The ancient Olympics were for male athletes only. A woman could score a victory only as a horse owner, not as the jockey.
The modern Olympics recognized swimming at the 1896 Games, but the first women swimmers did not compete until 1912. Those first female swimmers made waves, and the ripple effect will be felt this year in Rio!
The Stockholm Games
Stockholm, Sweden, hosted the 1912 Olympics. In the prior games, London 1908, women athletes could compete only in tennis, golf, archery, and figure skating. But on July 8, 1912, women’s swimming and diving debuted on the Olympic roster.
Of the 2,407 athletes who participated in Stockholm, only 48 were women. Overall, 120 swimmers represented 17 countries; among the women, 27 swimmers represented eight countries.
The U.S. didn’t allow women to compete unless they wore long skirts. That meant no Olympic swimming for American women.
The 27 women swimmers could compete in just two swimming events: the 100-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter freestyle relay. By comparison, male swimmers had seven events, including backstroke and breaststroke races and a 1500-meter freestyle.
Australasia on the Podium
Fanny Durack of Australasia (as the combined Australian and New Zealand team was then called) competed in the 100-meter freestyle using the new crawl stroke developed in Australia.
During her quarterfinal heat, Durack set a new world record, posting a finishing time of 1:19.8. The former world-record holder, British swimmer Daisy Curwen, also planned to participate, but an emergency appendectomy ended her Olympic dreams.
In the finals, Durack won with a 2.8-second lead over longtime rival and fellow Australaisian, Wilhelmina Wylie. Jennie Fletcher of Great Britain took the bronze. (Fletcher earned a gold medal as part of that year’s British relay team.)
Durack’s victory pushed Australasia into the second-place spot for overall swimming medals. Only Germany claimed more swimming medals with seven, including silver for the women's relay.
The Legacy of the Stockholm Swimmers
These women paved the way for increased participation in competitive sports. With women like Gertrude Ederle and Florence Chadwick to pick up the torch, women's swimming continued to grow in popularity and skill.
Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926; Chadwick has the distinction of being the first woman to swim the Channel from both directions in 1950-51. Durack herself would go on to break 11 world records over the next decade.
"Mina" Wylie is remembered by a statue (top left) that stands at Wylie's Baths, one of Australia's first mixed-gender bathing pools and still a popular swimming destination.
With the addition of women’s boxing to the 2012 London Games, women would finally achieve Olympic equality by having the chance to participate in every event. It took exactly 100 years after the first female swimmers competed in Stockholm.
Today, the standards for men and women Olympians are significantly closer. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, there will be 17 medal events for women's swimming. The sole remaining difference between the men's and women's events: The longest women's freestyle is only 800 meters compared to the men’s 1500.
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