Longtime local Tim Garton passes
EAGLE COUNTY — Tim Garton passed away in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early morning hours of April 25, succumbing to Myelodysplastic syndrome. His beloved wife and best friend, Mara, was by his side. He was 73.
As a husband, father, swimmer, outdoorsman, entrepreneur and scholar, Tim was known for his larger-than-life persona, his boundless love for family and friends, his determined, unflappable spirit and his dedication and willpower to overcome any obstacle that dared face him.
In his 73 years, Tim lived a robust, fruitful and accomplished life, all while establishing himself as one of the most talented swimmers to have ever lived.
Born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in 1942, Tim was the second of six Garton siblings — three brothers and two sisters. Tim’s lively childhood home included brotherly boxing matches and general sibling tomfoolery, which often elicited a stern yet pacifying “Achtung!” from their German-American mother. This energetic family environment would be the impetus to a long, successful career as a swimmer.
Tim wasted no time becoming acquainted with the water, learning to swim at only two-and-a-half years old. His early swim career was less about records and more about survival. To combat the fraternal hazing doled out by his older brother holding his head underwater, Tim sought refuge in his mother. She answered her son’s plea with a simple message: toughen up or learn how to out-swim your brother. This ultimatum precipitated Tim’s first workout routine.
Summers and muddy rivers
As the final bell of each school year rang, Tim and the entire Garton clan left Sheboygan to spend summers at Wisconsin’s quaint resort village, Elkhart Lake. Each morning, just as the sun spilled over the horizon, Tim was in the lake, counting the number of strokes as prescribed by his mother, who rowed alongside, marking his pace. From these humble beginnings of racing his siblings across muddy, Wisconsin rivers, rose one of the most dominant swimmers in the history of the sport. Soon climbing the ranks of his local Amateur Athletic Union, Tim’s natural feel for the water made him a raw yet burgeoning talent.
Tim would refine his skills and training regimen at the swimming and academic powerhouse of Yale University in 1960.
In his four years swimming for Yale’s elite team, Tim accrued several All-American honors, while competing alongside the most talented athletes the sport had to offer. Despite his collegiate successes, Tim narrowly missed a spot on the 1964 Olympic Team — a great disappointment. However, his foray into the world of competitive swimming had just begun.
Upon graduating Yale in 1964, Tim earned his masters degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin. Tim’s exceptional intelligence and worldly curiosity led to research positions at Bell Aerosystems, where he analyzed and improved the physics of lunar module landings, among other endeavors. An extremely capable engineer, Tim saw his professional life parallel his athletic life.
Much of Tim’s love for swimming was founded on his inherent sense of personal responsibility and self-determinism — values intrinsic to true champions of individual sports. Similarly, Tim sought individualism and freedom in his professional life. After a Schlitz-inspired epiphany while fishing in Wisconsin, Tim decided to relocate to Vail.
50 years in Vail
Upon reaching Vail, and each day to follow during his 50 years in Vail Valley, Tim was awestruck by the majestic terrain, the pristine waters, the abundant and diverse wildlife, and of course, the snow: expanses of heavenly powder — a pipe dream for New England and the upper Midwest skiers. Tim began work as a ski instructor, further deepening his love for Colorado’s beauty. Not long after, Tim launched what would become a successful career as a real estate developer.
In stark contrast to the town’s current reputation as a bustling resort destination, Vail at that time, was comprised of about 300 residents connected by one unpaved road. In Tim’s first 10 years in Vail, the city’s population grew by 400 percent.
Among his many ventures, Tim developed condos, duplexes and townhouses in East Vail, as well as the Vail Intermountain properties, where he constructed Vail’s first pool accommodating competitive swim training year-round.
In the 1990s, Tim created the Terrace community in Eagle. Following its success, he developed Cotton Ranch in Gypsum — a 415-acre mountain community showcasing a Pete Dye Signature golf course and, of course, Vail Valley’s best 25-meter pool.
Tim’s influence was hardly limited to real estate, as he also served as the chair of Vail’s Board of Recreation and the Cotton Ranch Metropolitan District.
Despite an active, real estate career, Tim’s passion for swimming never ceased. In 1972, Tim stumbled upon the results of the Masters National Swimming Championships. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Tim decided to train for the 1973 National Championships. It was at this competition that Tim broke his first national record. He would go on to shatter and set 144 United States Masters Swimming records in his career.
Aging ‘like fine wine’
As Tim’s aquatic renaissance flourished, his race times improved with age. In a post-race interview, Tim wryly ribbed his competition, “Some people age like fine wine,” he said, “others like a ripe banana.” By the time he reached his 40s, Tim was faster than most NCAA college swimmers.
In 1986, Tim competed in the first ever World Masters Championships in Tokyo, and over the next seven championships won 36 gold medals. Competing in the 40-44 age group, Tim amassed 20 gold medals and no less than six titles at each World Championship in nine events — 50-meter, 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter freestyle, 50-meter, 100-meter butterfly, 50-meter breaststroke, and 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley. In the process, Tim broke a staggering 39 World Records.
In 1991, Tim was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While facing adversity that would cause most men to break, Tim continued to break records. During chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he maintained his training. When his cancer was declared in remission, doctors credited his devotion to swimming as being largely responsible. When Tim started competing again at the World Championships later that year, his performance was astonishing. Tim won his 100th national and international victory by winning the 100-meter freestyle. His superhuman return from cancer patient to world champion earned him a standing ovation from his peers and spectators at the World Championship meet. Tim’s teammate and friend, Olympic gold medalist Steve Clark, encapsulated Tim’s spirit with a baseball metaphor, “after rounding the bases at full speed, he slid into home plate full of dirt and grime collected from having played the game to the very utmost.”
Though his love for swimming was undeniable, Tim would soon meet the true love of his life — Mara. Tim and Mara’s love for one another ignited nearly instantaneously. Mara, perhaps not coincidentally, was a Masters swimmer herself and practiced at the same pool as Tim. However, their practices never seemed to overlap. Mara swam at 6 a.m., while Tim swam at noon. While dropping off her daughter at the aquatic center for practice one day, Mara and Tim finally met. A smitten Mara nearly fainted, but instead settled slowly down to the pool deck only to be joined by Tim as she regained her composure. From then on, Mara started swimming at noon.
Tim married Mara in August of 1994, only a stone’s throw from the lake where he learned to swim. Tim already the proud father of three beautiful daughters, each possessing Tim’s innate charisma, welcomed Mara’s two daughters into the fold. Tim, Mara, and their five daughters formed a large, vibrant and loving family.
Mara and Tim’s energetic passion for one another would never wane. By all accounts they were lovers and also best friends. From the day they were married, Tim and Mara were inseparable, partaking in adventures all over the world, including spending considerable time together on their yacht M/Y Cotton Ranch. The two would soon be headed to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There, in 1997, Tim became one of the first Masters swimmers ever to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, solidifying his status among the all-time greats.
Those close to Tim knew that he was as impressive out of the water as he was in. He was handsome, brilliant and charming. Tim’s strong handshake, booming voice — unmistakably Wisconsin — and confident demeanor made him the life of many a social event. As intelligent as he was charming, his unmatched intellect paired nicely with a rum and Diet Coke. There was always an abundance of listeners when Tim spoke. Whether he detailed the heroic tales of fighting off sharks by hand, month-long hunting safaris on the African plains, scuba diving with his siblings, racing the world’s elite swimmers, or fondly recounting his adventures with Mara, Tim commanded an audience. With the fearless poise of an athlete, Tim’s intensity for competition however never paled to his passion for those around him.
Tim is survived by his wife, Mara; his daughters Shannon, Bentley, Madison, Aspen and Lara; his four grandchildren; his brothers Dave, Michael and Dan; sisters Kate and Diane; as well as a world forever enriched by Tim’s indomitable spirit. Tim unabashedly burned the candle at both ends, and in doing so, created a lovely light. Tim’s influence will forever echo in our hearts, like the steady rhythm of his carefully placed hands disrupting the glassy morning waters of Elkhart Lake, stroke after stroke after stroke.
A celebration of Tim will be held May 22 at 4 p.m. at Gypsum Creek Club House.
In lieu of flowers, Tim has requested that donations be sent to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
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