Women first competed in swimming at the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, taking part in two events: the 100m freestyle, which was won by Australia’s Fanny Durack, and the 4x100m relay, won by Great Britain’s Belle Moore, Jennie Fletcher, Annie Speirs and Irene Steers. At Antwerp 1920, a third event was introduced onto the programme: the 300m freestyle. Ethelda Bleibtrey, aged just 18 (she was born on 27 February 1902 in Waterford, New York State), raced in, and won, all three!
Jailed for “nudity”?
Bleibtrey’s story is that of an emancipated woman who made a real difference for all female swimmers in her country. She first took up swimming in 1917 to help her recover from polio. At the time, social convention in the USA dictated that women had to cover up their legs – i.e. wear stockings – when they went swimming. In 1919, at Manhattan Beach, Bleibtrey removed her stockings before going swimming; this was considered a reprehensible act of “nudity” and Bleibtrey was arrested. Her arrest caused public outrage, however, to such an extent that not only was Bleibtrey not sanctioned, but it was also subsequently decided that women could go swimming without having to wear stockings! Bleibtrey was also one of the first women to wear a swimming cap.
Bleibtrey made a name for herself that same year, one year before the Antwerp Games, as the only swimmer to beat Fanny Durack in competition during the Australian star’s much-hyped and extremely popular exhibition tour of the USA. Providing some context, Patricia Reymond, Collections Manager at the Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage, explains: “When Fanny Durack and Wilhelmina Wylie were selected for the Olympic Games in 1912, thanks to pressure from the general public and after the wife of a Sydney-based entrepreneur funded their trip, their federation insisted that a chaperone had to accompany them. Durack’s sister and Wylie’s father took on the role and went with them. It was inconceivable to many people at the time – particularly in countries still steeped in Victorian morality – that young women could travel alone.”
There’s also the incredible story of what happened in Central Park: having dived into the Central Park Reservoir, Bleibtrey was arrested and spent a night in prison, before the Mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, intervened. At any rate, it was a case of mission accomplished: a swimming pool was built in Central Park. It subsequently came to light that the whole thing had been a publicity stunt, orchestrated by the New York Daily News and the local star, with the aim of getting the necessary authorisation so that the reservoir at the heart of the Big Apple could be used for swimming!
Three gold medals in Antwerp – and it could have been more!
The pool that was used during the Antwerp Games was built specifically for the event, in the centre of a city still emerging from the ashes of the First World War. According to the swimmers who took part in the Olympic competitions, the water was dark and cold, and the situation was not helped by the chilly air temperatures. All of which meant that the swimmers were forced to huddle together to keep warm after each race.
The swimming costumes worn by the swimmers, meanwhile, were long garments made out of wool, cotton or silk, as nylon had not yet been invented; and it was virtually mandatory for them to be dark coloured. They were heavy and unpleasant to wear, and became transparent when wet, so much so that athletes were strongly encouraged to wear a bath robe, which they took off only for competition or to pose for the camera, as can be seen in photos from the 1912 and 1920 Games. As for Bleibtrey, she wore a swimming costume that was cut high on the back and under the arms, with a longer cut for the legs. Her outfit looked more like a short dress than a swimming costume. As Reymond explains: “The sartorial emancipation of women began after the First World War. They started wearing their hair short, corsets became a thing of the past, flowing and tighter-fitting dresses became the norm, and skirts became shorter.
The young Bleibtrey took to the water on 23 August 1920 in the third heat of the 100m freestyle. She won her race and set a new world record of 1:14.4 in the process. Forty-eight hours later, on Wednesday 25 August, she claimed her first Olympic title, beating compatriot Irene Guest by nearly four seconds in the final and setting another world record – 1:13.6 – which would last for three years.
In the 300m freestyle, she was once again head and shoulders above her rivals. The day after her victory in the 100m, she swam her 300m semi-final in a world record time of 4:41.4, 16 seconds quicker than Great Britain’s Constance Jeans, who finished as the runner-up. In the final, on 28 August, Bleibtrey was simply on another level, breaking the world record again with a time of 4:34.0 and beating silver medallist Margaret Woodbridge, also from the USA, by more than eight seconds.
Finally, on 29 August, she swam as the anchor in the 4x100m relay for the USA, alongside team-mates Woodbridge, Guest and Frances Schroth. The Americans secured victory and set a new world record (5 :11.6), with the reigning champions, Great Britain, finishing almost 30 seconds behind them. Bleibtrey explained that it was only because of the nature of the women’s programme that she did not win four gold medals in Antwerp: “At that time, I was the world record holder in backstroke, but they didn't have women's backstroke, only freestyle in those Olympics.”
Competitive swimming in the early 20th century
On the subject of the costumes worn at the time, Aileen Riggin, a gold medallist in diving at the same Games and in the same pool, explained in 1920 that the cotton swimsuits provided by the American Federation covered the arms down to the elbows and the legs down to the knees, so the swimmers preferred to take their own costumes to Antwerp, insisting that the “official” swimsuits would compromise their performances.
In 1931, she starred in a film that traced the evolution of women’s swimsuits, which required her to wear “that modest and enveloping outfit” of the late 19th and early 20th century. After one attempt, she refused to get back in the water, despite the director’s anger. “The skirts belled up over my head, the shoes weighed me down, the hat got wet and flopped over my eyes,” said Riggin. “I had to fight to keep my balance. I came as near to drowning as I ever have.”
Bleibtrey, meanwhile, who won in every distance at the AUU national championships, would remain undefeated throughout her amateur career. She turned professional in 1922 and is still the only female swimmer to have won all the events on the programme at one Games edition. Following a success-laden professional career, she became an acclaimed coach over many years in New York and Atlantic City, and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967. She died on 6 May 1978 at the age of 76, with her name recorded in gold in the annals of the Olympic Games and forever a part of the history of her sport.