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Madison, Helene (1914-1970)

HistoryLink.org Essay 293 : Printer-Friendly Format

In 1932, Seattle held the biggest ticker tape parade in its history for 19-year-old swimmer Helene Madison (1914-1970). "Queen Helene," as the press dubbed her, had won three gold medals for the United States at the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

Since the age of 15 when she made her debut in international competitions, Madison had broken 117 United States and world records. She began swimming at age two in Seattle Park Department classes at Green Lake, then learned competitive techniques from her coach Ray Daughters at the Moore Hotel pool and at the Washington Athletic Club.

Following her triumph at the Olympics, and with no more records to break, Madison turned professional. Two weeks after returning to Seattle, she gave a performance for pay at the amusement park at Bitter Lake. Lured by Hollywood, she then starred in a Mack Sennett comedy, The Human Fish, which turned into a box office flop. Back in Seattle she attempted a career as a nightclub entertainer and bombed again.

Her minor and largely unsuccessful gigs as a paid swimmer made her a professional in the eyes of the Olympics Commissioners. In 1936, having lost her amateur status, she worked at a hotdog stand at Green Lake while her former teammates competed in the Berlin Olympics.

Madison's later years were filled with tragedy, including two failed marriages, indebtedness, and battles against diabetes and cancer. In her final agonizing months, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Licensed Practical Nurses Association, and many admirers came to her financial rescue. She died in 1970 in the basement apartment that she shared with her Siamese cat and parakeet, located across the street from Green Lake.

Today, Seattle has two Helene Madison pools, one near Ingraham High School at 13401 Meridian Avenue N and the other at the Washington Athletic Club in downtown Seattle.

Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman's Place: a Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 116-17; Doris Hinson Pieroth, Their Day in the Sun: Women in the 1932 Olympics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996).

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Helene Madison, Seattle (likely Green Lake), 1930
Courtesy MOHAI (Image No. 1986.5G.1764)

Helene Madison, Seattle, May 9, 1929
Courtesy MOHAI (Image No. 1983.10.12759.2)

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