New-York Historical Society's Bill Shannon Dictionary of New York Sports

Category Archives: Swimming

Ethelda Bliebtrey


Ethelda Bliebtrey (Swimming.  Born, Waterford, NY, Feb. 27, 1902; died, West Palm Beach, FL, May 6, 1978.)  When what was a coastal life-saving service during World War I was converted into the Women’s Swimming Association of New York, Ethelda Bliebtrey was one of its stars.  In 1920 and 1921, Bliebtrey won seven national championships (all but one in freestyle), five outdoors and two indoors.  On May 30, 1921, at Honolulu, Hi., she set a 100-yard long course outdoor freestyle record that stood for more than a decade.  Bliebtrey was among the pioneers who drew young women into sports and the W.S.A.N.Y. in particular.  But her most impressive triumphs came in the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp, Belgium, when she won the gold in both the 100- and 300-meter freestyle and another on the U.S. 400-meter relay team, the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold.

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Charlotte Boyle Clune


Charlotte Boyle Clune (Swimming.  Born, Brooklyn, NY, Aug. 20, 1899; died, Scottsville, NY, Oct. 3, 1990.)  A leader among the early stars of the Women’s Swimming Association of New York, Charlotte Boyle (later Mrs. Clune) was hailed as the American women’s swimming champion in 1919.  Boyle set four world and U.S. records from 1917-21.  She was the A.A.U. national champion outdoors in the 100-yard freestyle in 1918 and the indoor 50-yard freestyle champion the same year.  Boyle won the indoor 100-yard freestyle event in 1919 and 1921.  In 1919, she won the outdoor long distance championship and was proclaimed the best woman swimmer in America.

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Gertrude Ederle


Gertrude Ederle (Swimming.  Born, New York, NY, Oct. 23, 1906; died, Wyckoff, NJ, Nov. 30, 2003.)  As the youngest athlete ever to set a world record in a major sport, the first woman to swim the English Channel and a performer who once set seven world records in a single day, Gertrude Caroline Ederle is a unique part of world swimming history.  In 1919, she set a world record in the 880-yard freestyle at Indianapolis, Ind., becoming the youngest athlete ever to set a world record in a significant sport.  She was not yet 13.  Three years later, she set seven world records in an afternoon at Brighton Beach, and between 1921 and 1925 she held 29 national and world marks.  Ederle was an A.A.U. champion both indoors and outdoors at almost all freestyle distances while representing the Women’s Swimming Association of New York, the dominant club team in women’s swimming.  Her everlasting fame came from her long-distance feats. As a warmup for her eventual Channel crossing, she swam from Battery Park to Sandy Hook, N.J., in seven hours, 11 minutes and 30 seconds on June 15, 1925.  Ederle was the leading exponent of the 8-beat American crawl technique of freestyle swimming and put it to its ultimate test Aug. 6, 1926, when she covered 31 miles from France to England in the treacherous Channel in 14 hours and 31 minutes, the fastest crossing up to that time. Her tickertape up Broadway drew more than two million adoring fans.  President Calvin Coolidge called her “America’s best girl.”  She appeared frequently as a celebrity guest, encouraging girls’ participation in sports at many events, notably under the auspices of the New York Journal-American, although later in life she became reclusive.

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Charlotte Epstein


Charlotte Epstein (Swimming.  Born, New York, NY, Sept. 17, 1884; died, New York, NY, Aug. 26, 1938.)  Of the true pioneers of athletics for women, Charlotte Epstein ranks near the top.  Epstein was one of the organizers of the National Women’s Life Saving League and in Oct. 1917, led the formation of the Women’s Swimming Association of New York, the leading incubator of U.S. Olympic swimmers from 1920 until World War II.  She was, in fact, largely responsible for American women having the opportunity to compete in the Olympics.  Epstein relentlessly pressed U.S. officials to enter women in the swimming competitions (which began in 1912).  She served as the team manager (and chaperone) in 1920, 1924, and 1932.  Among the U.S. champions produced by the W.S.A.N.Y. were Claire Galligan, Ethelda Bliebtrey, Gertrude Ederle, Eleanor Holm, and Martha Norelius, to name a few.  Epstein was a legal secretary for many years and in 1927 became a court reporter.  But her principal life’s focus was women’s swimming, although never an outstanding swimmer herself.  Even though she chaired the A.A.U.’s women’s swimming committee, to protest the Nazi regime, Epstein refused to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but the year before organized the U.S. team’s swimmers for the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv (then a part of Palestine).

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Lou Handley


Lou Handley (Swimming.  Born, Rome, Italy, 1874; died, New York, NY, Dec. 28, 1956.)  Though something of an athlete himself in his youth, Louis deBreda Handley achieved his greatest fame after emigrating to America as a swimming coach.  Handley was the principal coach for the Women’s Swimming Association of New York, the primary source for U.S. Olympic women’s swimmers from 1920-36.  Among the most famous swimmers turned out by this remarkable group were Ethelda Bliebtrey, Gertrude Ederle, Martha Norelius, and Eleanor Holm.  When the A.A.U. began national women’s swimming championships in 1921, Handley’s teams won the first nine titles, although the 1929 title was later revoked after Norelius and diver Helen Meany were suspended by the A.A.U.  Many observers thought the suspensions were more about envy than rules violations.  Primary W.S.A.N.Y. founder Charlotte Epstein, who chaired the A.A.U. women’s swimming committee, protested the suspensions.  Handley was also a part-time sportswriter, contributing many articles to New York newspapers over the years.

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Eleanor Holm


Eleanor Holm (Swimming.  Born, Brooklyn, NY, Dec. 6, 1912; died, Miami, FL, Jan. 31, 2004.)  Eleanor Holm first gained fame as the finest woman backstroke swimmer in the world, and subsequently helped popularize the sport as an entertainment medium.  Holm won the national A.A.U. championship in the 300-yard individual medley five straight years (1928-31) and by the end of her competitive career in 1937, she held 14 American records.  She was the top swimmer for nearly a decade, an extraordinary period of dominance in swimming.  In the 1932 Olympics at Los Angeles, Holm won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke and set a world record in the first heat (1:18.3).  Four years later, she won Olympic trials for the U.S. team at the Astoria Pool in Queens and was set for another gold at the 1936 Berlin Games.  However, an incident occurred which, she later said, “broke my heart but made me famous.”  On the boat crossing to Europe, she was dismissed from the team by U.S. Olympic head Avery Brundage for drinking champagne in public.  The U.S. finished third at Berlin in the 100-meter backstroke.  Holm was the national champion in the 220-yard outdoor backstroke in 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933 and 1936, and in the 100-yard indoors in 1930, 1931, 1932, 1934, 1935 and 1936.  In 1939, she became the star of the “Aquacade” at the New York World’s Fair and later that year married the show’s producer, Broadway showman Billy Rose, the first of her three husbands.

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Bob Kiphuth


Bob Kiphuth (Swimming.  Born, Tonawanda, NY, Nov. 17, 1890; died, New Haven, CT, Jan. 7, 1967.)  For decades the most celebrated and successful swimming coach in the U.S., Robert John Herman Kiphuth was also Yale’s athletic director for three years (1946-49).  Kiphuth coached Yale’s swimming teams for 41 years (1918-59), winning a staggering 528 of 540 dual meets as well as four N.C.A.A. team championships (1942, ‘44, ‘51, ‘53).  He coached eight teams that finished second or tied for second in the N.C.A.A. championships.  Kiphuth was also a five-team coach of the U.S. Olympic swim team.

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Helen Meany


Helen Meany (Swimming. Born, New York, NY, Dec. 5, 1904; died, Old Greenwich, CT, July 21, 1991.) Winning her first national title at age 16, Helen Meany (later Mrs. Gravis) was the first American diver to be selected for three straight Olympics (1920, 1924, 1928). Still another W.S.A.N.Y. star, Meany won 17 A.A.U. national titles (1920-28) and a gold medal at the 1928 Olympics in the springboard. She was also the A.A.U. national outdoor three-meter springboard champion four times, the outdoor platform titlist five times, the indoor three-meter champion twice and the indoor one-meter winner three times. Meany lost her amateur status after giving an exhibition at an event not authorized by the A.A.U. in Miami Beach, Fla., following the 1928 Olympics.

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Martha Norelius


Martha Norelius (Swimming.  Born, Stockholm, Sweden, Jan. 20, 1908; died, St. Louis, MO, Sept. 23, 1955.)  Coming to the U.S. as a child with her swimming coach father (Charles), Martha Norelius was the best freestyle woman swimmer in the world for most of the 1920s.  Norelius joined the Women’s Swimming Association of New York and won 18 national individual championships (1925-29), as well as four relay titles for the W.S.A.N.Y.  She also became the first woman Olympian ever to win the same event in two successive Olympics by winning the 400-meter freestyle in 1924 at Paris and in 1928 at Amsterdam.  Astonishingly, Norelius lost her amateur eligibility in 1929 (and was stripped of five more indoor titles) for giving an exhibition in Miami, Fla., when pros were present.  At the time, she held nine world records.  Norelius turned pro when her defense was rejected and won $10,000 in a Wrigley Challenge race at Toronto.  Later, she married Canadian Olympic sculler Joe Wright, Jr., whom she had met at the Amsterdam Games.

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Cristina Teuscher


Cristina Teuscher (Swimming.  Born, The Bronx, NY, Mar. 12, 1978.)  Seldom, if ever, has an individual overwhelmed her sport in a league as Columbia’s Cristina Teuscher dominated Ivy League women’s swimming.  Teuscher was unbeaten in over 40 collegiate dual meets and was 12-0 in four years in the league’s championship meet, setting records in five events.  She won in all strokes at distances ranging from 100 to 1650 yards.  Teuscher was also the first woman from an Ivy League school to win individual events in the N.C.A.A. championships.  She captured both the 400-yard individual medley and the 500-freestyle at Minneapolis, Minn., in Mar. 1998.  Teuscher also won two events in the 2000 N.C.A.A. championships in Indianapolis, Ind., and produced the fastest 400-meter individual medley in the world up to that point in the year.  During her years at Columbia, Teuscher set 19 varsity and pool women’s records.  Of course, Teuscher’s performance was not really surprising, as she was an Olympic gold medal winner out of New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School at Atlanta in 1996, when she swam the third leg of the winning U.S. team in the 400-meter free-style relay.  What was surprising was that she selected Columbia rather than a more prominent swimming program for her college education.  Another surprise was that while she continued training with her Westchester County swim club, Teuscher competed for her varsity all four years instead of taking semesters off to train for major international events, as many of her peers did.  In her senior year (1999-2000), she won the Honda Award as the nation’s top collegiate female athlete.

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The Bill Shannon Biographical Dictionary of New York Sports is an open database of sports biographies maintained by Jordan Sprechman and Marty Appel. We welcome public and scholarly contributions and suggestions.

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