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Honor highlights swimmer's glorious past

Mary Ellen Warta

Mary Ellen Warta

Mary Ellen Warta's athletic accomplishments are impressive to most everybody, just not so much in her own house. At least in the eyes of her children.

Her husband Geoff edged her out by running a marathon in the land of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

"I made a shadow box for (my husband) after the marathon and (my daughter) said, 'My mom was a good swimmer, but my dad won the marathon at Disney World,'" said Warta, a 1991 Norcross graduate. "My husband didn't win it, he just ran in it. But I thought it was cute she thought he won it and I was just a swimmer."

A pretty good one, at that.

Known then by her maiden name of Blanchard, she broke American records in both the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke in 1989. The records held for six and seven years, respectively, eventually earning her a scholarship to Stanford, where she was on four NCAA championship teams. She was a nine-time national champion at the college level.

Soon enough her children -- 7-year-old Reese, 5-year-old Rachel and 2-year-old Jonas -- will learn what a big deal their mother was more than 20 years ago. Their education will start Sunday, when Warta is inducted into the second class of the Gwinnett County Sports Hall of Fame at Coolray Field during the Gwinnett Braves' home game.

"That was part of what's so cool about (the Hall of Fame)," Warta said. "What a neat thing for my kids to see."

Warta's biggest fame in swimming came when she was just a kid herself, during her freshman and sophomore years at Norcross.

As a 14-year-old, she placed fourth in the 100 breast and fifth in the 200 individual medley at the U.S. Olympic Trials, narrowly missing a spot on the Olympic team. An even bigger accomplishment came the following year when she broke the two American records.

The effort gave Georgia swimming a boost on the national scene and also did plenty to promote swimming in Gwinnett, which wasn't quite at the booming level it has reached in the past 20 years.

"Just swimming for Norcross and getting Gwinnett County recognition back then, that was exciting," Warta said. "I hadn't seen a lot of swimming exposure for Gwinnett County back then, not like it is now. ... Just something like breaking the national high school record for Norcross, to get exposure for my high school was fun. To wear my Norcross T-shirt at national meets, that was fun."

Warta hasn't done much competitive swimming since graduating from Stanford, and now she spends most of her time with her children and working with Hewlett-Packard as an enterprise account manager. But she still gets excited by the sport she focused on as a youth, whether it's speaking to young swimmers in Gwinnett or watching her daughters, who are both into swimming. Reese begins summer league swimming next month.

Warta found it hard to watch at Reese's swimming lessons a few years ago.

"It was hard for me to sit down and not help out," she said. "But I tried to respect that I'm not the coach. I'm mom. So what I did, I saw a father and son who came in on a Sunday to get in some extra work, so I went over and helped them on turns and things like that."

They probably didn't realize the pointers were coming from a past American record holder. Then again, neither do her children. But Sunday's celebration will put her past achievements into clearer view, especially for her oldest daughter.

"I was so excited when I heard (about the Hall of Fame)," Warta said. "I thought, what an honor. Just to be nominated was great, but to be picked is unbelievable. It's flattering."