Arts and Leisure

Flashback Photo: Aileen Riggin, Tiny Swimmer Who Made a Big Splash

Aileen Riggin at the 1920 olympics.

Aileen Riggin at the 1920 olympics.

Aileen Riggin, a Newport, R.I., native, spent a life of watery triumph. She became an Olympic gold-medal winner at the age of 14 — the youngest and smallest world champion to that point. At 4’7″ and 65 pounds, she barely rippled the water when she dove.

She accomplished that feat in 1920 in Antwerp when she won the gold medal for women’s springboard diving. It was the first Olympic swimming competition ever, which created problems for Aileen. She was only notified of the required 10 dives two months before the event. When she finally received the rulebook in the mail, she found it was written in French. She had to go to the dictionary to find out what a coup de pied à la lune was. (It’s a gainer.) And two dives were added to the competition just minutes before it began.

Aileen Riggin in 1920

Aileen Riggin in 1920

When she boarded the boat for Antwerp in 1920, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to compete. Some Olympic officials didn’t want women competing, and they certainly didn’t want a 14-year-old. The diving board was a plank with no spring and the water was black and icy cold. She adapted.

She would repeat with a silver medal in 1924 in Paris and a bronze for the 100-meter backstroke. One of her teammates was a rower from Yale named Benjamin Spock.

Born in Newport on May 2, 1906, Aileen Riggin was a Navy brat who traveled the world and never lost her love of the water. She learned to swim at age 6 in Manila Bay, but began to swim for her health at her doctor’s suggestion after she recovered from the flu in the 1918 influenza epidemic. She took up diving in 1919, a controversial sport for women because people thought it would injure their health.

Following the Olympics victories, she made a career of swimming, appearing in films and exhibitions. (Watch a video of her diving here.) In 1925 she began giving swimming and diving exhibitions in England and Wales. The next year she dove into six feet of water for three weeks at New York’s Hippodrome.  She toured with Gertrude Ederle, her former Olympic teammate, after Ederle swam the English Channel. In 1937, she organized and starred in the Billy Rose Aquacade at the Great Lakes Exposition.

She married Howard Soule and changed her name to Aileen Riggin Soule, becoming a newspaper sports columnist under that name. She wrote books about her experiences swimming, which she never stopped. After moving to Hawaii in 1957, she swam three miles a week in the ocean into her 90s. She founded the Hawaii Senior Games Association, and at 85 she broke six world records for her age group in the world masters championships.

Aileen Riggin Soule passed away at age 96 in Honolulu. Before her death, she was the only surviving member of the 1920 Olympics team.

This story was updated from the 2014 version.

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