SUN CITY CENTER — Sandra Bucha's parents encouraged her to be a good student and an accomplished swimmer.
She managed to do both, despite the obstacles she sometimes had to face.
Bucha excelled in swimming, beating rivals, sometimes men, in races ranging from freestyle to marathons. She excelled in her studies too, earning good grades and eventually a law degree.
Her parents saw many of her successes. She wishes they would have lived to see her earn a major swimming accolade.
In June, Bucha, 59, was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale.
"I know they would look down with pride," Bucha said. "They would be gratified and humbled that I was inducted into this phenomenal arena with the likes of Janet Evans, Dawn Fraser, Donna de Varona and Mark Spitz."
Bucha got introduced to the pool at an age when most kids are learning to walk. Her mom, Mary, taught all four of her children to swim. Mom and dad encouraged all the children to swim competitively while in elementary school.
"My mom said if we were involved in sports we wouldn't get into trouble," Bucha said, laughing.
The military family swam wherever the patriarch, Army Col. Paul A. Bucha, was stationed.
Bucha had hoped to swim in high school but there was no girls' team. In fact, there were no girls' sports teams at her school in Illinois. The boys' swim coach recognized her talents and allowed Bucha to train with the guys. But, she could not compete in meets.
In 1972, Bucha, then a senior and encouraged by her father, sued the Illinois High School Association to allow girls to compete against boys in non-contact sports. She also advocated for girls' sports teams. The court did not rule in her favor, but her action helped pave the way for girls' high school sports in Illinois a few years later.
Bucha also focused on the Olympics. She trained with the hopes of earning a spot on the U.S. team in the 1972 Munich Olympics. She missed making the team in the 100-meter freestyle by 6 tenths of a second.
After high school, Bucha enrolled in Stanford University, which also did not have female sports teams. On one summer break, she learned about a 10-mile swimming race on Lake Michigan. She placed second overall, losing to a man. She and the winner broke the world record.
Bucha went on to have a successful career as a marathon swimmer for a few years, beating women and many men. She quit the sport in her early 20s to focus on school and her career. After Stanford, she earned a law degree from Indiana University. She worked as a prosecutor and public defender before moving into private practice.
"Swimming was my life for a good 14 years," Bucha said. "It taught me the discipline needed to complete law school. It was invaluable to me."
Bucha, who has lived in Florida since 2005, never expected to receive a call from the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame honored Bucha for her swimming accomplishments as well as her effort to improve athletic opportunities for girls.
"For me, it's the most incredibly humbling honor I've ever received," the Sun City Center resident said.
Bruce Wigo, president and CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, called Bucha a pioneer for girls and open water swimmers. He said she is in the Hall of Fame with many Olympians.
"It's very elite and exclusive," he said of those in the hall.
Bucha said she thanked her dad during her induction speech. She said he believed girls should have the same opportunities as boys.
"It wasn't just for me," she said of the lawsuit. "He saw an injustice."
Bucha is thrilled to see girls of all ages involved in all type of sports and pleased to know she had a small part in its evolution.
"The opportunities are so much greater now which is wonderful," she said. "Thank goodness."
Bucha is a busy trial attorney with McCue, Reams & Associates in Bradenton. She has a full life outside the law firm too. She is married to John Kerscher and a step-grandparent to six.
But, she still manages to swim laps a few times a week. She tried ballet as a kid and attempted running as an adult. But, swimming is her sport.
"Swimming is still the thing I do best," she said.
Contact Monica Bennett at [email protected]