Positive Leadership Requires Knowing Your History

Toni Armstrong, Leadership Educator with Baltimore Leadership Guides and LEAD Sports Summit

On June 15, 1904, nearly 1,000 women and girls drowned in the East River near New York City when a boat caught fire.  The difference between life and death was the ability to swim no more than 50 yards.  This happened during a time when women were not allowed to enter “bathing pools” because of the threat of indecent exposure.  A woman’s place was in the home, and there were questions as to the purpose and ability of a woman to participate in any physical exertion beyond childbirth.  This incident was a turning point for women’s swimming in America. It became the main argument for why American females needed to learn how to swim, should be allowed to enter the “bathing pools,” and should be allowed to wear “bathing costumes” that didn’t weigh them down in the water.

The female swimmers and coaches you hear the most about are in the modern history of our sport--Simone Manuel, Terri McKeever, Natalie Coughlin, and Katie Ledecky to name a few. Let’s dive deeper into the history and highlight some trail blazers that came before them. Leadership and history go hand-in-hand. If you do not know what the world was like before you, you will never fully appreciate where women are today or have the imagination to go further.  

Here are 10 female swimmers you should know who have paved the way: 

#1 Annette_Kellerman1.jpg

1. Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, is credited as the first women to enter a race against a man where she finished in a tie with Thomas Burgess, beating sixteen other men.  In 1905, she became the first woman to attempt to swim The English Channel, which was the benchmark for swimming proficiency at the time.  Kellerman eventually became a celebrity through a swimming and diving act, which showcased her skills in a mobile glass tank.  When she brought this act to the US, she was arrested and charged with indecent exposure because she was wearing a man’s one-piece bathing costume (pictured here).  She argued in court that the regulations of women’s costumes (long sleeves, heavy bloomers, and a woolen skirt) was “like swimming in a ball gown.”  The judge agreed and dismissed the charges against her triggering a change for all women.


2. Charlotte Epstein was the first woman to be named to a US Olympic staff when she was hired as the assistant manager for the 1932 US Women’s Olympic Swimming Team.  She founded The National Women’s Life Saving League in 1915, later changed to The Women’s Swimming Association of New York in 1917.  She is known as the “Mother of Women’s Swimming in America” because she advocated for equality for female swimmers, but also because her swimmers held 51 world records, 202 individual AAU Women’s National Senior Champions in swimming and diving, and 30 National Championship relay teams and Olympic medals in swimming and diving.  She battled for women’s suffrage and emancipation in women’s sports by staging “suffrage swim races” with her teammates, campaigning for bathing suit reform, and fighting for equal opportunity for women at competitive events and distance swims.  She coached our #6 Woman, Gertrude Ederle, who became the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel beating the male record by over two hours.

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3. Fanny Durack, an Australian swimmer, was the first female athlete to win a gold medal in the Olympics for swimming, which she did at the 1912 Stockholm Games in the 100 Meter Freestyle with the time of 1:22.2.  This equaled a men’s time from 1896. The 1912 Stockholm Olympics were the first Olympic Games to include female swimming events—the 100 meter freestyle and the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay.  During these Olympic Games, only 57 women competed because many countries still did not allow their women to participate. It wasn’t until two Olympics later that the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU for short) recognized women’s swimming as a sport and sent American female swimmers to the Olympics.

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4. Olga Dorfner was the first American woman to break a swimming world record, which she did in 1918 in both the 100 and 200 meter freestyle.  This put US women’s swimming on the map in an age when the AAU didn’t approve women’s swimming as a competitive sport and didn’t allow American women to compete in the 1912 or 1916 Olympic Games.


5. Ethelda Bleibtrey was the first American to win a gold medal in the sport of swimming, which she did at the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games.  She also became the only Olympic swimmer to win all the races in a program, which at the time was the 100 meter freestyle, 300 meter freestyle, and the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay.  She was a prolific backstroke swimmer in an age where backstroke wasn’t included in an Olympic program and switched to freestyle to compete in the Olympic Games. In 1919, Bleibtrey and her teammate Charlotte Boyle were arrested and charged with “nude swimming” because they removed their stockings before going into the water for a swim practice. Laws regarding women’s bathing costumes required stockings, but Bleibtrey and Boyle’s protest changed public opinion and the policy on female “bathing costumes” one step further. 

#6 Gertrude Ederle.jpg

6. Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel, which she did on August 6th 1926.  She beat the men’s record by over two hours. She also did this wearing the first two-piece bathing suit worn in public. It is to this day considered by some the biggest and most significant event in the history of women’s athletics. It proved that women could beat men in athletic endeavors, and therefore should be given equal opportunities to compete.

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7. Donna de Varona is an advocate for gender equality in college sports and acted as a consultant to the US Senate to protect and promote Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  In the 1960s, female athletes were not offered college athletic scholarships, and would be banned from any competition if they accepted endorsement money from a sponsor.  This forced Varona to retire from the sport of swimming at age 17 after competing in two Olympic Games, winning two gold medals, and setting 18 fastest times and world records. She has since spent her life advocating for future generations of female athletes so that they will be offered the same opportunities as male athletes—opportunities she was denied. 

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8. Tracy Caulkins is one of the greatest swimmers ever, considered by some in the same league as Michael Phelps. She has set the most American records of any swimmer (63), won 3 gold medals, 12 NCAA Championships, and set 5 world records. She was the first American to win a national title in each of the four swimming strokes, and the first to set an American record in each of the four swimming strokes. Her Olympic medals might be even more impressive if the US hadn’t boycotted the 1980 Olympics.

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9. Jenny Thompson has won the most gold medals of any female Olympic swimmer and is tied for most total medals of any female Olympic swimmer with Dara Torres and Natalie Coughlin at 12. The only Olympic swimmer of any country who has won more gold medals than she has is Michael Phelps with 23.

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10. Maritza Correia was the first African-American female swimmer to set an American record, win an NCAA Division 1 Championship Title, make the US Olympic Swimming Team, and win an Olympic medal. She won the 50 yard Freestyle during the 2002 NCAA Championship Meet (previously held by 4 time Olympic medalist Amy Van Dyken) and the 100 yard Freestyle (previously held by Jenny Thompson).  She qualified for the Athens Games in 2004 and won a silver medal in the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay. 

**Thank you to The International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) for keeping track of our sport’s history and sharing this knowledge with us.