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Lifetime Swimmer Wins Medals at Senior Olympics

Minna Hamner, 89, was an honorary Olympian for her native Denmark in 1944, the year the Olympic summer games were cancelled due to World War II.

At 89, Minna Hamner could bring someone half her age to shame with her rigorous four-day-a-week workout.

“I fell and broke my hip a few years ago and I have to stay in shape,” Hamner, of Fairfax Station, said in a recent interview with Patch. “I always said I don’t want to be a couch potato.”

A lifelong competitive swimmer, Hamner won her most recent medals at the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics held in Richmond last month. Hamner earned four silver medals and one bronze medal in her age group.

Her daughter, Linda Cunningham, 53, also competed and brought home four gold medals in breaststroke, freestyle, and individual medley events.

It was the second turn at the Olympics for Hamner. In 1944, Hamner was an honorary Olympian for Denmark, the year that the summer games were canceled due to World War II. She had spent her childhood summers racing in the fjords of Denmark, winning several local and national races.

“I always loved to swim,” Hamner said.

Hamner made her own mark in history. At 17 years old, Hamner lived in German-occupied Denmark with her family, and her brother was involved in the Danish underground Nazi resistance. He asked her to help deliver pamphlets about the movement right under the noses of the Nazis.

“My brother said ‘I need you,'” Hamner said. “I said I was scared and I didn’t want to do it. But he looked at me and said ‘It’s time for you to grow up.’… I walked by the German guard as if I owned the place.”

Each year, Hamner recalls those days and her involvement when she speaks to students at World War II Day at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, along with other survivors from that generation. She will be speaking at the school this week.

After the war, she would later meet her husband, who worked for the U.S. Navy. They moved together to Turkey in the 1950s, where he was stationed. She learned seven languages and worked as a translator for American intelligence.

She didn’t have access to a swimming pool in Turkey, but would occasionally get a chance to swim on vacation when visiting neighboring lakes and seas, which she generally avoided.

“There were octopuses in the water,” Hamner said.

She, her husband, and children would frequently move from place to place, based on her husband and her own assignments. In 1962, when living in California, she once challenged a team of Navy SEALs swimming at her husband’s base to a swimming match.

“They had said no exceptions would be made,” Hamner said. “And I beat them all.”

The family eventually settled in Falls Church in Fairfax County. Hamner started as a swim coach and continued for 18 years with the Hampton Chase Recreation Association's Chase Club Sharks Swim Team. She now coaches young swimmers informally at the Burke Racquet & Swim Club where she trains.

“She was always a favorite of the parents,” said Pete Morgan, general manager for the Burke club and head coach of Curl-Burke Swim Club.

“She is an inspiration to anyone who she meets,” Morgan said. “She also has this great competitive side to her. It’s very cool.”

You can say that competitive side runs in the family. Her children were all athletes, with daughter Linda learning how to swim at age 3.  

“It has always been in our blood,” Cunningham said. “So it’s natural I would start swimming at an early age.”

Cunningham earned Northern Virginia Athlete of the Year as a springboard diver for W.T. Woodson High School in Annandale, where she graduated in 1976.

Both Cunningham and Hamner competed sporatically over the years, but when Hamner told her daughter about the senior games, she jumped at the opportunity. It had been years since Cunningham, who owns a regional company providing services to medical practices, had competed in swimming.

“Competitive swimming is like riding a bike, you never lose your strokes or your ability to swim well, it’s a matter of conditioning,” Cunningham said.

The next project, the family said, is teaching the great-grandchildren, ages 5 and 2, how to swim.

“She’s a great coach,” Cunningham said. “She taught me. It has bonded us in a way that is hard to describe.”

Her mother prepared herself for the meet as well.

“I made myself a program and said ‘Even if you are tired, you have to do it today,’” Hamner said. At one point, she recalled leaving the pool early, before the end of her workout routine. “I turned around and I did what I was supposed to do. You can’t live with yourself if you don’t do it.”

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