Melissa Belote was Katie Ledecky before Katie Ledecky.
Belote, born in the District and raised in Springfield, Virginia, was the 15-year-old local Olympic swimming star when she won three gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, setting a new world record in the women’s 200-meter backstroke.
She relived those moments on the podium, medal around her neck listening to the Star Spangled Banner playing, when she saw Ledecky, the 19-year-old Bethesda phenom, win four gold medals and a silver in Rio and setting her own new world record in the 800-meter freestyle.
Belote has been a big Katie Ledecky fan since she saw her as a 15-year-old win the gold medal in the 800-meter competition in the 2012 games in London.
“It’s been so exciting to see what she did, and for her to be a Washingtonian,” Belote said. “When she won four years ago in the 800 yard freestyle, I was so elated because another 15 year old from the nation’s capital won a gold medal. Congratulations to her. She must be on the top of the world.”
Belote was there — on the top of the world — when she won her three gold medals in the 200-meter and 100-meter backstroke and the lead-off backstroke leg of the women’s 4x100 meter medley relay.
“It’s really difficult to put the feelings into words, because words don’t do it justice,” Belote said. “When I was up on the podium, what went through my mind was that they were playing the national anthem for me, that I had not only honored myself, but honored my country by winning an Olympic gold medal.
“I thought of everyone who helped me make that moment possible, starting with my parents, my sisters who gave up a lot so that my parent could devote their energy into helping me, my coaches, my teammates what makes your practice are your teammates around you and your coach,” she said. “The community the Governor of Virginia sent me a lot of Virginia is for Lovers pins, which I gave out in the Olympic village.
“It was an incredible feeling, and thinking of all those people made it more special,” Belote said.
The 1972 women’s American swim team was the youngest team in Olympic swimming history including three 14 year olds and eight 15 year olds. The oldest team members were 19 Ledecky’s age this year, and she is the youngest member of this American team.
“That is just how sports have evolved following Title IX,” said Belote, who qualified for the U.S. women’s nationals meet at the age of 12. “In 1972, and even 1976, it wasn’t unusual for a younger athlete to make the team. The opportunities beyond high school then were very few. There was no Title IX.
“There were very few programs in the United States for women’s swimming,” Belote said. “There was no scholarship money, with just two schools, Arizona State and University of Miami, that offered scholarships for women’s swimming, and I went to Arizona State. Those were the number one and number two swimming school in the country. So now there are many opportunities for women past high school for swimming.”
Ledecky returned to a hero’s welcome Wednesday at Dulles Airport, with a crowd of family, friends and reporters waiting for her. Belote was celebrated as well — but she had a different calendar of events waiting for her when she got back from Munich — a State Department briefing. Belote was in the Olympic Village the night that 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and coaches were taken hostage and later killed by the Palestinian terror group Black September.
“Swimming finished that night, and for the first time in eight weeks we didn’t have a curfew,” Belote said. “We closed the disco down in the Olympic village that night. We were sitting outside on the Flags of the World mall type area. We were out there until about 4 in the morning. We were supposed to go to an exhibition. We figured we would meet at 8, so get a few hours sleep. I remember going to sleep hearing sirens and wondering what was going on. I thought how are people who are competing going to get sleep with those sirens going off.
“When we went to breakfast that morning, we had an escort,” she said. We never had an escort before. Then we saw military people with high powered rifles everywhere. We hadn’t seen that before. I didn’t know German, so I didn’t know what they were saying on the radio. All we could learn was somebody was killed, but nothing was said that it was inside the Olympic village. So we left for our exhibition and when we got back that night, we had a team meeting and was told what happened.
“It was incredibly hard to believe,” she said. “No one had ever really heard about terrorism before. What was this, why would this happen, why would you go after athletes in the Olympic village. We didn’t know about the politics of it. It was very hard to understand. We were told the next day that we had to be in our dress marching uniforms and go to the Olympic stadium. When we walked in and saw the coffins draped in the Israeli flags, that was when it really hit us oh my God, athletes and coaches had been killed.
“I’m 59,” Belote said. “I still have a difficult time thinking about it.”
Belote retired from competitive swimming in 1979. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1989. She settled down in Arizona, where she married (Melissa Belote Ripley) and raised a daughter, Rachel, and son, Erik, both of whom swam competitively in college (Rachel swam in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials). She is currently the swimming and diving coach at McClintock High School in Tempe and the Rio Salado Swim Club team. And she is getting back into competitive swimming.
My kids gave me a goal — to break the world record for the 200-yard back stroke in the 60-64 age group,” Belote said — the world record she set as a 15-year-old in 1972.
“I haven’t raced since 1979,” Belote said. “It is fun, something I am doing for myself after being a mom, and I love it.”
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