Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz
Donna de Varona has spent most of her life as a golden girl. At age 13, she qualified for her first U.S. Olympic swimming team and swam a preliminary heat of the freestyle relay but did not compete in the final with the rest of the gold medal–winning group. It wasn’t until the following Olympics, in 1964, when the 400-meter individual medley was added, that she would earn a medal of her own. De Varona was the world-record holder in that event, and on game day she outpaced her competition by six seconds.
De Varona won a total of two medals in Tokyo that year and was well on her way to setting a career total of 18 world records. She quickly became a media darling, gracing the covers of Sports Illustrated, Look, and Life magazines and being voted the “Most Outstanding Woman Athlete in the World” by the Associated Press and the United Press International.
However, with sports scholarships for women uncommon in that era, de Varona retired from swimming at 17 to tackle her next challenge: the male-dominated world of sports broadcasting. Once again she excelled, winning an Emmy and two Gracies and covering a total of 18 Olympics, including the most recent games in Rio.
With a history of shining in all her endeavors, it is not surprising that de Varona would be drawn to the sun and glittering sands of Palm Beach. Her decision to become a snow bird, however, wasn’t an easy one.
“Two winters ago in New York, I was alone and fell on black ice, hitting my head and knocking myself out,” she recalls. “After that happened, I said, ‘We can’t do any more winters [up north].’”
So, de Varona and her husband, John Pinto, finally did what her brother and sister-in-law, who live near The Beach Club in Palm Beach, had been suggesting for years and headed to the island.
That first winter, the couple rented a place on Peruvian and began looking for something to buy in town. Unable to find an abode that fit the bill, de Varona’s real estate agent convinced her to shift her focus south to Sloan’s Curve. When de Varona opened the door to the third and final property they visited, she knew she was home.
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Despite its outdated decor (think: sponge painting and thick carpets), the third-floor corner condominium was expansive, flowed well, and had lots of light and exceptional views of both the Intracoastal and the Atlantic Ocean.
“Everyone fights for the northern views, but I didn’t want to have the sun on me all the time,” de Varona says. “I love the fact that I can look out at night and see the sunset. I can also sit outside on the balcony and see and hear the ocean. You feel like you’re on a ship.”
More than just a view, what lies beyond the windows brings de Varona unparalleled happiness. On average, she swims a mile a day, either in the ocean or the complex’s pool, both mere steps away. With a minimal commute by foot and a personal cabana, indulging in her passion has become an easy daily routine.
Decorating the home’s interior, however, took more effort. Already in possession of a stately Colonial home in Greenwich, Connecticut, whose traditional decor includes tapestries, art, and other treasures collected during the couple’s world travels, de Varona wanted their Florida residence to be a stark contrast. To achieve that, she enlisted the services of interior designer Jan Kyle.
“I wanted this home to be peaceful, because there’s a lot of noise in my other house. It’s very eclectic,” says de Varona. “There are so many things from so many places [in that house]. I have a lot of memories from 28 years there, but I told Jan I want this place to be cozy and I want a theme.”
With a history of shining in all her endeavors, it is not surprising that de Varona would be drawn to the sun and glittering sands of Palm Beach.
The theme that evolved from de Varona’s vision was a reinterpreted Florida style—one Kyle describes as classic and modern—with elements and colors evocative of coastal decorating executed in a tailored and minimalistic yet highly impactful way.
The octagon-shaped foyer is a glowing example of this approach, with a gold–leaf tray ceiling and gold-framed mirrors creating a warm, sophisticated welcome. For drama, Kyle filled two giant clamshells with an assemblage of shells and branches and placed them on hand-forged consoles. Contrary to many coastal homes’ heavy use of seashells and per de Varona’s request to not overdo the theme, these are the only shells in sight.
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That same thoughtfulness is illustrated in her bedroom, where a desire to incorporate a seafoam-green hue evocative of the ocean was accomplished without a glut of coordinating fabrics or beach-house garb. A painting by Palm Beach abstract artist Patricia Schwimmer adorns the wall, while elegant white, hand-embroidered bedding is offset by a single ikat pillow and touches of beige, as seen in the tufted velvet headboard, downplay the femininity.
|de Varona’s husband’s library (right) boasts warm hues and horse photography, an homage to his last name, Pinto. The beige color palette carries over to the couple’s bedroom (left), which also features soft touches of ocean blues expressed in chic accessories and subtle details.|
On a similar note, a current of masculinity flows from the bedroom to Pinto’s library.
“I had to give my husband one room,” de Varona jokes. The library features a contrasting chevron rug and striking horse photographs taken by Kyle’s husband, an avid photographer. A cylindrical display case containing de Varona’s gold medals sits atop the modern desk, with views of the Intracoastal unfolding beyond it.
Each of these rooms is dynamic in itself, but the living room is arguably the most compelling. The centerpiece of the space is a painting by Japanese artist Yasukazu Tabuchi that explodes with color and hangs above a 10-foot sofa. The burnt-orange and saffron-yellow throw pillows and club chairs echo the painting’s vibrant tones, but the color palette for the remainder of the room is restrained to white with a few pops of espresso. And while the condo’s ubiquitous clean lines are particularly evident here, de Varona eschewed uninviting modernism in favor of sumptuous seating that invites guests to settle in and stay for a while.
For the living room, de Varona wanted sleek furniture that would also be welcoming to guests.
De Varona’s favorite part of the apartment stands just outside the living room, where a pair of male and female Javanese sculptures are perched atop two columns. Known as Loro Blonyo, or more commonly “the inseparable couple,” these sacred statues represent the sanctity of marriage. Before they were part of de Varona’s personal collection, they lived in the Java royal palace. Today, they face one another and serve as stately conversation pieces.
The statues are only two of a few select pieces de Varona brought from her Connecticut collection. She resists her husband’s desire to shift more, believing it would undermine her preference to make this home a tranquil space and also be incongruous with the surrounding environment.
Closing on the apartment in August of last year, de Varona and Kyle worked with purpose so she and Pinto could move in that winter. Two days after Christmas, they arrived to their new Palm Beach retreat. De Varona quickly adopted the South Florida lifestyle, hosting an array of houseguests (five couples in the first five months) and entertaining for friends new and old.
With a shining career behind her and a warm, welcoming new place to call home, this Olympic champion is now content to bask in the glory of a different kind of gold that can only be found in the sand and skies of Florida.