A Mother’s Day Tribute

Courtesy: Mike Tierney

At the tail end of a half-century chronicling sports for this newspaper and others, I’ve been occasionally asked to identify a favorite or most admired athlete during my career.

My responses — Jordan? Phelps? Joyner-Kersee? — have amounted to a fib, designed to avoid puzzled looks or, worse, mild ridicule. The easy way out, I’d reckon, is naming a peerless Hall of Famer or medals-amassing Olympian.

You see, my G.O.A.T. never partook in organized sports, so far as I know, other than in a Masters program.

She was, in a sense, cursed at her first drawn breath — reared in an era when structured sports was exclusively a male domain. The closest a girl could get to a field or court at school those days was by waving a pom-pom while in a cheerleader’s outfit.

Later, in adulthood, organized options were available to her on a recreational level. But she was too busy birthing babies — eight of ‘em — to make a commitment. Instead, she settled for pouring energy into enhancing her children’s sporting lives.

As a result, this woman’s sports career probably could be summed up in a single tweet.

There were infrequent rounds of golf, likely less than once a year, in which she flirted with a sub-par score.

There was a rare vacation to a south Florida beach, when she rented a surfboard with the intent of tackling waves for the first time. She might have been 40, give or take. As the story goes, she passed by a few surfers — younger, male — nursing broken bones and other ailments, at which time her husband proposed a safer adventure.

The lone robust sports activity was swimming. As her offspring, one after the other, joined the swim club team, she began piling up laps on her own around their practice periods. That led to U.S. Masters Swimming meets and a job at another facility as pool director.

The devotion to swimming did not cancel out those irreplaceable decades excluded from sports simply because she was the wrong gender. But it surely scratched an itch that had pestered her. She looked forward to making up for lost time with as much pool time as her jammed parenting calendar would allow.

The headaches and balance issues began in her late 40s. Surgery was scheduled. The doctors took one look at her brain and changed course. They spotted the tumor. Inoperable.

Given a maximum of one year left on earth, she did what no other athlete I’m aware of has done — resuming her sport’s activities with the same enthusiasm as before.

Not even paralysis could deter her. With one side of her body, including an arm and a leg, all but dead weight being dragged along, she checked off lap after lap at what must have been a painstakingly slow pace.

Club members would gaze from the pool deck and marvel at her persistence. One day, while visiting from out of town, I stood among them, jaw dropped to chest level.

I’ve witnessed almost every sport across the spectrum — from numerous Olympics, Super Bowls and World Series to college and high school championships. Felt awestruck by the most recognized athletes of our era.

Yet I’ve never seen anything more remarkable than this woman, mere weeks before death that she knew was coming, display such willpower while struggling mightily just to go back and forth in a pool.

Her name was Mary “Churney” Mullin Tierney. She was my mom.

Mike and Mary, circa 1960.


Career journalist Mike Tierney is a proud alum of the Lakeside Swim Club team in Louisville, Ky. Most of his seven siblings went on to bigger and better things in the pool, notably two who are now prominent college coaches. Tierney has served as an editor and writer for the St. Petersburg Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and CBS Sportsline. He resides in Sherman Oaks, Ca., where he cheers on the JV basketball players whom he coaches and the racehorses whom he partly owns. 

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20 days ago

A Mother’s Day tribute:

Dana “Momma on a Misson” Vollmer’s butterfly leg in the women’s 4 x 100 meter medley relay at the 2016 Summer Olympics.