-defined concept associated with the Olympic Games. Some media equate it with Pierre de Coubertin’s statement that “The important thing is not to win, but to take part”, and view athletes who try their best but finish last as epitomizing the “Olympic spirit”.

Once again we recently witnessed the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Indeed this sporting event was an outstanding spectacle. Perhaps it would be no less a treat if we would be able to turn historic clocks back to the summer of 1928 to witness those achievements attained by a talented American girl of Lithuanian descent– Albina Osipavičiūtė at the Olympic swimming pool in Amsterdam. Perhaps this gal from Worcester participated at the games merely for the love of sports, but to everyone’s surprise she returned home an Olympian – a first for Lithuania and its diaspora!