A shiny, gold, circular object laid resting in the living room of Army West Point men’s swimmer Sean Paul Stolarski’s grandmother’s house.
It was on display for everyone to see.
As a young child it fascinated Stolarski. Countless moments were spent spinning it and watching it twirl back and forth, while his family conversed around him. To him, that was just background noise though as his eyes and mind were so concentrated on the sparkling object.
“It was a toy for us for a while,” Stolarski mentioned.
It remained that way until he turned seven. It was around that age when he realized what exactly was sitting on display in his grandmother’s living room. It carried a lot more meaning than just being a simple toy.
“I was really young when I first understood what it was,” he added.
That object was a gold medal from the 1948 Olympics and it belonged to his grandmother, Marie Corridon Mortell.
Corridon Mortell was a member of the U.S. Olympic swim team that competed in the 1948 Olympic Games in London. She, like her five daughters, was a swimmer.
“It’s really incredible,” Stolarski said. “Now we look at the Olympics and see the top men and women putting up crazy times.”
What was even more stunning to Stolarski was that his grandma did all this at the young age of 18, the same age he is right now in his first year at the U.S. Military Academy.
In her prime, Corridon Mortell was recognized as one of the top swimmers in the United States. She broke the one-minute mark in the 100-meter freestyle, posting a time of 59.9 seconds, making her the first woman in U.S. history to accomplish the feat.
“It’s hard to comprehend that she was the best in the world at one time,” Stolarski added. “To know that back in the day my grandma was at the top of that competition is something that is just mind-blowing.”
The success continued for Corridon Mortell as she was just one of 38 females chosen to represent the U.S. at the 1948 Games. It was the first taste of the Olympics for the world in 12 years as the global sporting spectacle was cancelled due to World War II.
The war had recently ended, but it was definitely not forgotten.
“I remember my mother telling me about all the rubble that was over there,” Stolarski’s mother, Sheila Stolarksi, said. “She explained the moment during the opening ceremony when she and the other members of the U.S. team walked into the stadium to a rousing applause.”
Getting to that point was an even more memorable event during Corridan Mortell’s lifetime as Stolarski recalled one of the stories his grandmother used to tell him when he was younger.
“It was around the time the war ended and the men’s team had flown over to London,” Stolarski stated. “But the women had to take a boat over, and she had to train in a small pool while traveling. She always told me that it was one of the worst experiences of her life.”
While on the ship “The America”, which departed from New York, the women swimmers were attached to a harness. During that time, Corridon Mortell developed an injury on her arm, which forced her to miss out on the 100 freestyle at the Olympics.
Fortunately for her though, she had time and was able to heal before she and three of her teammates took gold in the 400-meter freestyle relay after setting an Olympic record with a time of 4:29.2, beating out Denmark by four-tenths of a second.
When she returned from London to her hometown of Norwalk, Conn., she was greeted by an enormous crowd of people. A parade was thrown in her honor as well to celebrate her stunning achievement.
“It was a really big deal,” Sheila Stolarski said. “There has not been another gold medalist to come out of Norwalk since. It just didn’t happen every day and it’s still held in high regards.”
The town has remembered Corridon Mortell’s achievement to this day as a local eight-and-under club swim team holds a meet every year in her honor. Sheila Stolarski and her sister attend the meet on a yearly basis and take the medal with them to show to the children.
“I really like to help tell her story,” Sheila Stolarski stated. “I like to let the children know that they too can be gold medalists. I think it’s powerful and meaningful for young athletes to strive for.”
That was something that she instilled in all four of her sons, including Sean Paul.
With all the success and accolades that his grandmother accomplished, it was no surprise that Stolarski ended up in the pool as well.
“I would definitely say that she had an impact on me starting my swimming career,” Stolarski said.
What’s even more impressive is that all five of Corridon Mortell’s daughters, including Sheila, went on to swim at the Division I level. She was an All-American and a team captain at the University of Arizona during the 1983-84 season.
Stolarski followed that same path and found himself on the Army swim team in August of this year.
“I am thankful to be here and glad that coach Mickey Wender gave me an opportunity,” Stolarski said. “My team is my family and they’ve made the adjustment for me really easy.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to serve in the military after hearing my grandparent’s story,” he added.
He is referring to his two grandfathers, who were both in the U.S. Navy. Memorabilia was always present for Stolarski when he was growing up as he would see the rifles, swords and two Purple Hearts that his father’s grandfather was given when he served in the U.S. Army, Company-H, 307th infantry.
Memorabilia continues to be showcased by the Stolarski family to this day. Despite Corridon Mortell passing away on May 26, 2010, her legacy lives on as her family holds her gold medal and her countless stories with them.
“It’s definitely humbling for our family because people come over, see the medal, and we have a bunch of stories to tell them,” Stolarski said.
Stolarki’s path has just started, but one thing is for certain. He will always be able to tell the remarkable stories of his grandmother.