American women dominated the swimming competition at the London Olympics, earning a total of sixteen medals in seventeen events. This template of success was set already at the 1920 Games, the first Olympics in which American women swimmers competed. Women’s swimming races had been introduced in 1912 at Stockholm, but U.S. women had been barred from attending by their own country’s athletics officials. When they were finally able to compete in Antwerp, the American women, led by 18-year-old Ethelda Bleibtrey, swept all of the medals in the two individual events and won gold in the one relay race. In successive games from the Thirties through the Fifties, swimmers from the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary, and Australia bested American women. And of course, the infamous East German women reigned at Montreal, Moscow, and Seoul. But throughout the history of the Olympics, American women swimmers have consistently shown themselves to be among the best in the world.
According to Lisa Bier, female swimmers must also be considered the ultimate trailblazers in early women’s sports in the United States. The barriers they faced were not simply the male leaders of American amateur athletics, or the men and women who felt that participation in any sport was contrary to female nature. They also had to deal with gawkers eager to see a bit of skin, and police who forced them to cover up (the aforementioned Bleibtrey was arrested for “nude swimming” when she appeared on a beach without her stockings). And above all, both female and male swimmers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had to ply through bays and rivers that also served as city dumps. Lisa’s book Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870-1926 (McFarland, 2011) details these obstacles and presents the women who battled them: swim teachers who promoted water safety, racers who moonlighted as Vaudeville performers, and lifeguards who became Olympians. If you’re looking for a book for that last day on the beach, this one offers a colorful view of what it was like, a century ago, to take a trip to the shore, put on a swimsuit, and jump in the water.