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Remembering Aileen Riggin Soule

Former Olympic swimmer and diver

Frank Litsky | April 29, 2003

Aileen Riggin Soule, Olympic Swimmer and Diver, Dies at 96

October 21, 2002, By FRANK LITSKY, The New York Times

Aileen Riggin Soule, a diver and swimmer who at age 14 became the youngest American Olympic gold medalist and later became the oldest living American female gold medalist, died Thursday in a nursing home in Honolulu. She was 96.

At the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, Riggin won the first gold medal awarded in women's springboard diving and became, at four feet seven inches and 65 pounds, the smallest American Olympic champion. In the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, she became the only woman to win medals in swimming and diving in the same Olympics, taking the silver medal in springboard diving and the bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke.

In 1974, in one of the many articles she wrote on her career, she said:

"My most unforgettable experience would have to be as the youngest member of the first American women's Olympic swimming and diving team in 1920. I was a very small 14-year-old. Until two months before the tryouts, we had no idea of the dives required, and some were entirely new. Lacking precedent, we learned as we went along, yet practice was uncertain as the boards were not standardized.”

"When the book of rules arrived, it was in French and sent us to the dictionary to discover what a 'coup de pied à la lune' was. It turned out to be a gainer (a dive now known as a reverse). There were also 12 dives instead of the usual 10, two of which to be drawn from a hat just before the contest."

Last-minute preparation was the story of her career. She was born in 1906, in Newport, R.I., and reared in New York City. Her father was a Navy paymaster, and she traveled extensively with her parents.

She learned to swim at age six, in Manila Bay. In 1918, she came down with influenza during the epidemic that swept the United States during World War I. On her doctor's recommendation that she swim for her health, she joined the celebrated Women's Swimming Association team in New York.

In 1919, when she took up diving, there were no indoor pools with diving boards available to women. Many people thought women should not dive at all because it would injure their health.

The only place to practice in the metropolitan New York area was a tidal pool on Long Island, an hour from the city. When the tide rose, the board was about 10 feet above the surface, about the height of a 3-meter springboard. When the tide was out, the drop was 14 feet, so the divers tried to time their practices for high tide in warm weather on weekends.

Even with those poor training conditions, Riggin finished second in the United States Olympic trials behind Helen Wainwright, who was also 14. But until the day before the boat sailed for Antwerp, they were not sure they would be able to compete in the Olympics because many officials did not want women, much less two 14-year-olds. But because Riggin and Wainwright had also made the Olympic team as swimmers, they went.

For 13 days, they sailed on a battered military transport ship, where training was a nightmare. Riggin recalled: "I remember the javelin throwers could tie a rope around their javelin, throw them out to sea and pull them back. The shooters used clay pigeons until they ran out. After a while, the sea gulls were looking pretty good."

“In a tiny canvas tank filled with seawater, the swimmers, one at a time, swam five to 10 minutes, held in place by a belt around the waist. Divers could not train at all."

In Antwerp, a city still recovering from World War I, the swimmers and divers competed in a moat-like canal. Ethelda Bleibtrey, the American who won gold medals in all three women's races, told King Albert I of Belgium, "I swam in mud, not water."

The diving board was a plank with no spring, and, Riggin said, "the water was black and icy cold." Without a coach there, the American women swept the medals, with Wainwright winning the silver and Thelma Payne the bronze. After that, American women won every gold medal in Olympic springboard diving until 1960.

In 1924, Riggin was an Olympian again, joining American teammates like Johnny Weissmuller, who later gained fame playing Tarzan, and a Yale rower named Benjamin Spock.

"Being 18 and being in Paris was wonderful," she said. "The sun was shining, we read Hemingway and we were just carried away."

She was in the first underwater swimming film in 1922 and the first slow-motion swimming and diving films in 1923. She turned professional in 1925, giving diving exhibitions and swimming demonstrations in England and Wales.

In 1926, she played three weeks at the Hippodrome in New York, diving into a glass tank, into six feet of water. After her former swimming teammate Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel, Riggin and Ederle toured for six months. In 1937, at the Cleveland Exposition, Riggin helped organize and star in the first Billy Rose Aquacade.

She toured the world, appeared in movies and wrote a sports column for The New York Evening Post and articles for national magazines. In 1967, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She never stopped swimming or lecturing or writing about it, and at 85 she broke six world records for her age group in the world Masters championships.

She and her husband, Howard Soule, who died several years ago, moved to Hawaii in 1957 and lived in a Diamond Head apartment in Honolulu. Even into her 90s, she swam three miles a week in the ocean.

She is survived by a daughter, Yvonne May of Zurich; a stepdaughter, Patti Anderson of Honolulu; and two stepsons, Bruce Soule of Newport Beach, Calif., and Wallace Soule of Bakersfield, Calif.

In 1996, when asked if she had any goals in addition to attending the Atlanta Olympics, she replied: "Yes. I'd like to continue—life in general, that is."

New York Times Obituary

See also: Eileen Riggin Story

Posted on: Saturday, October 19, 2002, Aileen Riggin Soule, Olympic medalist, dead at 96, by Brandon Masuoka, Advertiser Staff Writer

Longtime Hawaii resident Aileen Riggin Soule, a record-setting Olympic diver and swimmer whose talents earned her movie fame and a moonlight dance with legendary Duke Kahanamoku, died Thursday in Hawaii after a months-long illness. She was 96.

In the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, the 65-pound, 14-year-old plunged into a muddy Belgian canal and became the youngest woman to win a gold medal.

Four years later in Paris, where she was a teammate with Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller, Soule became the first and still the only woman to win medals in swimming (bronze) and diving (silver) in the same Olympics.

"I know she's up there with the Duke and Johnny Weissmuller having a little chardonnay and champagne," daughter Patricia Soule Anderson said.

Soule, who moved to Hawaii in 1957, was remembered yesterday by friends and family as a pioneer of women's sports and a spunky celebrity who continued to set local age-class swimming records well into her 90s. Soule also appeared in several Hollywood films, including "Roman Scandals" (1933) and "One in a Million" (1936).

Soule will be one of the posthumous inductees in the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame and Museum Nov. 23 at the Elks Lodge in Waikiki.

"Swimming was her world and her life," Anderson said. "That's what kept her going. She always swam. She said, 'I can't wait until I reach 90. I have all these young 80-year-old whippersnappers at my heels.’"

Soule was four when she first saw Hawaii and later fell in love with the Islands after ukulele serenades by Kahanamoku and other Hawaii athletes during Olympic boat rides in 1920 and 1924.

"When she went to the Olympics for the first time, Duke Kahanamoku and other Olympians were on the same ship and at night they would all go up onto the deck, play ukuleles and dance the hula," Anderson said. "She said it was just so beautiful and balmy at night when these wonderful Hawaii people were out there singing."

Hawaii Olympian Evelyn Kawamoto-Konno, 69, said she was impressed with Soule's verve. Konno met Soule during a limousine ride to an Olympic fund-raiser at the Ihilani Resort & Spa several years ago.

"I was just amazed that this woman in her 90s at the time was still swimming every day," said Kawamoto-Konno, who won two bronze swimming medals at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. "She was in great shape. It was fascinating just to listen to this silver-haired tiny woman. She was quite a celebrity. She was someone you looked up to."

Born in Newport, R.I., Soule learned to swim at age six in the Philippines, where her father, a Navy officer, was stationed. At 11, she joined the newly formed Women's Swimming Association of New York.

L. de B. Handley, the volunteer coach of the small group, introduced her to the American crawl, which he had perfected. Soule progressed rapidly. However, weighing only 65 pounds, she was not yet strong enough to compete with the best swimmers in the New York area. Having studied ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, she saw much the same discipline in diving and began moving in that direction.

"The men had places like the New York Athletic Club and some private clubs, but there weren't many pools in New York, especially for women," Soule said in a 1984 interview. "Most of the time, we'd go to the beach and dive off the planks. We finally found a pool over in New Jersey that had a 10-foot board. But the pool was only 6-feet deep, so it was very dangerous."

The 14-year-old Soule placed second in platform diving and third in springboard diving at the Olympic tryouts of 1920.

"As it turned out, the girl who won the springboard, Helen Wainwright, was also 14, and the girl who won the high dive was 15," she said. "The officials said they would take women, reluctantly, but they wouldn't take children and they wouldn't be responsible for them. That started a hoopla in the New York papers. We had our trunks all packed. We unpacked them and we cried.”

"Then some of the women got really annoyed and they descended on the U.S. Olympic Committee and said, 'These kids won fairly and deserve to go, and we will be personally responsible for them.'”

“In those days, we were really kids, not as sophisticated as the young girls today. They finally agreed to let us go."

Soule went on to capture the gold medal in springboard diving at 1920 Antwerp Olympics, the first Olympics in which women officially competed. Four years later, at the Paris Olympics, she won the silver medal in springboard diving and a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke.

In 1926, after establishing herself as one of the first world-class women athletes, Soule turned professional, giving swimming and diving exhibitions worldwide and serving as an instructor.

Soule was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1967 and served as Grande Dame of the Hall during 1988.

Her athletic career did not end in her youth. She set an age-class record in the 1976 Waikiki Roughwater Swim and set numerous world age-class records in pool swimming well into her 90s. She swam almost daily in the ocean behind her Waikiki apartment.

Soule is survived by daughters Yvonne Young May of Switzerland and Patricia Soule Anderson of Honolulu, sons Bruce Soule of Newport Beach, Calif., and Wallace Soule of Bakersfield, Calif., three grandchildren and two great-grandsons.

Private services will be conducted with a scattering of ashes off Diamond Head. Donations should be made to Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, care of Outrigger Canoe Club.

Mike Tymn contributed to this report.

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Aileen Riggin (USA) was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Diver and Swimmer in 1967. The following text was included in the program for the induction ceremony of that year:

The youngest U.S. Olympic champion, the tiniest anywhere Olympic champion and the first women's Olympic springboard diving champion is Aileen Riggin. All these honors were won in the 1920 Olympics by Miss Riggin when she had just passed her 14th birthday. The picture of her beside the N.Y.A.C. shotput champion as the "littlest and biggest Olympians" is a classic.

The question after a 14 year old has this record should be: "but what could she do for an encore?" She did it. In the 1924 Olympics an 18 year old Miss Riggin was more rounded, was and is the only girl in Olympic history to win medals in both diving and swimming (silver in three-meter springboard and bronze in 100-meter backstroke). Nor were all of Miss Riggin's Olympian feats in Olympics. She was high point woman (swimming and diving) in the U.S. National AAU Championships, won three outdoor, one indoor national springboard titles, was part of two national 800-meter and one 400-yard, freestyle relay team winners for W.S.A., the New York club celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, with Aileen Riggin a 1917 charter member. Her relay teammates Hall of Famer Gertrude Ederle, Helen Wainwright, Ethel McGary, Doris O'Mara, Charlotte Boyle, Sybil Bauer and another great diver-swimmer Helen Meany. She made the first underwater and the first slow-motion swimming and diving films for Grantland Rice in 1922 and 1923.

If no woman started earlier as an amateur champion, certainly no woman pro stayed on the top longer. Aileen Riggin turned pro in 1926, played the Hippodrome three weeks, and toured with Ederle six months after her Channel swim. She toured the world in 1930, including the Swedish World's Fair, worked steadily, including many Hollywood pictures, helped interview, organize and coach Billy Rose's first Aquacade in which she also starred, at the 1937 Cleveland Exposition. Her articles appeared in Colliers, Good Housekeeping and other national magazines.

Aileen Riggin, still petite at 61, is now Mrs. Howard Soule, living in Honolulu. No girl athlete in U.S. history has captured the hearts of her country so completely as she did in 1920.

Aileen today, from Swim magazine

At 90 years young, Aileen Soule is still swimming full steam ahead. She continues to set records and add to an already incredibly impressive athletic career. She finished 1996 with 13 first-place finishes, 11 national records and five world records in the 90-94 age group.

Soule started Masters in the mid-1980s when she was 80, but she had already been swimming for most of her life. "I'm very competitive," she says. "I like to compete." Years ago, when she had what she calls "trouble keeping up with the bigger girls," her ballet background from studying at the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet in New York City greatly helped her other endeavor—artistic diving. As 14-year-old Aileen Riggins, she won a gold medal in fancy diving in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. She also swam freestyle and backstroke, saying that in those days, swimmers did everything and did not specialize.

Four years later, she came back to win a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke as well as a silver in fancy diving at the Paris Olympics. Afterward, she made a world tour giving diving exhibitions. In 1967, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Last year Soule became an Avon ambassador along with Nancy Hogshead, Janet Evans and other female athletes, traveling the country and giving motivational speeches to high school girls. She was also honored for her achievements in 1920 during the parade of athletes at the opening ceremonies at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Currently. Soule is taking a little time away from training to rest from Christmas-time and the 10 trips she made to the mainland last year. "It's quite exhausting when you're trying to stay in form." When training, she swims a mile nonstop three times a week. "That's it; I figure that's about right for my age."

Soule is looking toward the Pan Pacific Masters Championships in Maui this year—a little closer to home. She say's it pays to keep going. "I'm the oldest now. I was the youngest 77 years ago, so now I'm the oldest woman." Avon and Nissan brought Soule to the Atlanta Olympics so she could enjoy some of the sports she continues to pioneer. Frankly, "I'm afraid to stop swimming," she says, "so I just kept on going."

by Lee Nessel , published in SWIM magazine, March-April 1997

AILEEN RIGGIN SOULE, 1920 - Antwerp, and 1924 - Paris

Aileen Riggin Soule is the only American ever to compete as both a swimmer and a diver in the Olympics. Soule captured the gold in the three-meter springboard diving at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium. Four years later in Paris, she brought home a silver medal in the springboard diving and won a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke.

Soule, age 90 and a resident of Hawaii, was one of only 15 American women who attended the Antwerp Games. Actually, the 1920 Olympics were the first to admit women into competition, although women had participated in a diving exhibition in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Only 14 years old and weighing 65 pounds, Soule was at first turned down by the 1920 selection committee for being too young. But a team manager, who promised to look after Soule, persuaded the group to change their thinking.

In Antwerp, the swimming and diving competitions were held in a canal. "The water was deep and dark brown, and you couldn't see a thing," she says. "It was so cold that about half of the water polo players were pulled out due to hypothermia."

Conditions improved for the 1924 Olympics in Paris; the swimming events were actually held in a modern pool. However, Soule found practicing for both swimming and diving events to be impossible. "The U.S. swimming and diving teams were given one hour to practice - in the same pool," she says. So, using lookouts, the divers plunged into the few gaps between lap-swimming teammates.”

Soule continues to attend local, national and international Masters meets, and holds national and world records in the backstroke events. She is a member of Humuhumunukunukuapuaa (HUMU) Masters in Honolulu, Hawaii. For the 1996 Games, she is working with Olympic sponsor Avon and appears on posters with fellow Olympians Janet Evans and Nancy Hogshead.

by Scott Rabalais , published in SWIM magazine, May-June 1996

("Humuhumunukunukuapua'a" means "little fish")

Aileen R. Soule lives in Honolulu, Hawaii and swims for Humuhumunukunukuapuaa.

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