The Swimming Stars of the 1920 Olympic Games

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By Bruce Wigo

The swimming stars of the 1920 Olympic Games were Duke Kahanamoku, Norman Ross and Ethelda Bleibtrey. While Duke was the Hawaiian Marvel who had kicked water in the faces of the best water sharks of Europe at the 1912 Olympic Games, it was Stanford’s Norman Ross who was regarded as being the best swimmer in the world by 1920.

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Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archive

After serving as a decorated airman during WWI, Ross beat Europe’s best swimmers in winning 5 gold medals at the Inter-Allied Games of 1919. The next year at Antwerp, Ross won 3 Olympic gold medals for the 400m and 1500m and 4 x 200 freestyle relay, while Duke retained his 100m crown and a second gold for the relay.

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Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archives

After the Games, Ross became famous for leading the successful Olympian boycott against the U.S.S. Princess Matoika. A ship chartered by the U.S.O.C. to take the American Team back to the states after the Games.  It was a ship that had been used to transport the bodies of American soldiers killed during the war back to the States and which the Olympians claimed was infested with rats and smelled of death.  Beginning in 1929, Ross became one of Chicago’s most famous radio and TV personalities.

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Photo Courtesy: ISHOF Archives

There were only three swimming events for women at the 1920 Olympic Games: 100m freestyle, 300m freestyle and the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. America’s Ethelda Bleibtrey, whom sports writers called the “Babe Ruth” of swimming, won all three in world record time and had there been other strokes, she would have won those as well. She began her competitive swimming career just two years earlier at the age of 16, when Charlotte Boyle, then the American women’s champion, spotted her swimming at the beach. Boyle took her under her wing, first as teacher and pupil and then to train under her coach, Lou deB. Handley at the Women’s Swimming Association of New York. They swam together in Hawaii and Australia and remained friends for life. Betty Grimes had been favored to win Olympic gold in in diving at the 1920 games, but at the Tryouts she failed to make the team.