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Bleibtrey, Ethelda

BLEIBTREY, Ethelda

(b. 27 February 1902 in Waterford, New York; d. 6 May 1978 in West Palm Beach, Florida), swimmer who was the first woman to win three gold medals in the Olympic Games and was hailed in her day as the "world's greatest woman swimmer."

Bleibtrey was the second child of John E. Bleibtrey, a funeral director, and Marguerite Quandt, a sales clerk. Her parents separated early, and her mother supported Ethelda and her brother John by working behind the counter at Bloomingdale's department store. Bleibtrey grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Erasmus Hall High School.

Bleibtrey, who suffered as a child from the effects of polio, took up competitive swimming at age sixteen in 1918 to help her regain physical strength. She joined the Women's Swimming Association (WSA), a New York organization founded the previous year by Charlotte Epstein. Under the masterful tutelage of renowned swimming coach, Louis deBreda Handley, Bleibtrey advanced from a novice to a world class competitive swimmer by the spring of 1919, when she set world marks in the 100-yard backstroke and 440-yard freestyle (the latter record was disallowed due to an insufficient number of timers). She also won Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles in the 440-yard and 880-yard freestyle events. She came to international prominence in August of that year, when in a 100-yard exhibition race she beat the veteran Australian swimming star, Fanny Durack, who had been presumed to be the best in the world.

Also in 1919, Bleibtrey helped advance the cause of women swimming, when at Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, New York, she swam in public without wearing the heavy woolen stockings that women bathers were expected to wear. The police cited her for "nude swimming," but the public sided with Bleibtrey, and it soon became acceptable for women to go to the beaches with legs bared. A year later, she became one of the first women of note to cut her hair in the daring new bob style.

By the indoor season of early 1920, when Bleibtrey captured AAU titles in the 100-yard freestyle and 100-yard back-stroke, she had become the star of a WSA team that was filled with future Olympians, notably Charlotte Boyle, Aileen Riggin, and Helen Wainwright. During the summer, Bleibtrey took national AAU outdoor titles in the 100-yard, 880-yard, and one-mile freestyle events, and set world records in the 100-yard, 220-yard, 500-yard, and one-mile freestyle events. Bleibtrey not only swept all her competitors, she beat them by wide margins and in all kinds of conditions.

When the Olympic Games opened in Antwerp, Belgium, in August 1920, Bleibtrey was the strongest competitor of the U.S. inaugural women's swimming team. She probably would have won four medals at the games had there been a backstroke event for women, as she was the world record holder at the time. In the only three events available to her—the 100-meter freestyle, 300-meter freestyle, and 400-meter freestyle relay—she won handily in cold and muddy swimming conditions (Belgium had no indoor or outdoor pool facilities in Antwerp, and swimmers had to compete in a tidal estuary). She also set individual world records in the 100 meters (1:13.6) and 300 meters (4:34.0) and anchored the U.S. relay team to achieve a world record in the 400-meter relay (5:11.6). While Bleibtrey was the first woman to win a gold medal for the United States, she was not the first American woman Olympic champion (champion golfer Margaret Abbott had been awarded a porcelain bowl for first place in the 1900 Olympics).

In early 1921, Bleibtrey went on a tour to promote women's swimming, traveling to New Zealand and Australia, and back through Hawaii. Besides winning all her races on the tour, she participated in a "photo op" in Hawaii, surfing with swimming great Duke Kahanamoku. Returning to the competitive wars during the summer of 1921, Bleibtrey won the AAU outdoor titles in 100-yard, 440-yard, and 880-yard freestyle events. Indoors, she notched another 100-yard championship.

In the spring of 1922, Bleibtrey toured the Canal Zone and gave swimming exhibitions. She then shocked the swimming world in May when she turned professional—at the time she held five world records and had won every race she entered since starting competitive swimming in 1919. She soon discovered, however, that the demand for a professional swimmer giving exhibitions was limited. In the summer of 1922 a spate of world records broken by Sybil Bauer (of the Illinois Athletic Club) in the backstroke and Gertrude Ederle (of the WSA) in the freestyle events captured the public attention, shifting the focus from Bleibtrey. She eventually found work as a swimming coach and instructor. Early in 1927, Bleibtrey married businessman Frederick MacRobert; the couple had one daughter, Leilah.

In 1928 Bleibtrey signed a fourteen-week contract with the Keith Theater vaudeville circuit to present swimming exhibitions on stage, but the tour was aborted the day before it opened when the canvas tank leaked its contents and ruined all the theater's carpeting. The theater demanded $1,000 from Bleibtrey for damages, but the New York Daily News, which was campaigning for more public pools, came to her rescue, paying Bleibtrey $1,000 to be arrested swimming in the Central Park's reservoir, where swimming was barred for health reasons. She spent a night in jail, but the subsequent publicity helped bring about the construction of more public pools in the city.

Bleibtrey divorced her husband by the early 1930s and subsequently supported herself and her daughter on income from teaching swimming to children and providing physiotherapy to cerebral palsy and polio patients. She became a practical nurse in 1959 and used her skills to help elderly people and people with disabilities. Bleibtrey's second husband was Al Schlafke, a sportswriter.

In 1967 Bleibtrey was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The following year, she moved from New York to North Palm Beach, Florida, where she continued her work using therapeutic swimming to help elderly people stay limber. She died of cancer in West Palm Beach.

As one of the most accomplished women swimmers in the history of the sport, Bleibtrey earned the accolade "the world's greatest" in her day, but she proved to be much more than a champion swimmer. She was also a bold pioneer and advocate for the advancement of women in athletics and the advancement of swimming as a public recreation, as well as a lifelong proponent and practitioner of swimming as a therapeutic tool for the aged and disabled. Among the few biographical profiles on Bleibtrey are Julius J. Heller, "Waterford Girl, Who Made Biggest Splash in the '20 Olympics, Still Is 'in the Swim,'" Albany, N.Y., Knickerbocker News (30 July 1952); Russ Ramsey, "The First and Greatest," Swimming World (July 1986); Buck Dawson, Weissmuller to Spitz: An Era to Remember (1989); and Paula Welch, "Ethelda Bleibtrey," The Twentieth Century: Great Athletes (1992). An obituary is in the New York Times (9 May 1978).

Robert Pruter

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