Bleibtrey, Ethelda M. (1902–1978)

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Bleibtrey, Ethelda M. (1902–1978)

American swimmer and Olympic gold medalist. Born in Waterford, New York, on February 27, 1902; died in May 1978; lived in New York City; married; children: a daughter who was also a swimmer.

Won Olympic gold medals in 100-meter freestyle, 300-meter freestyle, and the 4×100 freestyle relay in Antwerp (1920); won the U.S. national championship in the 100 yards (1921).

Ethelda Bleibtrey won three gold medals in the three swimming events allowed to women in the 1920 Olympics held in Antwerp, Belgium. The first American woman to win a gold medal in her sport, she took the 100- and 300-meter freestyle, and with teammates Margaret Woodbridge, Frances Schroth , and Irene Guest won a team gold in the 4×100 relay at a time of 5:11.6. All three of Bleibtrey's winning times were world records. A year later, she won the U.S. national championship in the 100 yards with a time of 1:03.4 (without the benefit of starting blocks and modern turns), a record that would hold for 11 years. On a public beach, her fame, as well as her thin, one-piece tank suit, drew crowds.

Previously, however, Bleibtrey had been barred from swimming in the Hudson River in her hometown of Waterford, New York, because of what she called her "perfectly respectable bathing suit." The irony was not lost on her when she was asked "to exhibit in the same town after I had become well-known, at which time I wore a silk racing suit which was acceptable all over the world but not in Waterford, New York, unless the rest of the world liked it too." She retired undefeated in 1922 and wrote articles on swimming for Liberty, McCall's, and New York World.