Katz has incorporated water and swimming into every aspect of her life and, at 68, she is still a formidable athlete and advocate for the sport. So far, she has won 34 All-American U.S. Masters Swimming titles and was a member of the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Performance Team at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. And while still active in competitions, she is also a celebrated educator and coach; earlier this year, Katz was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame for her achievements as both an athlete and a mentor.
Her passion for all things aquatic began in 1945 at a public pool on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Katz’s father taught her how to swim at the tender age of 2, and she raced in her first swim meet with a neighborhood team five years later. As a sophomore at the City College of New York in Harlem, she was selected to be a member of the U.S. team competing at the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1961. “I hadn’t taken many trips and had never been on a team of that magnitude,” Katz recalls. “It was a kind of culture shock.”
But Katz adapted quickly and went on to win the 100-meter butterfly race for the American team. Upon returning to the United States, she soon discovered a relatively unknown sport called synchronized swimming and helped create its first team at City College. She was attracted to the artistic and musical components of this form of swimming, and she proved to be a natural—earning the title of U.S. Masters Synchronized Swimming National Solo Champion for 14 years (1974-87). Early on she often had to explain what synchronized swimming was to others, and remembers a spoof done on the sport for Saturday Night Live in 1984, when it was first recognized as an official Olympic event. “It was hysterical,” she admits. “But while it looks easy, you’re working very hard. You have to look graceful, but you’re nearly drowning.”
Katz’s talents in the water have always extended to teaching; even as a child she helped her father to instruct kids in the city’s public schools. She completed her master’s in education administration at NYU while teaching swimming full time at Bronx Community College. Since 1989, she has been a professor of health and physical education at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she teaches aquatic fitness and swimming to New York City policemen and firefighters. She also teaches water therapy courses to the elderly and to NYU physical therapy students, and helped create the Kids Aquatic Re-Entry (KARE) program with the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice to share the benefits of swimming with troubled youth. “It builds confidence, and they make friends and socialize in a way they might not normally,” Katz explains. “The water is democratic. It works for everyone and it is the great equalizer.”
For Katz, the water can also console and comfort. “When my husband passed away, that was the only place where I had relief—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually,” she says. It’s that unwavering belief in the restorative power of water that drives her to share her passion with as many people as possible. “When a person floats for the first time, it’s priceless,” she explains. “They shriek with joy and they’re so excited, the smile just envelops their face. They hug and kiss you…or they take your next class.”