Tiny Aileen Riggin of Newport, Rhode Island, was only 14 years old when she won her Olympic gold medal in springboard diving. At 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighing 65 pounds, she was the smallest athlete at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.
She was born May 2, 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 6, in Manila Bay, Philippines. 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.
L. de B. Handley, the volunteer coach of the small group, introduced her to the American crawl, which he had perfected. Aileen 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, so she took up diving in 1919. 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 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. Most of the time, the women went to the beach and dove off the planks. There 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. They 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 1920 Olympics at Antwerp, Belgium, was the first Olympics in which women officially competed. Since Aileen was only 14 years old and weighed 65 pounds, she was at first turned down by the 1920 selection committee for being too young. But a team manager, who promised to look after Aileen, persuaded the group to change their thinking. She was one of only 15 American women who attended the Antwerp Games.
To get to Antwerp, they sailed on a battered military transport ship for 13 days, where training was a nightmare. 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. In a tiny canvas tank filled with seawater, the swimmers, one at a time, swam 5 to 10 minutes, held in place by a belt around the waist. Divers could not train at all.
On the ship at night they would all go up onto the deck, play ukuleles and dance the hula. It was just so beautiful and balmy at night when these wonderful Hawaii people were out there singing. This is when Riggin fell in love with Hawaii and their culture. She moved to Hawaii in 1957 and lived there the rest of her life.
At the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, a city still recovering from World War I, the competition was held outdoors in a moat filled with cold, muddy water. The water was deep and dark brown, and you couldn’t see a thing. It was so cold that about half of the water polo players were pulled out due to hypothermia. The stress of competing was the least of Aileen’s worries. She had another mental block about sticking in the mud at the bottom. She thought, The water is black and nobody could find me if I really got stuck down there. And if I were coming down with force, I might go up to my elbows and I’d be stuck permanently, and nobody would miss me and I’d die a horrible drowning death.
The diving board was a plank with no spring. Even without a coach there, the American women swept the medals. After that, American women won every gold medal in Olympic springboard diving until 1960.
Conditions improved for the 1924 Olympics in Paris; the swimming events were actually held in a modern pool. However, Aileen 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. So, using lookouts, the divers plunged into the few gaps between lap-swimming teammates.
She came back from the 1924 Olympics to become the first 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 1967, Aileen Riggin was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as an Honor Diver and Swimmer.
Aileen Soule started Masters Swimming in the mid-1980s when she was 80 years old. She swam freestyle and backstroke events in the W80-84, W85-89 and W90-94 age groups, and set 35 National Records; was All-American 10 times, and has 76 Individual Top-10 times.
She was very competitive and would say, “I can’t wait until I reach 90. I will have all these young 80-year-old whippersnappers at my heels.”