Aileen Riggin Soule, Oldest Female Olympic Gold Medalist, Dies at 96

HONOLULU, Oct. 20. AILEEN Riggin Soule, the oldest female Olympic gold medalist and the first person to win Olympic medals in both swimming and diving, died Thursday, Oct. 17, in Honolulu.

The oldest living American to have won an Olympic gold medal is 100-year-old James Stillman Rockefeller, who won a rowing gold at the 1924 Olympics

A Masters swimmer whose records in the 90-94 age group still stand, Soule was prevented by illness from competing in the 2002 USMS Short Course National Championships in Honolulu, but she paid a visit to the meet and greeted her many friends. A photo of Soule, surrounded by a host of other Olympians, appeared in the July/August issue of SWIM Magazine.

At the Antwerp Olympics in 1920, the slight, 14 year-old plunged into a muddy Belgian canal and became the youngest woman to win a gold medal. Four years later in Paris, where she was a teammate with Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller, Soule became the first and still the only woman to win medals in swimming (bronze) and diving (silver) in the same Olympics.

"I know she's up there with the Duke and Johnny Weissmuller having a little chardonnay and champagne," her daughter Patricia Soule Anderson said.

Soule, who moved to Hawaii’s in 1957, was remembered by friends and family as a pioneer of women's sports and a spunky celebrity who continued to set local age-class swimming records well into her 90s, according to the Honolulu Advertiser. Soule also appeared in several Hollywood films, including "Roman Scandals" (1933) and "One in a Million" (1936).

"Swimming was her world and her life," Anderson said. "That's what kept her going. She always swam. She said, 'I can't wait until I reach 90. I have all these young 80-year-old whippersnappers at my heels."

Born in Newport, R.I., Soule learned to swim at age 6 in the Philippines, where her father, a Navy officer, was stationed. At 11, she joined the newly formed Women's Swimming Association of New York.

L. de B. Handley, the volunteer coach of the small group, introduced her to the American crawl, which he had perfected. Soule 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 and began moving in that direction.

"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," Soule said in a 1984 interview. "Most of the time, we'd go to the beach and dive off the planks. We 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 14-year-old Soule placed second in platform diving and third in springboard diving at the Olympic trials of 1920.

"As it turned out, the girl who won the springboard, Helen Wainwright, was also 14, and the girl who won the high dive was 15," she said. "The officials said they would take women, reluctantly, but they wouldn't take children and they wouldn't be responsible for them. That started a hoopla in the New York papers. We had our trunks all packed. We unpacked them and we cried.

"Then some of the women got really annoyed and they descended on the U.S. Olympic Committee and said, 'These kids won fairly and deserve to go, and we will be personally responsible for them.'

In those days, we were really kids, not as sophisticated as the young girls today. They finally agreed to let us go."

Soule went on to capture the gold medal in springboard diving at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, the first Olympics in which women officially competed. Four years later, at the Paris Olympics, she won the silver medal in springboard diving and a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke.

In 1926, after establishing herself as one of the first world-class women athletes, Soule turned professional, giving swimming and diving exhibitions worldwide and serving as an instructor.

Soule was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1967 and served as Grande Dame of the Hall during 1988.

Her athletic career did not end in her youth. She set an age-class record in the 1976 Waikiki Roughwater Swim and set numerous Masters age-group records in the pool well into her 90s. She swam almost daily in the ocean behind her Waikiki apartment.

"When she went to the Olympics for the first time, Duke Kahanamoku and other Olympians were on the same ship and at night they would all go up onto the deck, play ukuleles and dance the hula," Anderson said. "She said it was just so beautiful and balmy at night when these wonderful Hawaii people were out there singing."

Hawaiian Olympian Evelyn Kawamoto-Konno, 69, said she was impressed with Soule's verve. Konno met Soule during a limousine ride to an Olympic fund-raiser at the Ihilani Resort & Spa several years ago.

"I was just amazed that this woman in her 90s at the time was still swimming every day," said Kawamoto-Konno, who won two bronze swimming medals at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. "She was in great shape. It was fascinating just to listen to this silver-haired tiny woman. She was quite a celebrity. She was someone you looked up to."

Soule is survived by daughters Yvonne Young May of Switzerland and Patricia Soule Anderson of Honolulu, sons Bruce Soule of Newport Beach, Calif., and Wallace Soule of Bakersfield, Calif., three grandchildren and two great- grandsons.

Private services will be conducted with a scattering of ashes off Diamond Head. Donations should be made to Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, care of Outrigger Canoe Club.

–By Brandon Masuoka with contributions by Phil Whitten, Carl House and Bill Volckening

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