Happenstance pushed Bob Gawboy into the swimming pool, where he made quite a splash as arguably the state’s best-ever male swimmer.

The son of an Ojibwe father and Finnish mother born during the Great Depression in 1932, Gawboy grew up on the Vermilion Lake Indian Reservation near Tower in the far-northern reaches of Minnesota.

When he showed up as a freshman at Ely High School in the late 1940s, he considered all the sports offered. Most held practices after school, a deal-breaker for a kid who needed to hop a bus following classes for a 10-mile ride home.

“I knew nothing about swimming when I went out for the Ely team as a ninth-grader,” he said in 1955.

Short in stature but loaded with determination, Gawboy captured the state high school title in the 100-yard breast stroke in 1949, set a state record in the 200-yard freestyle in 1950 and went on to shatter other national high school records. In 1955, he eclipsed the world record in the 220-yard breast-stroke event at a National Amateur Athletic Union Championships. Today, he’s the only swimmer enshrined in the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in Kansas.

All those achievements are even more dazzling when you consider Gawboy could see out of only one eye, suffering from blood-vessel issues and coordination problems that led to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 1969. Despite his medical setbacks, Gawboy kept coming back to stun everyone in and out of the pool.

“If I had to pick a boy swimmer over 90 years of state high school competition that stood above all others, it would be either Bob Gawboy or [three-time Olympian] Tom Malchow,” said Bob Erickson, a longtime swim coach and Chanhassen author of a new book, “Minnesota Splash” — an exhaustive history of competitive swimming in the state.

Erickson, 81, not only scoured record books, he also talked to old-timers. (His book is available at www.ElsmoreSwim.com.)

“Those who swam in the 1950s still talk about how Bob Gawboy never lost a race,” Erickson said. “If you were in the same pool, you always knew second place was the highest you could get.”

Gawboy was among dozens of Iron Range swimmers, boys and girls, who dominated the early years of Minnesota state-sponsored competition. Erickson said the wealthy iron-ore mining companies, facing labor tension before 1920, began to realize they needed to funnel some of their profits into taxes that benefited their Iron Range communities. That meant new schools with big gymnasiums and swimming pools.

The Eveleth High School pool, built in 1917, is still in use. The first state tournaments in 1924, for boys and girls, were held in the 25-yard pool in Biwabik. Only Florida, in 1920, held state meets before Minnesota.

Virginia, Minn., and Hibbing were powerhouses. From 1924-1942, Virginia girls earned 15 state championships while Hibbing boys rattled off 14 titles and a dozen runner-up finishes from 1927-52.

And up in Ely, swim coach Leonard Klun eventually joined six of his swimmers in the sport’s state Hall of Fame. None would face as many challenges as Gawboy.

Shortly after finishing high school, he began to notice coordination problems. That didn’t stop him from accepting a spot on the team at Purdue University in Indiana. He won a 150-yard individual medley race at a meet pitting the best college swimmers of the East and West. In 1952, he finished second in that IM event at the NCAA Championships.

But a congenital blood condition in his left leg, the return of coordination problems and dwindling endurance forced him to quit swimming.

After surgery in late1954, he was back in the pool — transferring to the University of Minnesota, which offered him a scholarship. At the 1955 AAU Championships at Yale, Gawboy raced for the first time in two years.

With only six weeks of training, he bested the American record in the 220-yard breast stroke. And that was just in the preliminary heat. In the finals, he set a new world record, covering the 220 yards in 2 minutes, 38 seconds.

“T’was unbelievable. … Remarkable,” Minnesota Swimmer magazine said, “as he had not swam a race in over two years and had just had surgery.”

Circulatory problems returned and prompted more surgery. “Newly married and doing poorly in school, he decided to retire from swimming,” according to the 2004 book, “Native Americans in Sports” by C. Richard King.

Again, Gawboy returned to the pool, playing water polo in 1966 and competing in the senior division of an AAU meet in 1967. After his multiple sclerosis diagnosis in ’69, his condition worsened.

He worked for the Hennepin County Public Works Department for years until his condition prompted a disability retirement. Gawboy died in 1987 in a New Hope care center. He was 55.

Family members, including two sons and two daughters, spread his ashes on Ojibwe land near Voyageurs National Park — a fitting place that includes more than 30 lakes, with water making up one-third of the 55-mile-long park.


Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com