Pioneers in Swimming: Esther Williams

Celebrating America's Mermaid

Welcome to Zone's ongoing series: Pioneers in Swimming! Throughout the series we will shed light on the unsung heroes who have contributed to swimming over the years.

“I was the only swimmer in movies. Tarzan was long gone, and he couldn’t have done them anyway; he could have never gotten into my bathing suit.” Esther Williams

Welcome to another installment in the Zone Pioneers in Swimming Series. We’ve already focused on a poet and an athlete, so this time we’re going Hollywood and covering the Million Dollar Mermaid herself, Esther Williams.

Born in Inglewood, California on August 21, 1921, Williams was the fifth and youngest child of her family. Her love for swimming began when she took a job at her local pool counting towels. While there, she received swimming lessons from the lifeguards. Williams learned the “male only” swimming strokes, including the butterfly.

In 1939, she trained four hours a day with the Los Angeles Athletic Club in preparation for entry to the 1940 Olympic Games at Helsinki. Through her hard work and training, Williams set the record for the 300 yard relay, the National AAU champion in the 100 meter freestyle, and won three U.S. national championships in breaststroke and freestyle. She did this all at the age of sixteen; talk about a trailblazer!

Unfortunately, the 1940 Olympic Games were cancelled due to the war, which prompted Williams to find work in a department store. A setback that actually turned into as set up: This is where she was discovered for her future in acting.

While working one day she was asked to audition by producer Billy Rose for a part on his diving and swimming show Aquacade in San Francisco. From there, Williams was sought out by MGM’s head talent scout, Louis B. Mayer. MGM needed to find an athletic star to compete with Fox’s figure skating actress, Sonja Henie. In 1941, Williams signed her contract with MGM, and for nine months she wasn’t allowed to appear on camera until she received lessons in acting, singing, dancing and diction.

In 1942, she made her first film debut in Andy Hardy’s Double Life, starring opposite Mickey Rooney. After some smaller roles in other films, Williams finally made her big splash in the film Bathing Beauty, in which she played a swimming instructor being pursued by her ex-fiance. From then on, Williams went to star in other films that showcased her swimming ability, which led to a new genre of film dubbed aquamusicals. Such films include Neptune’s Daughter, Million Dollar Mermaid, Dangerous When Wet, and others.

Williams career spanned from the 1940s to the 1950s before she ultimately retired in the 1960s. In 1966, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Though retired, Williams remained tied to the swimming community for the remainder of her life. She created her own line of swimwear and backyard swimming pools. In 1984, Williams served as a commentator for synchronized swimming at the Olympic Games, and later came out with her own instructional swimming videos to help children how to swim.

Williams passed away in her sleep on June 6, 2013. Her life took many turns in the world of swimming and throughout every change she kept her head above water and reinvented herself at every turn. From athlete, to actress, and then entrepreneur, Williams embodies what Zone is all about: seek opportunity, excellence, and progress. Williams kept moving forward and inspired others to do the same.

What did you think of our famous pioneer? Have any suggestions as to who we make our next pioneer? Leave a comment and we’ll make sure to write about them!


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