The Early Days
Bonnie Adair, head coach of Loyola Marymount University’s women’s swimming team, described her early days of swimming as just plain fun. Her family’s involvement began at the Beverly Hilton when her mom attended a show of little kids going off the diving boards. The coach was Nick Rodionoff, and her sister, Jerrie Sue, who was two and a half years older, joined the team. Bonnie was five years old and too young. She said that after a month of watching practice, Rodionoff allowed her in the water, too.
Bonnie’s swim career began in 1958 and she retired in 1972. During those years she accumulated 35 age group records and her 50m freestyle record she broke as an 8-year-old stood for 29 years.
She’s noticed many changes to the sport from the years when she swam with “the Puddle Jumpers” coached by Rodionoff, who is the head coach at Pepperdine. They didn’t have permanent water and her coach packed his 15 swimmers and divers into his camper and they swam at various pools. “He’d drive us one day to the LA Athletic Club, or we’d go to the Holiday Athletic Club. Eventually, one of the swim dad’s who was a developer got a pool built in the Encino, Van Nuys area. We became the San Fernando Valley Athletic Club,” she said.
Bonnie described her age group team as a “little homegrown team which became her parents’ social life. All my parents’ good friends were swim families. Everyone knew each other. My dad started as a timer and my mom worked at the desk where everything was done manually off little slips of paper before we had timing systems.” Her dad became meet manager and eventually became president of the Southern Pacific Association of the AAU, which was the predecessor to Southern California Swimming.
She remembered coaches association meetings in her living room in Woodland Hills. She said all the iconic coaches were there including Peter Daland, Don Gambril and Jim Montrella, who would have been around 19 years old. “I remember being afraid of Jim Montrella because he had this big booming voice, and then years later, I swam for him,” Bonnie said.
While she was on Radionoff’s team she said they’d surf if the surf was up, or go to Yosemite and ski. Swim meets were big family trips, and her entire team would caravan to Las Vegas or Phoenix. The parents were social and the kids ran in and out of everyone’s hotel rooms. “It was a social environment, a small intimate group of people. By the time I came along, Southern California was producing Olympians,” Bonnie said. “We were the top swim area of the country along with NorCal, Florida and a big team in Philadelphia.”
She said her practices were short and every lap was a race. She was a sprinter and it worked well for her. “I was a diver until 13,” Bonnie said. “Everyone was a diver and a swimmer, unlike today.”
The Adair family moved to the Long Beach area and Bonnie joined Lakewood Aquatics where Jim Montrella was the head coach. She said after she started driving, her parents’ involvement was less. According to Bonnie, “The 1968 Olympic Trials men were in the Belmont Pool, which was new. The women swam in the Swim Stadium in the ghetto. My dad put on the women’s Olympic trials and that was his last big involvement.”
Back in those days, Bonnie said big meets were held at Santa Monica City College outside, or El Segundo Junior College in an indoor pool and the National level meets were held at the Swim Stadium, home of the 1932 Olympics. Orange County and the great pools there today, didn’t exist. She said Lakewood held the Junior Olympics in their pool every year. Eventually, all the big meets were moved to Belmont.
In the valley, she said there wasn’t land to build 50-meter pools and be able to train Olympic caliber athletes. So, in the Los Angeles area, small teams didn’t have the room to grow. The growth took place in Orange Country with the abundance of cheaper land and 50-meter pools.
She mentioned that Don Gambril’s Rosemead team merged with Daland’s group. They took over Belmont Pool and the team was called Phillips 66. Top swimmers included Gary Hall, Tim Shaw, and the Furniss boys. Mission Viejo came into being in the 1970s. Everyone flocked there. Mark Schubert, was a young guy who was hired. A couple of teams disbanded and swimmers like Shirley Babashoff went to Schubert.
Her freshman year of college was pre-Title IX, and there were limited opportunities and college programs for women. She was training with Montrella for the ’72 Olympic Trials and didn’t want to change up her training regime, so her freshman year she was a commuter at UC Irvine and lived at home with her parents. She said during those days she swam 11 practices a week and lifted weights.
She said her sister, who was a diver, was able to compete on the Men’s team at UCLA with their former coach Rodionoff. “It was because she could score points as a diver, but as a swimmer, I couldn’t compete with the men and didn’t have that same opportunity.” She said looking back it was unfair that the women stayed at home and didn’t get to experience college life. “All of a sudden when school began, there would be all girls in our training group. The fast guys went off to swim at UCLA and USC. We were freshmen and sophomores in college, and we stayed with our club team to train. We lost that experience of being a freshman away at college.”
Title IX changed women’s swimming in college dramatically, with more programs and scholarships. “It’s sad for our guys and the Olympic sports. Without Title IX, we wouldn’t have women’s sports today, but it’s at a cost of the men’s programs.”
Another aspect that has changed are the swimsuits, she said. “Everything was Jantzen and they were heavy, sometimes wool and like a different species. Then Speedo came out with a triple stitched suit and it was so amazing. We only had a choice of black or navy back then.”
Bonnie attended UCLA her sophomore year and said she was burned out from swimming. Eventually, she found her way back on deck as an assistant coach, while earning her degree.
“I went to UCLA, I could work as a dry cleaner for $1.80 an hour, or I could teach a swim lesson for $20. Coaching is a niche where we have a skill that nobody else has. It paid more and was a whole more fun. It started out as a job, not a career choice. Once I became a lawyer, I realized I didn’t enjoy it as much as coaching. My close friends were the ones I met through masters swimming, not my lawyer peers.”
Bonnie said she “came out of retirement at 35, swam for five years broke a couple world and national records. I hung up my suit at 40. It’s too much to get up on the blocks and race. I like to swim for fitness.”
Along with coaching at LMU, she began a Masters team with Olympian Clay Evans, Santa Monica Masters Swim Team, which later became SCAQ – now the largest Masters program in the United States with over 900 active members.
From Bonnie Adair’s bio on the LMU website:
“During her own 13-year swimming career, Adair set 35 National Age Group records including a 50m freestyle record that stood for 29 years.
Competing in 12 National Championships (her first at age 13) and two Olympic Trials, Adair became a National finalist in the 100 free and 100 fly and a member of a 400-meter medley relay that established four American records.
She attended UCLA as an undergraduate and then Loyola Law School. During law school, Adair was the assistant coach of the UCLA women’s swim team and also coached the Team Santa Monica age group team.
In 1979, Adair created the Santa Monica Masters Swim Team, which later became SCAQ – now the largest Masters program in the United States with over 900 active members.
In her 30-plus years coaching, it is estimated that Adair has coached or instructed more than 20,000 Los Angeles-area swimmers.
Between 1985 and 1994, Adair came out of swimming retirement to compete in several Masters National Championships and World Games and set national and world records in the freestyle sprint events and 100 and 200 IMs. She has contributed swimming articles to SWIM Magazine and Fitness Swimmer Magazine and was honored as the United States Masters Coach of the Year in 1997.
From 1996-1999, Adair was the head coach of the men’s and women’s swimming teams at Santa Monica College, where she earned the Western State Conference Women’s Coach of the Year award in 1997. In 1998, her women’s team tied for the conference title and placed sixth in the state. Her men’s team also earned a sixth place finish.
Adair currently resides in West Los Angeles.”