Roy Saari Passes Away
January 3, 2009 Roy Saari, a USC swimmer whose unusual kicking style propelled him to swim the first sub-17-minute 1,500-meter freestyle race and later win a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics, has died. He was 63.
Saari collapsed and died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at his Mammoth Lakes home, said his daughter, Joani Lynch.
On Friday, Peter Daland, Saari's coach at USC, called him "the greatest swimmer of his time."
Saari -- pronounced "sorry" -- was only the second swimmer to win nine NCAA individual championships, making his mark between 1964 and 1966. His four world records included breaking the 17-minute barrier in the 1,500-meter freestyle with a time of 16:58.7 at the 1964 U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
At the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Saari won a gold medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and a silver in the 400-meter individual medley. He finished seventh in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Olympics, partly because he was fighting a cold, Daland said.
The son of a swimming and water polo coach at El Segundo High, Saari was also a standout on the U.S. water polo team that qualified for the 1964 Games. Because a rule prohibited him from being on both teams, Saari competed as a swimmer.
The Saari name was still well-represented in water polo because his father, Urho, coached the Olympic team and his younger brother, Robert, played on it.
In 1964, Times columnist Sid Ziff called Saari "the latest world swimming sensation" while riffing on his curious kicking style -- a strong scissors kick combined with a glide.
"Saari uses one kick where orthodox swimmers use six flutter kicks to every double arm stroke," Ziff wrote. "From the waist up you think you're watching Johnny Weissmuller. From the hips down you wonder if someone didn't just throw him in the pool and tell him to do the best he can."
Saari's approach pioneered innovations in distance swimming, and elite swimmers eventually started using versions of his kick, Coach & Athletic Director magazine reported in 2003.
Roy Allen Saari was born Feb. 26, 1945, in Buffalo, N.Y., the middle of three children of Urho and Wanda Saari.
He grew up working out with swimmers at El Segundo High, where his father coached from 1941 into the 1970s. The city of El Segundo indoor public pool is named the Urho Saari Swim Stadium.
In 1959, Roy Saari captured the first of his 17 Amateur Athletic Union swimming titles when he won the long-distance swim.
USC won the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title each of the three years he swam on the team. He also was named an All-American each of his three seasons on the water polo team, the university said.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1967, Saari earned a law degree from Loyola Marymount University in 1973 and practiced law for several years in Orange County.
In 1978, he moved with his wife and two children from Huntington Harbor to Mammoth Lakes and turned to real estate development and construction. For 16 years, he was the planning commissioner for the town of Mammoth Lakes.
He was reserved yet an enthusiastic outdoorsman who strove to remain physically fit and was often seen walking and running a six-mile loop around Mammoth Lakes basin.
In addition to his daughter, Joani, Saari is survived by his wife of 41 years, Sheryl; his son, Jeff; his siblings, Carol and Robert; and four grandchildren.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Jan. 11 at the Mountainside Conference Center in the Main Lodge, 1 Minaret Road, Mammoth Lakes.