Before Katie Ledecky, Eight Female Aquatic Stars Were AP Athletes of the Year — Who Were the Others? Part 1

Swimming: US Olympic Trials: Kathleen Ledecky victorious after winning Women's 800M Freestyle Final at CenturyLink Center. Omaha, NE 7/1/2012 CREDIT: Heinz Kluetmeier (Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X155101 TK4 R1 F39 )
Katie Ledecky photo courtesy Heinz Kluetmeier

By Bruce Wigo.

Katie Ledecky is the world’s best female athlete in any sport for 2017, but she’s not the first aquatic star to receive the Associated Press’ Best Female Athlete Award. At a time when women in sports were not given the same recognition as men, The Associated Press initiated an award to recognize both the outstanding male and female athlete in the world, professional or amateur, in 1931. While a large majority of the winners have been Americans, non-Americans are also eligible for the honor.

The inaugural award was given to swimmer Helene Madison. Since then, eight other female aquatic athletes have received the honor with Katie being the latest.  Let’s look back and learn about the other women who achieved this great honor.

Madison, Helene with coach

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive – Helene Madison and her coach Ray Daughters

Helene Madison by Pap 11__1930_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive – Helene Madison by Pap

Helene Madison, of Seattle Washington, U.S.A., won every freestyle event in the U.S. Women’s Nationals in 1930, 1931, and 1932, winning high point honors in all three years. She retired undefeated after winning three gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics.  Her U.S. National Championship records lasted for many years (100 meter freestyle, 15 years; 220 yard freestyle, 6 years; 500 yard freestyle, 23 years; 880 freestyle, 5 years).

Helene Madison’s three year career was one of the shortest in swimming history but no one else has ever retired with every available goal conquered–all available Olympic freestyle events, all available National Championship events three years in a row and all 17 official World freestyle records in 1932.  No other swimmer has been able to equal this record.

In 1937, Katherine Rawls won the award.  Known as the “Miami Minnow,” for her diminutive 5’4”, 107 lb. size, this Katy held the record for the most U.S. National Championships (33) during her 10 year career (1930 – 1940) until Tracy Caulkins surpassed her in 1981. Like Caulkins she won national championships in every stroke, and her best event was the individual medley, a non-Olympic event in the 1930s. She held the world record and remained undefeated in the 3-stroke individual medley for 8 years.  But she was also a diver who won 5 national titles. At the 1936 Olympic Trials she won the 100m freestyle and the 3-meter springboard diving event. A month later in Berlin, she claimed the silver medal in diving and bronze as a member of the 4 x 100m free relay. She retired in 1940 after learning the Olympic Games were cancelled and went on to become one of the world’s top women flyers and one of the original 25 women pilots who organized the WAF’s, a glamorous and nervy group who ferried World War II planes to combat zones for the Air Transport Command.

Cathrine Rawls

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive – Katherine Rawls

Katherine Rawls by Pap__1935_

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive – Katherine Rawls by Pap

In 1942, eighteen year old “Glorious Gloria Callen” won the Award by an overwhelming vote of the nation’s sports editors.  A member of the Women’s Swimming Association of NY, this statuesque beauty was no one-year wonder. She won her first championship in the National Long Distance Three Mile Swim in 1938.  Shortly after that, she changed from freestyle to backstroke and went undefeated while racking up 35 World and American records until she retired in 1942 to enroll at Barnard College and join the American Women’s Voluntary Services.

Callen, Gloria

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive, Gloria Callen on Cosmo

Glorious Gloria Callen by Pap

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive, Gloria Callen by Pap

In 1944, another eighteen year-old swimmer, Ann Curtis, showed the same speed for vote getting in beating out famed golfer Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias as Female Athlete of the Year as she showed in the pool. Swimming for Hall of Fame Coach Charles Sava and San Francisco’s famed Crystal Plunge, she annexed all four freestyle titles at the AAU National Championships.and broke world and American records an astounding 18 times.That year, like Katie Ledecky, Curtis also received the AAU’s Sullivan Award as the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete. For years later, at the London Olympic Games, London 1948, she won gold in the 400m and in the 4 x 100m free relay and a silver medal in the 100m free.

Ann Curtis

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive – Ann Curtis with Sullivan Award

Ann Curtis by Pap

Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive – Ann Curtis by Pap

Next week, we’ll visit four more swimming recipients of the AP World Female Athlete of the Year.