Remembering the Artistic Swimming Life of Shirley Burlingame

By Patricia Poirier | April 06, 2020, 1:07 p.m. (ET)

In the 1970’s Garden City Parks and Recreation (GCPR) in Garden City, Michigan was home to one of the best synchronized teams in the country, because of an innovative coach named Shirley Burlingame. The team was started in 1958 by Lois McDonald. Lois was interested in keeping women and girls active through her favorite sport, swimming. She thought many would like to learn synchronized swim, so through teaching some of these skills, the girls could put on a show for friends and family. In the early 60’s, Shirley Burlingame was teaching swim lessons at GCPR. Lois and Shirley challenged the parents of these girls to also learn synchronized skills along with their daughters. In 1966, Lois left to teach at Livonia Stevenson, so Shirley Burlingame took the helm. She not only wanted to put on a show, but she wanted the girls to compete. The team of 20 girls grew into a team of over 100 girls in just 5 years. Burlingame’s athletes not only competed, but won various Invitational, Regional, State Championships, Junior Olympic National Championships and Junior Nationals and placed in the top ten in Senior National Championships and Pan Pacific Championships.

Shirley was a demanding coach expecting athletes to be at all practices, and to work toward perfection. She pushed the swimmers to develop new skills, and to practice the required figures often. Her team is credited as the first to do any kind of lifts in a routine, which is the highlight of routines now. She allowed the girls to work together to write their own choreography, then she would challenge them to incorporate more difficulty by being underwater longer, doing more spins and trying to be higher in the water.

A few of Shirley’s swimmers have continued to judge and eight continue to swim at the Master’s level. These swimmers have gone on to win many Master’s National events and World Master’s Championships at Stanford and in Munich, Germany. Her daughter, Sharon Burlingame coached synchronized swim and judge in New Hampshire and Tennessee and she has continued to compete nationally along with her daughter CJ.

On February 10, 2020, Shirley died in Fort Lauderdale at the age of 87. Upon learning of her death many of her former swimmers commented on the impact she had on their lives;

“She pushed us to work hard, to work as a team, aspire to be the best you can be, so strict with us, but also made it fun. She was a strong influence on my life” Mary Podizikowski.

“She shaped my character, my work ethic and impacted my life in so many ways, Penny Hershey Immel”. Shirley, you are why I am, Jackie Sieh Gordon., “She was a second mom to me, she gave me confidence that carried over into my life”, Rhonda Shnerpunas.

Shirley not only coached synchronized swimming, but she was also a state, regional and national ranked judge. Professionally, Shirley was a home health care nurse most of her life, she was also active with the Fort Lauderdale VFW ladies Auxillary Post 1966. Shirley had 5 children Richard (deceased), Sharon, Robert, Douglas and Donna.


Written by: Patricia Poirier former swimmer for GCPR and part of Michigan Synchro Masters