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Meet Ethelda Bleibtrey, America’s First Female Swimming Gold Medalist

By Peggy Shinn | March 22, 2017, 5:22 p.m. (ET)


When Ethelda Bleibtrey won the 100-meter freestyle at the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, she became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. Three days later, she won her second gold in the women’s 300-meter freestyle. Then she anchored the U.S. women’s team to gold in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle.

Bleibtrey remains the only woman to have ever swept all the swimming events at one Games.

To fully grasp how remarkable this accomplishment was, it is important to look at the backdrop against which Bleibtrey and her fellow “mermaids” — as the press called them — had to compete.

When Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in 1896, he was opposed to women participating.

“I do not approve of the participation of women in public competitions,” he said. “In the Olympic Games, their primary role should be to crown the victors.”

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He was also quoted saying, “a woman’s glory rightfully came through the number and quality of children she produced, and that as far as sports were concerned, her greatest accomplishment was to encourage her sons to excel rather than seek records for herself.”

Ethelda Bleibtrey poses at the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

But de Coubertin was not in control of the 1900 Paris Games, and women were allowed to participate in lawn tennis and golf that year. A few French women also competed in croquet and at least one woman crewed in sailing. In the 1904 Games, six women competed in archery, and in 1908 Games, 44 women participated in either archery, motor-boating, sailing, tennis or figure skating (then a summer sport). These were considered aesthetic sports that did not cause women to perspire — or at least be seen perspiring.

Women’s swimming was the first aerobic sport accepted by the IOC, and it debuted at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games. The only events that year were the 100-meter freestyle and 4x100 free, each taking the women less than a minute-and-a-half to complete.

“Because [swimming] takes place in the water, hypocritically sensitive male eyes would not be confronted by the sight of ladies pouring with sweat: they would instead merely elegantly drip cool water,” wrote David Miller in “Athens to Athens: The Official History of the Olympic Games, 1894-2004.”

The United States, however, did not send any female swimmers to the Stockholm Games. At the time, women were only allowed to compete in events in which they could wear long skirts.

But this did not keep American women from swimming. They simply swam fully clothed — until Bleibtrey came along.

Born in Waterford, New York in 1902 but raised in Brooklyn, Bleibtrey took up swimming in 1918 to either recover from polio or as therapy for curvature of the spine and to keep her friend, Charlotte Boyle, company.

Bleibtrey’s impact on swimming — and on women’s sports in general — started in 1919. Before diving in to swim at Manhattan Beach, California, the 17-year-old removed her stockings, thereby showing her legs. This was considered nude swimming, and she was arrested.

“Resulting publicity and public opinion swinging in her favor not only emancipated Ethelda from jail, but women's swimming from stockings,” reads her International Swimming Hall of Fame bio.

In 1920 — less than a month after American women earned the right to vote — Bleibtrey stormed through Olympic Trials, breaking Boyle’s record in the 100 free during the heats, then lowering that world record again (to 1:12.35 or 1:12.36) in the finals. Boyle finished second.

In pursuing the record, Bleibtrey’s swimming was erratic. “In her energetic efforts to lower the world’s mark, she veered from her course on two occasions, her most conspicuous victim being Miss Helen Moses of Honolulu, who at the fifty-yard mark was forced out of the race because of a collision with Miss Bleibtrey,” wrote a reporter for the New York Times. “The latter also swam out of her course into that of Miss Boyle, but the latter recovered in time to swim ahead to second honors.”

Four days later, in the waters off Manhattan Beach, Bleibtrey broke Australian Fanny Durack’s record in the 300-meter freestyle — a new event on the upcoming Olympic program and the only one in which women were allowed to aerobically exert themselves for longer than a minute-and-a-half. (Durack had won the gold medal in the 100 at the 1912 Games.) Bleibtrey won the final in 4:34.15 or 4:34.12 — eight seconds faster than Durack’s record.

At the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, the swimming events were held in a tidal estuary — “in mud and not water,” Bleibtrey noted. In the 100 free, she led a U.S. sweep of the medals, with Irene Guest winning silver and Frances Schroth bronze. (Boyle was listed as a DNF.) Bleibtrey’s time of 1:13.6 set an Olympic record, dropping over eight seconds off Durack’s time set in 1912.

Three days later, Bleibtrey again led an American sweep, this time in the 300 free. Her time of 4:34 flat broke her world record set during Olympic Trials. Margaret Woodbridge claimed the silver medal, Schroth another bronze.

Woodbridge, Schroth, Guest and Bleibtrey wrapped up the women’s swimming events at the Antwerp Games by setting a world record in the 4x100 free. Their time of 5:11.6 was over 40 seconds faster than the relay time set by Great Britain in 1912.

Bleibtrey also held the world record in the backstroke and might have won four gold medals had this event also been included in the 1920 Olympic program. Four years later, women’s 100-meter backstroke debuted at the 1924 Paris Games. But Bleibtrey had turned pro in 1922.

With increased fame brought by her Olympic gold medals, Bleibtrey continued to break barriers — some weightier than others. On a publicity tour after the 1920 Games, Bleibtrey and Boyle bobbed their hair — the second and third most famous women to sport the 1920s “flapper” hairstyle popularized by dancer and fashion trendsetter Irene Castle. The hairstyle symbolized independence and progressiveness.

“Charlotte's parents told them not to come home until it grew out, for which they were reprieved when the ship landed and the Boyles decided it didn't look as bad as they had feared,” reads Bleibtrey’s ISHOF bio.

Then on June 11, 1928, Bleibtrey was arrested again, this time for diving into the Central Park reservoir in New York City, along with Gade Corson who swam the English Channel and three male professional swimmers. A city ordinance prohibited bathing in the reservoir. When the patrolman arrested them, they explained that it was a publicity stunt for the International Professional Swimmers’ Association, which wanted to convert the reservoir into a public pool.

Their lawyer argued that the reservoir was no longer used as a drinking water supply and the five swimmers “were anxious that the thousands of swimmers in New York should have a pool which they could reach without hours of subway travel and inconvenience,” said the Times.

Bleibtrey once told a New York Times reporter that “swimming is the best sport in the world for women. When a girl indulges in basketball, tennis or golf, she is all tired out at the close of the game. But after a girl has had a good swim, she feels relaxed, cool, her muscles are in order and her whole make‐up, both physical and mental, is at rest and at peace with the world.”

“Miss Bleibtrey kept her crusade going and spent most of her life teaching swimming to handicapped youngsters in New York and trying to get more pools constructed within the city,” read her obituary.

She died at age 76 on May 6, 1978.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. She is currently writing a book about the U.S. women’s cross-country ski team, with a look at the challenges female athletes faced in the 20th century.