Q&A With Hall of Famer Dawn Bean

Oct. 11, 2017, 12 p.m. (ET)
Dawn Pawson Bean has been involved in synchronized swimming for the past 77 years.


Dawn Pawson Bean has been hooked on synchronized swimming ever since discovering the Billy Rose Aquacade as a 13-year-old at the 1940 World’s Fair in San Francisco. Fascinated by the 60 performers swimming in unison, Bean went back to watch the show five more times and soon told her family: “This is what I want to do.”

Bean spent the next 77 years involved in the sport as an athlete, coach, teacher, administrator, official, judge, writer, publisher and editor. Among her numerous synchro accomplishments, she:

  • Won gold at the first FINA international competition in synchro
  • Founded the Riverside Aquettes and Meraquas of Irvine
  • Started an international synchro magazine
  • Represented the sport on the USOC Executive Board
  • Was the competition director at the 1984 Olympic Games, where synchro made its Olympic debut
  • Was a FINA judge for two decades
  • Was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Bean, now 90, is not slowing down: She is currently helping her daughter Lea on an archive project detailing the history of synchronized swimming. Bean was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about her incredible career.

Dawn Bean celebrated her 90th birthday this past May.

You’ve been involved in synchronized swimming for more than 75 years. What have been some of your favorite moments in the sport?

There is just too much – funny, heroic, monumental, historic – too much. It is difficult to single out particular things. So many years, so many wonderful people, friends all over the world with similar thoughts about the sport. We all love seeing progress in athletes, the numbers involved increasing throughout the world, new ideas, always considering ways to make things better. If I had to single out any one thing, it would have to be the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where synchro was the second sport to sell out – 1,000 additional seats were added and those were sold immediately. The wonderful reaction of the fans to that first Olympics, the pride and joy we all felt collectively when Candy (Costie) and Tracie (Ruiz) represented us so admirably, and the happiness that it all went well.

When and where were you born?

I was born May 28, 1927, in New York City. My father had been raised in New York and my parents met while both worked for Con-Edison Co. After I was born, my father decided that New York was no place to raise a child (perhaps toting a heavy baby buggy up to a fifth-floor walkup might have had something to do with it), and they bought a 1927 Ford and drove across the country with me when I was 3 months old. I've been in California now for 90 years. I married Ross (Bean) in 1949 and we moved to Riverside after he got his Ph.D. and was an assistant professor there. After eight years in Riverside, we moved to the Tustin area (45 miles from Riverside) where he was employed to do research for Ford Aeronutronics (later Ford Aerospace) under a lot of government contracts.

Tell me about discovering the sport. At your hall of fame induction you said you fell in love with synchro at the 1940 World’s Fair.

I was 13 when my family went to the 1940 World’s Fair in San Francisco. We saw the Billy Rose Aquacade. While I found Esther Williams gorgeous, it was the big group actions that fascinated me. It was 60 swimmers, all swimming strokes in unison in lines of six to eight that changed patterns from big to small, beautiful floating actions. It was the group action that I enjoyed most. Every time anyone from the family went to the Fair, I went along. I actually saw the Aquacade six times. I told my parents, that is what I want to do, and my father found the San Francisco (Fairmont Hotel) Water Follies. I didn’t know that it was one of the few water ballet groups in the country.

Phil Patterson, manager of the Fairmont Hotel, was the AAU Swimming and Diving chairman. He coached national champion divers who were often invited to demonstrate at various events. He needed something beyond divers for a water show, and it is my understanding that he started the ballet group in 1937, but I have no documentation on that. I only know that I tried out in 1941 and was accepted for the eight-girl water ballet team that had lost most of its previous swimmers and who were now employed by the World’s Fair Aquacade.

What are some of your highlights as a competitive swimmer?

After Patterson went into the service and the Fairmont Hotel pool area was taken over for a military hospital during World War II, I had no option to keep swimming other than speed swimming. Winning a silver medal in a Junior National Relay was a highlight.

A favorite memory of speed swimming was the 1945 national championships where Esther Williams awarded the medals. I can still picture how beautiful she looked in a yellow dress with big black polka dots. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat.

Other highlights had more to do with the fun of being on a speed team, with boys, and where we had lots of parties – maybe one a month.

There is nothing to top the feeling of winning the first FINA international competition in synchro, the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico City. Watching the flag be raised while the national anthem is being played brings a sense of pride that can’t be matched.

How did you get into coaching? What were some your top accomplishments as a coach?

I didn’t really choose to get into coaching. I loved being on the water ballet team and was happy when my coach, Phil Patterson, returned from war service in 1945 and became the manager of the Athens Athletic Club in Oakland, where again national champion divers came to the Athens Club to dive under him, including Zoe Ann Olson (diving medalist at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics). Phil started another water ballet team, and I was the only one from his San Francisco team to join the new team. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1946, and as the oldest, age 20, and most experienced of the group, I became coach as well as swimmer. Zoe Ann’s mother (Norma) arranged the water shows. We knew nothing of competitive synchro until we got an invitation to a Junior National competition to be held in Long Beach in 1951. 

I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949 and earned a teaching credential the next year. At that time, teachers were considered professionals and ineligible for AAU competition. But, in 1952, the AAU ruled that teachers who didn’t teach in their sport would be allowed to compete as amateurs. My first synchro nationals was in 1952.

Probably my biggest accomplishments as a coach were seeing every team I’ve worked with not only succeed in winning medals, but in developing enough swimmers to where I felt every team could win a medal. This meant not just developing the talented swimmers for the usual A & B team type system, but developing all the swimmers to have an appropriate place to succeed on a team.

For age group swimming, I had eight-girl teams in single-year groups: 9s-10s-11s-12s-13s-14s and 15-17. Additional swimmers often made third teams in the normal age divisions. A really special time was when the 13s beat the 14s.

For Junior/Senior events, teams were divided by skill levels A/B/C. I feel my biggest accomplishment was coaching teams that were successful in reaching senior national finals (top 7 then) for 22 straight years. In 1966, I had two teams in senior national finals, but with limited pool time, the main goal was to do well in Junior Nationals where the swimmers I coached won two solos, five duets, one trio and five teams during that time.  

For Masters, my goal was pretty much the same, to develop swimmers where they could all win a medal. I reached this goal by the 2011 nationals where I had a team in 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s with two teams in the 50-59s. We won gold in four age groups, plus a bronze.

You coached with your husband, Ross. What was it like coaching with him? Did he make the noseclips that synchro swimmers use?

Dawn and Ross photographed at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949. 

More accurately, my husband coached with me. We began dating while he was a senior and I was a freshman at Cal. He captained both the swim team and water polo teams at Cal and was named to the mythical Olympic team of 1944 because of his placing 2nd or 3rd for three years in the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle events. After graduating in 1946, and with a full-time job and no place to train except a 20-yard YMCA pool, he felt his times wouldn’t make the 1948 Olympics so he gave up that dream. We married when I graduated in 1949. With one car between us, I took the bus to Oakland to swim and coach the Athens team. He came after work to pick me up.

With his swim background and analytical mind (master’s/Ph.D.), he observed what we were doing and my coaching. He developed training workouts for us, and fairly soon I was asking him, “Was I straight (vertical)?” or some such. Soon, it became “Ross, watch me and my sister do …,” then “Ross, watch me and the team…” By 1954, he became the coach of the Athens A team (on which I swam) and I coached the B team and the newcomers. We worked together quite well as our major strengths and interests in the sport covered all its aspects. He was the technician whereas my interest was in the creative aspect.

As to the noseclips, we only knew of the drug-store, ugly U-shaped ones when I swam. Even by the Pan Am Games of 1955, we weren’t using anything for practice. For competitions, we used adhesive tape upon which we put makeup. It wasn’t very satisfactory and we’d have raw noses and scabs by the end of a five-day meet. In the late 50s, Laxto (in England) began making the wire nose clips. They had a thin wire which rusted and broke often. In the late 70s, Ross experimented with different types of wire, rubber tubing, plastic molds, etc., with my daughter Lea being the guinea pig on which the various versions were tested. With a friend who made jewelry, they went into business. They called their version, “Swim Clip” and his partner eventually sold the business to Speedo. Ross had only been the designer, his friend the financial backer.

Most people don’t know any more that Ross was the one who really saved synchro from being part of aquatic arts. Ross (he chaired rules) and Norma Olsen (national chairman) rewrote the synchro rules on my kitchen breakfast table. Although a competitor, I was already a school teacher, and so I was part of the discussion and rewriting. Ross' rules emphasized the sport aspect whereas the Gundlings’ (Beulah and Henry) rules emphasized the artistic aspect. When the sport rules won out, almost half the convention delegates walked out and formed the Aquatic Arts Organization. 

How did you come to establish the Riverside Aquettes and Meraquas of Irvine? What were some of your top accomplishments from leading those teams?

The Riverside Aquettes – 1958-1966

I was a bored housewife with a 1-year-old child in a new area 450 miles distant from everyone I knew – relatives, friends, swimmers, etc. There were only three pools in Riverside at that time, one at the famous Mission Inn Hotel, another at the Junior College that was not available except to their students. The only other pool was a four-lane, 20-yard indoor pool at the Riverside YWCA. I met the director of the Riverside Y and she was agreeable to my use of the pool for a synchro swimming class three days a week (one and a half hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, two hours on Saturdays.)  

After two years of walking around pushing a baby stroller and doing things like women’s clubs, faculty wives club, etc. I started the Riverside Aquettes team. Pam Albin Edwards and Carol Stumpf Tackett came to the tryouts and were members of the first team to swim as Aquettes in competitions. Nancy Mathews Wightman swam watershows with us while a student at UC Riverside, where I taught synchro for PE classes two days a week and where Ross was a biochemistry professor.

Highlights for that team included winning a junior national duet and team. The use of a comedy theme was perhaps a first, and the “Keystone Kops” team routine caused a lot of discussion because of its use of comedy for its routine choreography. The Aquettes won Junior Nationals and earned medals in Senior Nationals for the next four years 

Meraquas of Tustin, Meraquas of Irvine – 1964-1984

In 1963 Ross took a new position with Ford Aerospace, 50 miles from Riverside in Newport Beach. For three years, I commuted to coach in Riverside three days a week while starting a new team in Tustin, where we now lived. Our oldest was now 8 and wanted to swim. With two kids in the car, thinking of driving an hour each way to allow Kevis to swim (on the age group practice days) and for me to continue coaching the other three days, was just too much. I reluctantly left the Aquettes and focused on building the new team, the Tustin Meraquas.

A highlight of that time was at the 1966 nationals in Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento. Both teams went together by bus. The Aquette A & B teams both made team finals, and the C & D teams swam in the preliminaries. The new Tustin team also competed in the preliminaries. I may have been the only coach to have competitors from two different clubs enter Senior Nationals, without either being a collegiate team.

Again, I worked to build teams where each swimmer could succeed. At one time, the Meraquas had 91 swimmers with a Saturday waiting list class. The Meraquas were successful in winning all the Southern California titles for many years and also winning nine Junior National championships (two solos, two duets, one trio and four teams). Like the Aquettes, they continued to place in the Senior National finals for the next 18 years.

You started publishing Synchro-Info in 1963. Did you have a background in writing? Why did you start it and what kind of stories did you have in it? How did you pay for it?

I had no background in writing other than one year of high school journalism and knew nothing about publishing. The idea of a newsletter began after a really long board of directors meeting, which at that time was open only to members of the board. I remember sitting on a hallway floor with Kay Vilen, outside the room where the board was meeting, waiting for them to come out to ask what the rule changes were, what had been passed. Observers were not allowed, and we wanted to know then what had been decided instead of having to wait for the information to filter down through the AAU channels. At the next convention, I made a proposal to the board, where I would print a newsletter available at cost to anyone who wanted to get it. They gave me permission with the stipulation that I would never ask for any funding from them, and I never did.

The magazine used only funds sent by subscribers with no payments for anything other than supplies and equipment. No salaries were ever paid to anyone. I considered it a success if I came out fairly even. I bought a mimeograph machine and typed and printed the issues beginning with just 16-20 mimeographed pages. Years later, photo pages were added and, by 1970, it went to a printing company. Top coaches sent articles to help in teaching and developing. Actions of the board of directors and conventions were covered extensively and our ‘synchro family’ accepted honorary positions to become regional editors and sent news and results from their areas. Interest grew and after 30 years what started as an informational newsletter had grown to a full magazine, 72-78 pages, with photos, and all printed. I filled the back of my car with bags and bags and carted them to the post office, according to USPS postal 2nd class rules. Sent to 2,500 people in 67 different counties around the world, it was still aimed to help anyone who wanted to swim, coach, or judge, and to bring us all to the same level of understanding our sport and “How-to-do-it.”

One of the most popular features was Ross’ “How-to-do-it” figure articles. He would break down a figure by discussing each position and techniques for performance enhancement/teaching. He also included both above water and underwater photos for clarification of each position and technique. One time when I arrived in Egypt for a clinic, I was surprised to see many of Ross’ “How-to-do-it” articles taped to the wall of the pool for easy viewing by the swimmers and coaches. I always tried to provide results of all the major national and international meets and provide comments/discussion on new trends or developments in the sport.

You chaired many synchro committees and were on the USOC Executive Board. What are some of your memories from that time?

I chaired many synchro committees, but I was just the synchro representative on the USOC Executive Board.  I was elected by the USOC Executive Board to a special committee of 10 or so members to deal with “problems” in sports. The main thing I remember now is that George Steinbrenner was chair of the special committee I was on and we were dealing with the problems in wrestling.

Of the committees I chaired, some of the highlights included:

* The All-American Team had always been named as those who were first-place senior national solo, duet and team winners. In 1971, Synchro-Info Magazine chose an “All Star” team by using a point system to choose the same number of swimmers, but by including those who had placed highest in the various events. After a second year of “All Stars,” the synchro committee developed its own system of choosing All-Americans, which is still in use today.

The first Training Camps for Synchro were developed in 1977, when the USOC opened the first Olympic Training Center in Squaw Valley for use by sports programs. A ‘Top 10’ Clinic was held for the first time in 1978 and brought together coaches and athletes who had placed in the top ten at Senior Nationals for discussions on training programs for athletes, best methods for developing various figures, how clubs developed choreography, etc. There was frank and open sharing to help with the overall development of the sport.

The National Clinic Network began as a result of the ‘top 10’ program. It was to have the leaders develop the curriculum that would be used for each of the first four NCN clinics in various areas so more people could benefit by having the material now closer to them so they too could be included in all that was being shared at the clinics.

The idea of a National Team came after the USOC approved the National Sports Festival, which tried to promote all sports by choosing top athletes from each of four zones, putting them together on teams and having them compete after just one week. After the first Sports Festival in 1978, we felt the results were amazing and this might be the way to help all talented athletes be able to represent their country in international competitions rather than have club teams as our representatives. The quality level of the teams after just the one week was so high that we felt comfortable with recommending that we develop national teams for the athletes who would represent us in international competition.

Tell me a little bit about the synchro books you’ve written.

The only book I’ve actually written is “Synchronized Swimming, An American History.”

When I retired from doing the magazine, I had 30 years of history right at my fingertips, and since I began with the actual sport just five years after the first official AAU competition, I decided to document all the information that was in my head and in my house into a history book. My goal was to have it ready by the 1996 Olympics since the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) had announced they would publish some sports book. After several research trips where Lea accompanied me to early adopters of synchro, Chicago and Wisconsin, and to other sources of sports information in Florida, Colorado, and Los Angeles, I then had documentation on all I had learned by being in the sport for so long and felt I could then actually write a resource book. I was not finished by ’96, so the work went on. When I was ready, ISHOF had given up publishing. After searching some more, I had about given up on finding a publisher interested in producing the book and put everything away for a couple of years. My oldest daughter had seen what was on my computer and did more searching and found McFarland Co. in North Carolina, an educational publishing company, and they were interested. They published the book, but it took another one to two years of learning to gather all the Permission to Publish forms and to complete the end notes, bibliography, appendix and index.

I was a contributing editor for “Coaching Synchronized Swimming Effectively” by Kim Van Buskirk, and wrote the choreography “sequences” for Book 1.

I wrote the full chapter 6 in “Coaching Intermediate Synchronized Swimming Effectively.”

I was the author of the “Three Month Curriculum” for USSS, which consisted of lesson plans for coaches to use with the Coaching Synchronized Swimming Effectively series.

I have written numerous articles that have been published in magazines other than “Synchro” magazine, and I also have what looks like real books that were clinic materials for seminars that I gave around the world –England, Scotland, France, Spain, Brazil, Belgium, New Zealand, Egypt, Poland, Korea, and Holland.

You’ve been an international judge since 1971. How did you get into judging? How many Olympic Games have you judged? What is it like to be a judge – is it difficult?

Yes, judging is difficult. You have to keep in mind all the factors that are to be judged for each part of the score and evaluate the swimmer you are looking at as to how well she conforms to what is required for each score level. You have to keep in mind the scores you have already given and whether the current swimmer is better, the same or not up to the score levels already given. You cannot think about whether you like the music or the costume, etc. Those are not factors to be considered, but the time I saw a competitor swimming to “Ave Maria” wearing a scarlet red suit, it did have a negative impact on me. You can’t help but look favorably on a routine where the swimmer is really interpreting the music well and has ease and confidence in her performance.

Judging was always my least favorite part of synchro. I would have preferred to be just a coach, but judges have always been in short supply at local competitions and so those who are involved with the sport do study to become judges. They do it as part of their responsibility to their association to have swimmers judged correctly. I love to feel the music chosen and enjoy watching the choreography and how well the movements fit the particular feeling of the music, not just fit the beats.  

I’ve been an official at three Olympics: competition director in L.A., the USA judge in Seoul and a deck official in Atlanta. When FINA began categorizing judges, Judy McGowan and I were the only “A” judges, but when she became FINA’s synchro chairman, I was the only “A” judge for several years and judged all the major international championships – FINA Worlds, Pan American Games, Pan Pacific Championships, American Cup, FINA World Cup, French Open, Swiss Open, Italian Open, Moscow Open, and Scandinavian Open. I also have judged competitions in Egypt, Belgium, and Greece. I was a FINA judge for more than 20 years, until I “aged out.”

You were competition director at the 1984 Olympic Games, where synchro became an official Olympic sport. What are some of your memories from that time?

I keenly remember going up and down the freeway the 45 miles each way for monthly meetings that began three years before the Games and which became weekly in the four months before the Games and then daily the week before the Games began and daily thereafter. I have a really thick binder of copies of all that. Meetings began at 7:30 p.m. and were supposed to be finished by 10 p.m., but generally lasted longer. I put 23,000 miles on a new car in the six months before the Games.

I was most proud that synchro provided 93 volunteers who all gave two weeks of service to help the Games succeed. While they all wanted to be part of the volunteer group at the pool, many served in other areas. They accepted positions in various areas, different than synchro or their usual occupations. Jay Flood, Aquatic Coordinator, elevated two of them, Jim Schell and Bill Woollett into management positions directly under him. My daughter Lea was named coordinator of all the runners needed for the swimming venue – speed swimming, diving and synchro. 

After volunteers were selected and approved, smaller committees were needed to deal with all aspects required for a synchro competition. Most of those meetings were held by the various committee chairmen close to where they lived, in all parts of Southern California. I especially remember the first committee meeting of these managers was to be held at my home, but I wound up in the hospital with breast cancer surgery. The meeting was held on its scheduled date and time, but in the waiting room lobby of my 5th floor hospital room. 

You and your daughter Lea are working on a large historical archive project. What does that involve?

I am not really involved in what Lea is doing now on the history other than to answer questions and help her find things. She has already digitized the early history of synchro as published in “The Synchronized Swimmer” (Dick Dodson, editor 1950-54), “Synchro News” (Will Luick, editor 1956-58), “Synchro-Info/Synchro” (Dawn Bean, editor 1963-1992); “Synchro USA” (Judy McGowan, editor 1992-95); and is currently scanning various competition results, and other published materials. 

What was it like being honored for your many years of work to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame?

I felt it was a very great honor and was very surprised to have been selected. I enjoy going to the inductions every year. The biography films they do on each honoree are excellent. ISHOF serves a very important purpose in the swimming universe by being a repository for so much of swimming’s history.

You have served the sport of synchro for over 70 years. Why did you give back so much to this sport?

Synchro has been the focus of my life for 77 years. I have enjoyed every aspect of the sport and the lifelong friendships made with others who share my passion and interest. A year ago, I counted 11 former swimmers I had coached through the years who were also convention delegates and feel very proud that I’ve been able to interest so many in continuing to be part of the sport. I wanted the sport to grow so others could share the joy I have found through it. In a way, it is similar to the swimmers trying to figure out what they will do the next year for their routine – there’s always a new piece of music to be found and something new to develop. And for those who have continued in the sport, there is always something new to be learned, developed or revised.