Aileen Riggin competes in Women's Springboard Diving at the Olympic Games Antwerp 1920.
One hundred years ago, at the Olympic Games Antwerp 1920, 14-year-old Aileen Riggin dove into an icy cold black canal and won the first Olympic gold medal for women in springboard diving.
Although women had competed in swimming at the 1912 Olympic Games, it wasn’t until the 1920 Games that the U.S. sent a team. Reluctantly.
“It was not considered healthy for girls to overexert themselves or to swim as far as a mile,” wrote Riggin Soule in “A Wonderful Life In Her Own Words,” posted on the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s website. “People thought it was a great mistake, that we were ruining our health, that we would never have children, and that we would be sorry for it later on. There was a great deal of publicity against women competing in athletics at all. We had to combat this feeling at every turn. Many of the coaches on the Olympic team for men decided that they did not wish to be ‘hampered’ by having women athletes on the team, and many of the officials felt the same way. It took a great deal of persuasion by the American women to convince them to let us participate in the Olympics at all.”
Officials were even more reluctant to have Riggin and fellow 14-year-old diver Helen Wainwright on the 1920 U.S. team.
“They said there was absolutely no way they were going to take children to the Olympics,” wrote Riggin Soule, who was only 4’7” tall, 65 pounds, and had just finished the eighth grade.
The girls’ manager/chaperone prevailed. In the end, Riggin, Wainwright, and teammates Thelma Payne and Aileen Allen swept the top four places at the 1920 Olympic springboard diving competition.
It was just 11 days after the 19th amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
Back home, they became media darlings.
“We did a lot toward getting women’s sports accepted in America,” wrote Riggin Soule. “We didn’t even know this was what we were doing.”
Riggin Soule did more than just break barriers for women in swimming. While still a teenager, she became one of America’s first sportswriters.
Recovery From the Spanish Flu
Born in 1906, Riggin learned to swim at age 6 in the Philippines where her father, a Navy officer, was stationed. But she did not become an athlete until a doctor recommended swimming for her health.
A premature baby, Riggin was a small, frail child who suffered from anemia. When she fell victim to the 1918 flu pandemic, she was so ill that doctors thought she had died. Doctors recommended that the family return to the U.S. so Riggin could recover.
Back in New York City, Riggin began swimming in a small hotel pool. By chance, a women’s swimming club was forming at the pool—coached by 1904 Olympic swimmer Louis Handley. Annual dues were $3.
At the 1920 national championships, Riggin Soule (still 13) won the relay title with Women’s Swimming Association teammates Wainwright (also 13) Helen Meany (15), and Gertrude Ederle (12).
While at the meet, the team’s chaperone suggested that Riggin and Wainwright enter the diving competition. The two had practiced diving—mostly uncoached during the summers when the team swam at Manhattan Beach on Long Island—and Riggin had studied ballet for several years.
They didn’t win, but they finished well enough that Riggin decided to focus on diving.
Around this time, Riggin and Wainwright heard that U.S. women would be able to compete in the 1920 Olympic Games in swimming and diving. But they could find no information. Finally, they wrote to the French Olympic Committee and asked for the rules (which arrived—in French).
They made it out to Manhattan Beach after the ice melted and could dive when the tide was favorable. A Swedish Olympian helped coach them on weekends.
At the Trials that June, Wainwright and Riggin both qualified for the springboard competition, and Riggin qualified in the high dive (now called platform) as well.
They were two of 15 U.S. women nominated for the Antwerp Olympic Games. They boarded a ship with 415 American men headed for the Games.
1920 Antwerp Olympic Games
What Riggin Soule remembered most vividly about the 1920 Olympic diving competition was the cold, black water. It was so cold that the divers shrieked and so dark that Riggin feared getting stuck in the muck at the bottom.
“I kept thinking, the water is black and nobody could find me if I really got stuck down there,” she said in an oral history taken by the LA84 Foundation. “And if I were coming down with force, I might go up to my elbows, and I’d be stuck permanently, and nobody would miss me, and I’d die a horrible drowning death!”
The U.S. men’s team had coaches, but none for the women. Instead, the women relied on the men to help them improve their take-offs.
On August 29, 1920, Riggin won the U.S.’s first women’s diving Olympic gold medal, becoming the youngest ever Olympic champion.
The U.S. swept the springboard “fancy diving” medals—something the American women would do for the next five Olympiads. And U.S. women would win at least one medal in springboard in every Olympic Games until 1992.
The American swimmers fared equally well at the 1920 Games, with Ethelda Bleibtrey sweeping the three women’s races.
A Hit Back Home
Back home, the U.S. swimmers and divers were a media success. The press covered “the mermaids” just about every time they dove into the pool, normalizing women as athletes—at least as swimmers and elegant divers.
But Riggin faced a different fate. She was “carted off to boarding school” in Greenwich, Connecticut—a school that had no pool. But she still wanted to compete in diving.
Four years later, Riggin made the 1924 U.S. Olympic team in both diving and swimming, this time as an 18-year-old. She won a silver medal in springboard diving and bronze in the 100-meter backstroke.
After the Paris Olympic Games, Riggin competed for one more year; she wanted to win more national titles. But she also needed a break.
A well-known personality, she was hired by the New York Evening Post to write a weekly column covering a relatively new topic: women’s sports.
“I was still an amateur, so I couldn’t write about swimming,” she said in the oral history. “I couldn’t write about the only thing I understood at all.”
Friends in the newspaper business helped her, including future World War II correspondent Quintin Reynolds.
“They would send me off to New Jersey to cover a golf tournament, or something,” said Riggin Soule. “I didn’t know much about it. I was to phone in the results. Well, anybody could have done that, and I didn't know enough about it.”
Still, she loved the job and flashed her press card whenever she could.
After winning nationals in 1925, she realized that she needed a steadier, more lucrative income than journalism provided. So she turned pro, and on January 1, 1926, started a job at the luxurious Deauville Casino in Miami Beach. The resort had the largest pool in Florida and needed some poolside glitz.
“Our duty was to be seen and give lessons, just like a golf pro,” she said.
She held the same job at similar resorts in the years to come. She also toured, giving sports exhibitions, along with former teammate Gertrude Ederle, who became the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel on August 6, 1926. (Her time of in 14 hours, 34 minutes was over two hours faster than any man had ever swum the Channel.)
Riggin married doctor Dwight D. Young in the early 1930s. Her husband only earned $100 a month as a gynecologist at Women’s Hospital New York. In the middle of the Great Depression, Riggin needed to supplement their income.
After a friend suggested she write about her travels and other exploits, Riggin secured an agent.
“That saved my life because this agent could think of articles to write about that I never would have dreamed about—what they were wearing in Paris fashions for bathing, beachwear, or how to build a swimming pool, all sorts of different things, my selections for the Olympics, the coming Olympics,” Riggin remembered.
She had an ‘in’ at Colliers, so freelanced for that well-known magazine. She also signed a contract to write one sports article every month for two years for Love Mirror, Woolworth’s magazine.
With 104 articles in those two years, she covered every sport imaginable—"including archery to ping pong.” She even wrote about walking.
“It paid the rent,” she said. “But when two years was up, that was enough.”
Young and Riggin moved to California in 1932, where Riggin worked in movies. She also helped Billy Rose secure stars for his popular Aquacade.
After her daughter, Yvonne, was born, Riggin focused her energy on parenting. Her husband died from injuries he suffered in World War II as a lieutenant commander in the Navy. A few years later, she married Howard Soule and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1957.
But she continued to freelance for outlets such as Good Housekeeping, said her stepdaughter Patti Soule Anderson, who still lives in Honolulu.
In her 80s, Riggin Soule began swimming again and competed against women whom she raced in the 1920s.
“That says something for swimming,” Riggin Soule said.
She swam every day, often in the ocean. Anderson sometimes accompanied her on a surfboard.
“She made up haikus as she swam,” remembered Anderson. “She looked at the sky as she did the backstroke, at Diamond Head, the palm trees and ocean, and she made up poems.”
The local newspaper published a few of Riggin Soule’s haikus.
In the pool, Riggin Soule set 19 national age-group records. She still holds the national record for the 50-meter freestyle in the 90-94 age category.
Riggin Soule died on October 17, 2002, at age 96.
“She broke barriers,” said Anderson. “And she was really fun. She was an inspiration, too.