Enith Brigitha was born on the West Indian Island of Curacao, where she first learned to swim in the Caribbean Sea. By the time she moved to Holland with her mother and brother in 1970, she had become the island’s most promising swimmer.
Two years later, swimming for Coach Willie Storm at the Club Het Y in Amsterdam, Enith qualified for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and reached the final in four events, and this was just the start of her success. At the 1973 inaugural FINA World Championships in Belgrade, she claimed a silver medal in the 200 meter backstroke and a bronze medal in the 100 meter freestyle. At the 1974 European Championships she won five medals, including four individual medals for the 100 and 200 meter freestyle and backstroke events. In 1975, at the II FINA World Championships in Cali, Columbia, she added three bronze medals to her collection, including individual pieces of hardware in the 100 and 200 meter freestyle.
At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, she earned individual bronze medals in both the 100 and 200 meter freestyle, and at the 1977 European Championships, she won a silver medal in the 100 meter freestyle.
Enith was a genuine superstar in an era dominated by women swimmers from the German Democratic Republic. All told, she set five short course world records and collected 21 Dutch titles in the freestyle, backstroke, medley and butterfly events. She won the Dutch 100 meter freestyle title seven years in a row, was twice named Dutch Sportswoman of the Year - and has the distinction of being the first person of African descent to win Olympic medals in swimming.
Still, her accomplishments have for too long been diminished by the dazzling success of the East Germans. Of the 11 individual medals Enith won at the Olympic Games, World and European Championships - only East German swimmers finished ahead of her in 10 of those events, the one exception being America’s Shirley Babashoff, in the 200 meter freestyle at Munich.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dr. Werner Franke and his wife Brigitte Berendonk, discovered files from the Stasi – the East German secret police – documenting the fact that all of the East German swimmers who finished ahead of Enith Brigitha had been systematically doped, without the knowledge or consent of them or their parents, as a matter of national policy. To the GDR’s rulers, these young athletes were nothing more than pawns in a global chess game, sacrificial lambs on the altar of East German ideology. Had the world known this at the time, the steroid and testosterone enhanced performances of the GDR’s athletes would have resulted in their disqualification, and Enith’s record would be even more stellar than it is. She also would be recognized today as the first black Olympic champion in swimming history, beating Anthony Nesty of Suriname to the top of the podium by 12 years.
There’s more to life than just swimming, of course. After hanging up her swimsuit and retiring from the sport, Enith married and had three daughters. She moved back to Curacao, where she opened her own swimming school and taught children to swim. Once her daughters were ready to go to University, the family moved back to Holland, where they remain today. Enith says, “With the girls in Holland and with our three grandchildren, it’s not so easy to leave Holland again.”