Melissa Belote was Katie Ledecky before Katie Ledecky.

Like Ledecky – the most decorated female swimmer in history — Belote was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area.  And like Ledecky, she burst onto the Olympic scene at 15, when she captured gold along with the hearts of swimming fans around the world.

Melissa Belote 3

Born in the District and raised in Springfield, Virginia, Belote missed the first three weeks of her sophomore year at Robert E. Lee High School to compete in the 1972 Summer Games.  In Munich, the 15-year-old won three gold medals over the course of three days.  On September 2, Belote set an Olympic record in the 100m backstroke.  The following day, she swam the lead-off backstroke leg of the 4 x 100 medley relay, helping the Americans finish more than four seconds clear of the second-place East German team in a world record time of 4:20.75.  On the fourth of September — 47 years ago today — Belote completed her golden trifecta while setting a new world record in the 200m backstroke.

Melissa Louise entered the world October 10, 1956, as the second of three daughters born to Ernest and Florence Belote.  Raised in suburban Virginia, she joined the Springfield Swimming & Racquet Club summer league team at eight.  A water rat, she took quickly to the sport and spent nearly every waking minute in the pool.  Belote began training under Ed Solotar at the Starlit Swim Club in Fairfax.  Originally a freestyler, she couldn’t stand chlorine in her eyes, so she rolled over on her back.

Along with Shane Gould of Australia, Belote was the only woman swimmer to win more than one individual title at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

By 12, Belote was competing at the national level.  A mix of natural talent, dedication and a love of swimming, Belote prided herself in being the first person in the pool and the last to leave.  Up at five, she would swim for two hours before school, then return to the pool for another practice in the afternoon.  And she did it six hours a day, six days a week, year-round.

Susie Atwood was the queen of American backstroke in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  At 15, the Southern California native qualified as the top seed in the 200m backstroke in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.  In August 1969, Atwood lowered the world mark in that event by more than two seconds.  Holder of 23 national titles and 20 American records, the reigning national champion arrived at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Chicago as the heavy favorite to sweep the backstroke events.  Melissa Belote came out of nowhere to beat Atwood in both backstroke races at the Trials.  In the 200, the determined Virginian bettered her rival’s two-year-old record by nearly nine-tenths of a second.

Belote shattered the 200m back record three times within the span of one month in the late summer of 1972.  The 2:19.19 she swam in the Olympic final stood for nearly two years until it was broken by the GDR’s Ulrike Richter in July 1974 and then subsequently lowered by a slew of East German dopers in the ensuing years.

“When I was up on the podium and they were playing the National Anthem, what went through my mind is that I had not only honored myself but honored my country by winning an Olympic gold medal.”

Upon returning to U.S., Belote received a personal invitation from President Nixon for dinner at the White House, where Patricia Nixon cooked goulash for the giddy teen.  She also met with Ethel Kennedy.  In the midst of Watergate, the smiling sophomore also appeared on the front page of the Washington Post.  Belote was a finalist for the AAU Sullivan Award in 1972 and again in 1973, when she won the 200m backstroke at the World Championships.

After graduating high school, Melissa Belote attended Arizona State University, where she won six individual collegiate titles and was part of two national championship teams.  A four year All-American, Belote received the 1977 Broderick [now Honda Sports] Award as the outstanding female college swimmer in America.  As a rising ASU sophomore, she made the 1976 Olympic team.  Despite establishing a new American record of 2:17.27 in the final of the 200 backstroke in Montreal, Melissa finished fifth behind two East German swimmers who were later found to be using PEDs.  Belote earned a degree in communications from ASU and retired from competitive swimming in 1979.  She was inducted into the ASU Hall of Fame in 1981.

Melissa Belote returned to the D.C. area in 1981 to take over Ed Solotar’s swim program.  In 1988, she moved back to Arizona and married longtime college friend, Rich Ripley.  The talented Mrs. Ripley is currently the age group coach at Rio Salado Swim Club, where she was named 2008 Arizona Swimming Age Group Coach of the Year.  The 1983 International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee also heads up the varsity swimming program at McClintock High School in Tempe.

Belote-Ripley’s Olympic medals were stolen from her Tempe home in 2010.  She was provided replacement medals three years later.

A member of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and the Washington Hall of Stars, Melissa Belote was named by Sports Illustrated as the best female athlete ever to come out of the state of Virginia.  Winner of eight individual AAU individual titles and a 16-time AAU All-American, Belote was selected to the United States Swimming Team of the Century in 1999.

On this date in 1972, Melissa  Belote won the 200-meter backstroke at the Munich Olympics.  In the morning heats of the 200 backstroke at the Swimming Hall at Olympic Park, the blonde and bespectacled tenth grader went 2:20.58 to lower the world record she had set one month earlier at the Olympic Trials.  The 200 final was the last event of the women’s 1972 swimming program.  That evening, Belote made easy work of it, taking the lead on the first lap and increasing it throughout the race to capture gold in another record time of 2:19.19.  American teammate and rival, Susie Atwood, finished more than a second behind and held on for silver.

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  1. Thanks Jim for the DD on Melissa. My two oldest children had the honor of being coached by Melissa when they were swimming for Sun Devil Aquatics in Tempe. Her dedication and love of the sport has motivated countless young swimmers to do better both in the pool and out. There is no way either of my kids would have been the swimmers they were without Melissa. I had the pleasure of traveling with her and the team to a number of meets over the years and we had many long conversations, either on bus rides or at dinner. Her observations on the 1976 Olympics and the obvious doping the East Germans were doing in Montreal really brought the cold war down to a personal level that you didn’t get from news sources. The fact that the American women were able to at least bring home a few medals, including Gold in the 400 Free Relay against a heavily favored (and doped) GDR team was amazing. Melissa was generous with her time and would bring out her medals to motivate group she was speaking to. I was shocked that someone had stolen them and was glad to see that they were replaced.

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