From her earliest splashes in the Russian River as a 3-year-old, swimming was life for Marion Kane Elston, the larger-than-life proprietor of Santa Rosa’s landmark Oak Park pool and tennis club and a globally respected pioneer and advocate of the artistic sport of synchronized swimming. Elston, a strictly demanding and fiercely loyal coach who made champions of generations of girls and women and contributed to the acceptance of synchronized swimming as an Olympic event, died Monday at age 81.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am today without her,” said former competitor Mia Konjikusic, 22. She began training with Elston at age 6, won a national championship under her and just months ago earned a degree in molecular and cell biology from UC Berkeley.
“She was an old-fashioned coach,” said Konjikusic, a graduate of Sebastopol’s Analy High who considered Elston a bonus grandmother as well as a coach.
“She was very tough. But she had a love for every one of her swimmers. She taught us how to never give up on what you set your mind to.”
Elston taught swimming for 68 years, starting when she was training as a 13-year-old and instructing even younger swimmers. She was going strong until she collapsed at her home Monday morning while she prepared to walk to the nearby Oak Park pool to meet with the adults in a masters synchronized swimming class. Her family said the cause of death is unknown. Elston was hospitalized several years ago with coronary emboli. She and her first husband, Donald Kane, came to Santa Rosa with their four children in 1973. Elston had lived prior to that in her native San Francisco, where she trained from a young age as a speed swimmer, captured a national championship and at 19 set a speed record for swimming across the Golden Gate. As a standout on the Crystal Plunge swim team, she made it to the qualifying finals of the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki.
In 1956, while working in San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department, she founded the Merionettes Synchronized Swim Team. It became the first team in the nation to amass 14 consecutive national titles. After the Kane family moved to Santa Rosa and Marion Kane purchased the Oak Park club, she opened the Marion L. Kane International Synchro School. She taught those girls who were ready for a serious commitment the surprisingly demanding, music-accompanied sport that combines ballet, gymnastics and swimming. Students and parents of students praise her as a unique, extraordinary person utterly committed to the sport and to her swimmers, some of whom remained with her for decades.
Sharon Lawson Mills competed with the Merionettes in the 1960s and at the time of Marion Elston’s death swam in one of her masters classes. She said of her coach: “She was an artist whose inspiration was music and whose canvas was water. The ideas and choreography were the brushes and we, as the swimmers, were the paint that brought it all together.” Mills added, “There was nobody better, and there is still nobody better at choreography than Marion.”
Nicole Chicoine, 22, is a Santa Rosa High alumna who joined a beginners team at Oak Park at age 12 and went on to compete in the sport at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She said that to swim with Elston was one of the greatest honors of her life.
“She was really an interesting woman,” Chicoine said of Elston. “A wonderful woman. A tough cookie. She always pushed you to do your best.”
Karen Ingalls is convinced that both of her now-grown daughters, Julia and Tyra, benefited in myriad and profound ways from their association with the coach.
“She encouraged self-discipline, teamwork. And she certainly taught them respect for authority,” Ingalls said.
“She was one of the most dedicated, tenacious, competitive people I’ve ever met.”
Eighteen-year-old Halle Arnold, a recent graduate of Sonoma Academy, is about to leave Sonoma County for college after having been taught and challenged by Elston for 12 years. She said, “I learned a lot of things from her, not just about synchro. I would say she inspired me more than anyone else in my life.”
Erika Lockwood watched in awe as Elston coached her three granddaughters. “She’s super tough but she gave them 100 percent of her attention, and she expected 100 percent of theirs,” Lockwood said. “She loved them and she demanded their respect, which you don’t get a lot of anymore.”
Lockwood was astounded also by Elston’s ability to choreograph a complex synchronized-swimming routine in her head and to direct the swimmers precisely, down to the beat, without notes.
“I’ve never met anyone like her,” Lockwood said. Her death, she said, “is a huge, huge loss for Oak Park, for her family, for the team, for synchronized swimming in general.”
Born in San Francisco to Ed and Ethyl Olson, the former Marion Olson fell in love with the water and with swimming on the Russian River near Guerneville. “That’s where it all started,” she said in a July 2014 interview with The Press Democrat. “When I was very young, my family would spend our summers at Odd Fellows Park. My sister and I would get in the water on the first day and swim the entire summer.”
Following her successes as a swimmer with the Crystal Plunge swim team and as founding coach of the Merionettes, it was only natural for her to move to Rincon Valley and, with the help of her parents, purchase the Oak Park club. “I’ve always felt at home in Sonoma County,” she said in the 2014 interview. “I feel like I’m a native.”
She had been living and coaching in Santa Rosa for several years when she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1981. The induction citation called her “one of the most successful coaches in any sport” and credited her with doing more than anyone else in synchronized swimming “to create the quality and class that gave her sport the world recognition that led to World Championships and Olympic acceptance.”
With Elston suddenly gone, it’s not clear what will become of the synchro coaching and instruction at Oak Park. “We are kind of scrambling right now, trying to figure it out,” said daughter Sherrie Kane of Santa Rosa. For the moment, more experienced swimmers are pitching in to teach those newer to the sport.
Elston and her first husband divorced after 20 years of marriage. The former Marion Kane met Jay Elston, an airline pilot, at a Sonoma County meeting of Parents Without Partners. They had been married 22 years when Jay Elston died in 1997. Sherrie Kane said everyone in the Oak Park family is in shock to have the force of nature at the helm suddenly gone. A memorial service is planned for late September or early October.
Elston’s other survivors include daughters Kari Phillips and Lynn Nacey of Santa Rosa, son Kenny Kane of Los Angeles, sister Doris Curry of Salem, Ore., six stepchildren, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.