What do you do when you’re an athlete and the Olympics are canceled? Become one of Hollywood’s top stars.
At least, that’s what Esther Williams did.
In 1939, 17-year-old Esther Williams was the United States women’s 100 meter freestyle national champion at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championship. She represented the Los Angeles Athletic Club with the winning time of 1:09, which was better than all but one of the swimmers for the next six years, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
The AAU formerly worked closely with the United States Olympic Committee.
Williams was assured a spot on the United States team for the 1940 Summer Olympics which were going to be held in Tokyo, Japan. But the games were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.
She felt her career as a swimmer was over when the Olympics were canceled and she didn’t receive a swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California, she wrote in her autobiography “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”
She said stardom was her consolation prize.
Swimming to Stardom
She took a job at I. Magnum department store until producer Billy Rose called her at the store asking if she wanted to audition for the Aquacade- a show of music, dancing and swimming in San Francisco.
“You swim very fast,” Billy Rose said when she auditioned.
“That’s what I do, Mr. Rose,” Williams said. “I’m a sprint swimmer. The U.S. 100-meter freestyle champion.”
“I don’t want fast,” he said. “I want pretty.”
Williams was reluctant to take the job in the Aquacade because it would mean losing her amateur standing, which would keep her from ever competing in the Olympics again.
“Young lady, there’s a war on and there aren’t going to be any Olympic games for a long time,” Billy Rose told her. “You might as well make some money off your talent.”
Due to World War II, there wasn’t another Olympic games until 1948, when Williams was already a top star at MGM.
She swam with former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who Williams said she had to escape from him after every performance, because he would try to get her out of her swim suit. The Aquacade was not a happy experience. Because of that she repeatedly told MGM that she wasn’t interested in a film career, she said in her autobiography.
“If my experience at the Aquacade with the dingy dressing room and the grabby hands was any indication, they could keep their stardom,” she wrote. “I had a husband, a career at I. Magnin to look forward to, a whole new life. That would be enough for me.”
But Esther Williams eventually relented to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, signed with the studio and was in her first film in 1942. Her career catapulted with the swimming musical “Bathing Beauty” (1944) and she rose to be one of MGM’s top stars.
From 1942 to 1963, Williams starred in 34 films. The swimming musicals were modeled after the novelty ice skating films Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie starred in…but just with swimming.
Williams learned to swim pretty, as Billy Rose advised, and her synchronized swimming numbers were performed in a 25-foot-deep, $250,000 swimming pool on Stage 30, complete with underwater windows, fountains and hydraulic lifts, according to Williams’ 2013 New York Times obituary.
Back at the Olympics
But everything eventually came full circle for Esther Williams and she found herself back at the Olympics.
Williams attended the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics not as an athlete but as a commentator. Synchronized swimming was introduced as an Olympic sport at the 1984 games. Due to Williams popularizing synchronized swimming in her films, NBC Sports asked Williams to join their team as a color commentator. Williams was co-commentator to Donna de Varona, swimmer and 1964 Olympic gold medalist.
“I was dazzled by the skill of all the athletes and by the underwater technology of NBC’s coverage,” Williams said of the 1984 games. “Some of those girls were underwater for more than half of their five-minute programs and you could see every balletic move.”
Leading up to this, Williams had researched how synchronized swimming could be recognized as an Olympic sport. She also would answer questions and create informational packets for community swimming groups around the country interested in starting a team, she wrote in her autobiography.
In 1956, a synchronized swimming demonstration was held at the Melbourne summer Olympics. But former International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage—who served from 1952 to 1972—complained that they were “all just clones of Esther Williams. That’s not a sport!”
“Despite Avery Brundage’s sexist notions, synchronized swimmers are superb athletes,” Williams wrote in her autobiography. “They have to learn ballet and first do their routines on dry land as exercises. They have to hold their breath for long periods of strenuous activity.”
Swimmers Tracie Ruiz-Conforto and Candy Costie took home gold medals that year.
“I was touched to realize how these girls had seen those movies and gotten together in their groups and wanted to swim pretty and not fast,” Williams wrote. “I was proud to be there when it came into the Olympics. I was proud to be an inspiration, a godmother to a sport. It was a very emotional moment for me. Tears came to my eyes on camera, and I thought, I love every one of those girls in the water.”
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