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Doris B. Russell, champion swimmer who continued competing until her late 90s, dies

Doris B. Russell, then 90, is pictured in 2010 after winning six medals at the U.S. Masters Short Course National Championships in Atlanta. She's pictured here with some of her collection of more than 200 medals.
Doris B. Russell, then 90, is pictured in 2010 after winning six medals at the U.S. Masters Short Course National Championships in Atlanta. She's pictured here with some of her collection of more than 200 medals. (Jed Kirschbaum / Baltimore Sun)

Doris B. Russell, a champion competitive swimmer who enjoyed the sport into her 90s, died Sunday at Encore at Turf Valley, an Ellicott City nursing home. She was 98.

“I’ve known Doris for 50 years and certainly for the last 20 years with the Maryland Masters Swimming Program. She is somebody that everybody should try and be like. She was just a lovely woman,” said Nancy Brown, one of the program’s coaches.

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“She’s beyond great as a swimmer,” said Mrs. Brown, a Pasadena resident. “She still holds Maryland senior champion records in freestyle, butterfly and breaststroke, and in her age group.”

“Mrs. Russell was an absolute gem. We called her ‘Madame Butterfly’ because she was in her 70s when she taught herself the butterfly stroke,” said Cory Woo, general manager of the Columbia Swim Center in Columbia, where Mrs. Russell swam.

“She was an absolute inspiration to our team members. She brought so much love and passion to swimming,” said Mr. Woo, a Columbia resident. “Whenever she came in, she found a way to make everyone’s day better.”

The former Helen Doris Baugher — she never used her forename — was born in Catonsville and raised in Forest Park. She was the daughter of William Harry Baugher, who worked in the Pigtown family stockyard business, E.A. Blackshere Co., and his wife, Grace Keating, a homemaker.

It was her father, a Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame competitive swimmer, who introduced his daughter to swimming at an early age.

She attended Notre Dame Preparatory School and later the old Penn Academy in Chambersburg, Pa., and while a student, swam for both schools, and also for the Knights of Columbus and KV Lakers swim teams.

Doris B. Russell works out at the Columbia Swim Center in 2011.Her father was a swim coach, and she began swimming competitively at age 13.
Doris B. Russell works out at the Columbia Swim Center in 2011.Her father was a swim coach, and she began swimming competitively at age 13. (Sarah Pastrana / Patuxent Publishing)

It was through swimming that she met and fell in love with James D. Russell Sr., a national champion springboard diver, and salesman. They married in 1942.

“They once hobnobbed at the old Meadowbrook Swim Club with Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller, Hollywood’s most famous Tarzans,” said a son, James D. Russell Jr., an Ellicott City resident.

The couple continued participating in diving and swimming competitions until they were in their 40s, while raising their eight children, who also became competitive divers and swimmers.

They competed at East Coast country clubs, including the famed Shawnee Inn & Country Club on the Delaware near Stroudsburg, Pa., that was owned by Fred Waring, the popular 1920s bandleader who was director of Waring’s Pennsylvanians.

“Her butterflies were just beautiful as you’d ever want to see, and when she was doing the freestyle, breast or backstroke, people would stop and watch,” said Nancy Brown, a Maryland Masters Swimming Program coach.
“Her butterflies were just beautiful as you’d ever want to see, and when she was doing the freestyle, breast or backstroke, people would stop and watch,” said Nancy Brown, a Maryland Masters Swimming Program coach. (Sarah Pastrana / Patuxent Publishing 2011)

The couple moved to Ellicott City in 1965 and joined the North St. Johns Swim Club, and they also took over a former Jewish Community Center on West Monument Street, which they ran as an athletic center during the 1960s.

Mrs. Russell coached swimming and diving programs throughout Maryland, Mrs. Brown said.

After her husband died in 1983, Mrs. Russell became a Howard County public school bus driver, while continuing to practice swimming several times a week at Columbia Swim Center, and competing in the freestyle stroke at all distances.

“I was in the water with her about a month ago and it was fantastic,” Mr. Woo said.

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Mrs. Russell also participated in the annual Chesapeake Bay swim and for years competed in major national meets from Syracuse, N.Y., to San Antonio, family members said.

The former Helen Doris Baugher is pictured at a Knights of Columbus swim meet in 1939.
The former Helen Doris Baugher is pictured at a Knights of Columbus swim meet in 1939. (Baltimore Sun)

She was a member of the Maryland Masters Swimming Team and in later years standing at only 5 feet, she said, “I have to swim a couple of extra strokes on each lap because I’ve shrunk.”

“Her butterflies were just beautiful as you’d ever want to see, and when she was doing the freestyle, breast or backstroke, people would stop and watch,” Mrs. Brown said. “All of her turns and finishes were perfect, even at 95. She was just the perfect swimmer.”

“Doris is incredible. People cheer when she finishes a race, though she gets upset at that. She’s very low-key about her accomplishments,” Mrs. Brown told The Baltimore Sun on the occasion of Mrs. Russell’s 90th birthday.

Mrs. Russell continued to swim with the Maryland Senior Olympics until she was 97. In 2016, she was named to the U.S. Masters Pool Swimming All-American Team.

Family members said her Ellicott City home overflowed with medals and trophies that spilled out of drawers and boxes and hung from doorknobs.

Russell was born in Catonsville and raised in Forest Park. She attended Notre Dame Preparatory School and later old Penn Academy in Chambersburg, Pa.
Russell was born in Catonsville and raised in Forest Park. She attended Notre Dame Preparatory School and later old Penn Academy in Chambersburg, Pa. (Baltimore Sun file photo 1938)

In addition to swimming, she was a lifelong inveterate bridge player, and continued playing in competitive bridge tournaments until she was in her late 90s with bridge groups that met monthly at the Trolley Stop in Oella, and at Kelsey’s Restaurant in Ellicott City.

Mrs. Russell attended Mass daily at the Roman Catholic Church of the Resurrection, and at the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours in Marriottsville.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at her church, 3175 Paulskirk Drive, Ellicott City.

In addition to her son, Mrs. Russell is survived by two other sons, Terence Russell, also of Ellicott City, and Lawrence Russell of Jupiter, Fla.; five daughters, Gale R. Mackison of Mount Airy, Garry Ann R. Lyons of Easton, Darby R. Schaub of Ocean Pines, Nancy R. Voith of Palm Coast, Fla., and Kim R. Morris of Greenville, S.C.; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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