Back in Time: Answer Man Learns to swim with Florence Skadding, the 1920s ‘Washington Mermaid’

Florence Skadding, left, and H.J. McMillan in 1925 at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md. (Library of Congress)

by John Kelly (Answer Man)

Washington Post Columnist

June 17, 2017

As comfortable as Florence Skadding was in the water — the “Washington Mermaid,” some called her — she must have felt a bit uneasy as she floundered briefly in the Atlantic City inlet channel on Sept. 5, 1923.

The 21-year-old Florence was participating in a 440-yard ocean-swimming race, but had been blinded by waves and backwash churned up by several passing motorboats.

The headline in the next day’s Washington Post story — “Florence Skadding Near Death in Swim” — was perhaps a tad melodramatic, but things had definitely been touch and go for a while. “Several police boats and a coast guard cutter signaled from the shore went to her assistance,” The Post reported, “but the Washington girl, recovering her sight after a few seconds, refused to be taken aboard any of the vessels and swam to shore.”

Florence came in sixth out of eight swimmers. Florence was not used to coming in sixth.

Answer Man has been perusing old stories about swimming in Washington. He kept encountering a short-and-stocky natator named Florence Skadding. She competed in diving competitions around town. She performed swimming exhibitions. She taught lifesaving. She coached swim teams.

“Washington Mermaid,” indeed. If it was wet, Florence wanted to be in it or on it. (She also enjoyed canoeing.)

Florence never competed in the Olympics — she tried out for the 1924 Games but failed to earn a spot — but she served as Washington’s unofficial “first lady of swimming.”

She shot to prominence in 1920 at the Tidal Basin, which once sported a whites-only beach, roughly where the Jefferson Memorial is now. While other competitors in the weekly women’s races employed the demure side stroke — thought to be more appropriate for the fairer sex — Florence dared to swim the crawl.

“She was a woman and women didn’t do these things back in those days,” said Florence’s older daughter, Peggy Dwyer of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It was like a no-no, but she did it anyway.”

Florence was in the first organized unit of the American Red Cross Women’s Life Saving Corps, established in 1920. She won lifesaving competitions that included not just swimming but also such events as the “head carry” and the “cross shoulder carry.”

When The Post wanted to illustrate a story in 1925 on proper swimming technique, it photographed Florence doing the breaststroke, writing: “Look closely at the surface of the water and see if you cannot make out the frog position of her legs.”

She also took part in “aquaplaning,” a competition that saw swimmers pulled behind speedboats as they stood on what resembled Boogie Boards.

In 1932, Florence married Lyman E. Morris, an officer in the Army Air Corps and a Riggs Bank executive, or, as The Post put it, she “quit swimming pools to embark on the sea of matrimony as Mrs. Morris.”

“That didn’t last very long,” snorted Peggy when Answer Man read that line to her. Peggy said her mother didn’t really slow down: “She used to teach adult swimming classes at the Shoreham Hotel. I was 4 years old. She would take me along because I could swim. I would just fool around in the shallow end while she taught adult women.”

Florence also took kids from her Barnaby Woods neighborhood to the city pool in Takoma and taught them to swim.

In 1960, as she prepared to move with Lyman to West Palm Beach, Fla., Florence reflected on the ways her favorite pastime had changed. There were heated pools now, she told The Post, and lane markers. But the main change was in who was swimming.

“It used to be that only young people went swimming,” Florence said. “But I’ve taught many women in their 60s and 70s to swim and they enjoy it very much.”

Florence’s grandson Kurt Wienants, himself a swimmer, said that well into her 80s Florence would attend diving competitions and sit on the pool deck, close to the water she loved so much.

“She was barely able to walk, but she was always there,” he said.

Florence Skadding Morris died, at 87, in 1989.

**Florence Skadding Morris’ daughter, Peggy, who is mentioned in the article,  swam regularly at the Hall of Fame pool for dozens and dozens of years.  And her grandson, Kurt Weinants, also mentioned, swam for the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team, the University of Miami and Jack Nelson for many years.  Kurt now has a son himself, who is also a swimmer.  I think Florence would be very proud the family is keeping her love of swimming alive.

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