WMU News

Origins of U.S. women's swimming success

Sept. 12, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- When Amy Van Dyken, Lindsay Benko, Kristi Kowal and any of the other 21 members of the U.S. women's Olympic swimming team dive in during competition, they have Charlotte Epstein to thank for their being there.

According to Dr. Linda J. Borish, associate professor of history and women's studies at WMU, Epstein, who died in 1938, was the force behind the formation and acceptance of the first female swimmers to compete for medals in an Olympic Games.

Epstein, known as the "mother of women's swimming in America," formed the Women's Swimming Association in New York City in 1917 with the intention of teaching women to swim and preparing them for competitive swim events, which up until then didn't exist at national or Olympic levels. She is the one who challenged the U.S. Olympic Committee to allow women the opportunity to compete in the 1920 games in Antwerp, Belgium.

"Back then there was not a lot of support for women in competition," Borish explains. "Eppie showed a lot of skill in battling the Olympic committee to allow women. They didn't want women to participate, not to mention little girls. One of the youngest stars of the team, Aileen Riggin, was only 14 and a half when she competed and won a gold medal in fancy diving."

Borish, who interviewed Riggin and has researched other members of early Olympic teams, says the American women went to the 1920 Olympics and were spectacularly successful, producing numerous Olympic champions. U.S. women have been a dominant force in the sport ever since.

"When the team returned from Belgium they were adored. Many people wanted to have their daughters learn to swim. Charlotte Epstein was responsible for setting up the club structure that still exists today in some places to encourage and train swimmers for competition. She also was appointed the first U.S. Olympic women's swim team manager and had a role as an Olympic and swimming official," says Borish. "When it comes down to it, the Olympic success of U.S. women's swimming needs to be attributed to her."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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