Thursday, 7 June 2012

Winnipeg's swimming phenom Vera Tustin

Vera (Tustin) Gilbert was a swimming phenomenon in Winnipeg during the 1920s and 1930s.

I came across her name numerous times in old newspaper stories, tracked down the family and together we applied to have her inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. Sadly, she was not chosen this year, but we will apply again.

In the meantime, here is a look back at one of Winnipeg's great swimmers and swimming coaches.

Vera Tustin first appears in the local sports pages in 1922. At age 11 she finished first at a juvenile race hosted by the Victoria Ladies Swim Club (VLSC) at the at the Cornish Baths. Three years later she won the junior provincial 100-yard title, just 1/3 of a second off the record time.

March 28, 1927, Winnipeg Free Press

At age 16 Tustin exploded onto the senior sports scene with the Women's Amateur Swimming Club (WASC). In February 1927, at just her second competitive meet, she won the Manitoba 220-yard (200-m) title by a ten-yard margin over her nearest competitor. The following month she broke the provincial 50-yard record in a heat then went on to break the Canadian record in the finals.

At the club's award ceremony in April 1927 the Tustin family swept the board. Vera won the Elliot Cup for overall senior champion, cousin Hilda Tustin won the Victory Cup for under-16s and cousin Reta Tustin took the Dingwall Cup for under-11s.

It appears that Vera switched over to the Victoria Ladies' Swimming Club (VLSC). It was created in 1916, just two years after the WASC, by a former swimming star in her own right. Miriam Tauntin was a provincial 50, 100 and 220-yard record holder and at times held the national records for the first two in the 19-teens.

Between 1927 and 1929 Vera dominated Manitoba's swimming scene. Here are just some of her victories:

- August 1928: Gray Trophy for the one-mile swim of the Red River;
- November 1928: broke her own 100-yard provincial record and tied the Canadian one;
- February 1929: broke her provincial 220-yard record by one second;
- March 1929: retained her 50-yard provincial record.

January 14, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press

In the 1930-31 season Vera was struck down with a serious illness that kept her from competitive swimming for nearly two years, (the ailment was likely polio.) At around the time Vera became ill, Tauntin left the VLSC to become the chief instructor at the new YWCA swimming pool and Vera went back to the Women’s Amateur Swimming Club. There was hope that she would be well enough to start training for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics but that did not happen.

In March 1932 Vera received the Elliot Trophy for holding the 100-yard provincial record for a 6th consecutive year. She also won a diving competition that year but there is no mention of her her doing any competitive swimming.

In 1935 Vera splashed back onto the scene and by that time younger cousin Reta Tustin was her main competition. At a February swim meet Vera came a close second to Reta in the 100-yard race and lost the 220-yard race by just two feet. By October Vera was back in form and beat out Reta by ten yards to take back the 220-yard championship, her final record.

April 24, 1936, Winnipeg Free Press

At the end of the 1935 - 36 season Vera was ready to move on to the next phase of her life. She ended her amateur swimming career to become a paid coach with the Women’s Amateur Swimming Club and a summer swim instructor at the community of Grand Beach. In May 1936 she married Henry Gilbert, the brother of long-time teammate Ethel Gilbert.

Vera continued to coach the WASC into the 1950s, provincial and national record holder Vivian King was one of her athletes. She also officiated swim meets and performed at swimming galas. Through the 1950s and 60s she gave aqua-therapy to children stricken with polio and other disabilities and the Kinsmen Centre for the Handicapped.

Vera and Henry Gilbert had two daughters, Marilyn and Victoria.

Vera (Tustin) Gilbert died on July 19, 1983 at Women’s Hospital in Winnipeg at the age of 72.

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