Throwback Thursday – Aileen Riggin competes in Paris 1924 Olympics and does what no other woman does or ever has!

As we prepare to be thrilled by the athletes competing in Paris this Summer at the Olympic Games, let’s remember that exactly 100 years ago in the very same city, athletes were impressing our ancestors just as much! One such athlete was 14 year old, ISHOF Honoree, Aileen Riggin.

Aileen Riggin was born to be something special. Her father was a paymaster for the U.S.  Navy, so the family lived all over the world.  Born in Newport, Rhode Island, she learned to swim in Manila Bay, (Philippines) when she was six. After the family moved back to the states, they settled down in New York City where Aileen became a member of the famed WSA in New York.  She was coached by the famous ISHOF Honor Coach, Louis de B. Handley of the NYAC, a double gold medalist in his own right at the 1904 Olympic Games. Not only a swimmer, Aileen began diving, where she discovered her prior ballet training helped with her form in the sport. In the early 1900’s, girls did not play sports or have places to practice, so Aileen came up with places to dive own her own, which included tide pools near her home.

At the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Aileen became the youngest U.S. Olympic champion and the first women’s Olympic springboard diving champion.  Riggin accomplished these honors, just as she had passed her 14th birthday.  The Antwerp Games were the first time that American women participated in regular Olympic events.  “Our participation was limited in those days to swimming. Track and field events came later for women, as well as gymnastics, fencing, and various other sports that women compete in today,” said Riggin.

At only 14 years old, it was amazing enough winning a gold medal, but Riggin did it alone. No parents, siblings, just teammates and of course coaches, who were basically adults, no parents, peers or friends. She traveled from her home in New York all the way to Antwerp, Belguim on a steamship to compete in her first Olympic Games and came away with gold. It can’t hurt to add that she also competed in the 10-meter platform event, where she may not have medaled, but she placed 5th….in the world!

She may have travelled alone to the Games, but Aileen recalled, “There was a great deal to do on the ship. In the evenings before curfew, we would go up on the top decks and gather around and listen to our Hawaiian team members sing and play their ukuleles and guitars. There were about 11 of them, and they were all swimmers.” The most prominent was Duke Kahanamoku, who won the 100-meter freestyle in Stockholm in 1912 and was to repeat his victory in Antwerp in 1920. “They were very accomplished musicians, and everyone seemed to have a beautiful, sweet voice. We were entranced listening to them and sitting under the full moon, sailing across the Atlantic. Even though we were supposed to be children, it was a most romantic experience.”

1924 would be the Olympic Games where Aileen would make history. It has been 100 years and STILL no one has done what Aileen Riggin was able to do in the 1924 Games.

At the 1924 Olympic Games, Riggin was and still is the only woman in Olympic History to win medals in both diving AND swimming. Aileen won a silver medal in the 3-meter springboard event and a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke event.   

If no woman started earlier as an amateur champion, certainly no professional woman stayed on top longer.  Riggin decided to turn professional in 1926. She played the Hippodrome for three weeks, and toured with English Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle six months after her famous swim.  1930 saw Riggin touring the globe; she worked steadily, from making Hollywood pictures to helping coach and organize Billy Rose’s first Aquacade where she also starred in, at the 1937 Cleveland Exposition.  She even dabble in writing articles on her adventures, which appeared in magazines such as Colliers, Good Housekeeping and others.

Aileen eventually retired, married twice and had a family.  Her first husband was killed in WWII.  With her second husband, Howard Soule, she moved to Honolulu where she lived for almost 50 years.

Later in life, Aileen was one of the most popular and sought after Olympians and Celebrities in swimming in the U.S. and particularly Hawaii, where she lived with her husband.  She was Team USA’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies at the 1984 Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles. When the Olympic Games came back to the U.S., in Atlanta, 1996, Aileen was given the honor of being invited to speak to Team USA prior to the start of the Games.

Aileen continued to swim for recreation, health and because she enjoyed it.  She even swam and competed in Master Swimming.  At the age of 85, she broke six world records in her age group, in the freestyle and backstroke events, and by the time she upped to the next age group she broke five more world records.

By the turn on the new century, she was celebrated as the nation’s oldest living Olympic female gold medalist and she was the only surviving Champion of the 1920 Games. She passed away peacefully in 2002 in Honolulu and will always be remembered as a Pioneer in Women’s Sports.

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