At a time when few athletic opportunities existed for girls, Cleo Higgins Droege was setting records in the pool. With her father, Roland, a Punahou economics teacher and swim coach, she learned how to swim at Punahou’s Waterhouse Pool.
By age six, she was competing for the Punahou Swim Club and held state records in the 25-yard freestyle and backstroke.
During her freshman year, while competing in an international dual meet with Japanese Olympians, she became the first Hawai‘i female to break the 1:00 mark in the 100-yard freestyle, finishing in a time of 59.9 seconds. It was a mark she would continue to beat, setting a new ILH record of 58.6 seconds in March of 1962.
Droege raced past her competition throughout high school, setting new ILH records in the 100-yard and 200-yard freestyle and anchoring a record-setting 200-yard freestyle relay. As a senior, she competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials, missing the qualifying time in the 100-meter freestyle by just one-tenth of a second.
For her athletic achievements, she was presented the Thurston Swim Award in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965, and was named Punahou’s first-ever Outstanding Female Athlete in 1965.