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Madison, Helene (1913-1970)
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Between 1930 and
1932, Seattle swimmer Helene Madison owned 23 world records for swimming and won
every freestyle event at the U.S. Women’s Nationals three years in a row.
Madison won three consecutive gold medals in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, but
was unable to parlay her fame into a film career. She returned to Seattle, and
worked various small jobs until becoming a swim coach in the 1940s. In 1966,
she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Blooming at Green Lake
was born in June 1913 in South Bend, and moved to Seattle with her parents when
she was 2. When she was 6, her family moved into a home one block away from
Green Lake, where the young girl would spend many a summer day swimming in its
waters. As she grew, Madison participated in school sports, but enjoyed
swimming the most.
Much of her
early swim training came under the auspices of the Seattle Parks Department
swimming program. Jack Torney (1905-1984) -- a University of Washington student instructor who went on to become the university's men's swim coach -- helped Madison refine her
swimming technique, and by the time she was in her early teens, she was
outracing all of the swimmers at Green Lake.
(1905-1972), an instructor at the Crystal Natatorium in Seattle's Belltown
neighborhood, watched Madison swim in the summer league competitions, and
decided to take her under his wing. Daughters helped her boost her speed during
countless hours of training at the Crystal Pool, and later at the Washington
Athletic Club, where Daughters worked after the facility opened in 1930.
In 1929, at the
age of 15, Madison broke the state record for the women's 100-yard freestyle,
and then quickly followed that up by breaking the Pacific Coast record. The
following year, in her national debut, she broke six records in a single swim
during the national championships in Florida, where she won every free style
event. When she returned to Seattle, she was greeted by thousands of
well wishers at Boeing Field before traveling to an honorary luncheon in
Over the next
two years, Madison broke record after record, and became the first woman to
swim the 100-yard freestyle in one minute flat. In 1931 the Associated Press
named her its female athlete of the year. She returned to the United States Women’s
Nationals in 1931 and 1932, and won every freestyle event each time.
When she wasn't
swimming in competitions, she could almost always be found at the Washington
Athletic Club, honing her technique. In early 1932, she traveled to New York
City for Olympic trials, where she won the 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter
freestyle. This qualified her for the United States Women's Team in that year's
summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles.
In her first
race -- the women's 100-meter freestyle -- Madison won the race with a time of 1
minute, 6.8 seconds, more than four seconds faster than the Olympic record. Four
days later, she won her second gold medal, in the 400-meter relay race along
with Josephine McKim (1910-1992), Eleanor Garatti Saville (1909-1998), and
Helen Johns (b. 1914). Their winning time was 4 minutes, 38 seconds, which beat
the previous world record by 9.6 seconds.
The next day,
she competed in the women's 400-meter freestyle race. This race was close, but Madison
won with a gold-winning time of 5 minutes, 28.5 seconds, beating out U.S.
swimmer Lenore Kight (1911-2000) by a tenth of second. The race was considered
to be one of the most exciting events in Olympic history.
No sooner had
she won three consecutive gold medals than Ray Daughters announced to the press
that "The Olympic Games was the climax of Helene's swimming career,"
and that she would most likely be retiring from amateur sports (The Seattle Times, August 15, 1932).
Madison remained in Los Angeles for two weeks, pursuing a career in Hollywood.
returned to Seattle later that month, she was given one of the largest
ticker-tape parades the city had ever seen. Fleet Week celebrations were
already under way, and "Queen Helene" was named guest of honor at the
Naval Ball held at the Olympic Hotel. A special platform was built outside the
hotel, so that Madison could greet and speak to tens of thousands of adoring
introduced by Mayor John Dore (1881-1938) Madison thanked everyone for their
love and support. She confirmed that she would be leaving amateur competition,
and although she could not divulge any of her plans, she would soon be
returning to Hollywood, at which time she would know more about her future. The
crowd cheered and sang "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," as she was escorted
Two days later,
Madison gave two swimming demonstrations at the Playland amusement park, north
of Seattle. Crowds of people lined the shores of Bitter Lake in the pouring
rain to see her famous crawl stroke and blazing speed. For her efforts, she
received a free car as a gift from the Washington Athletic Club and other
Seattle donors. And with that, her amateur status was over.
Seeking The Hollywood Dream
Before she left
for Seattle, movie producer Sol Lesser (1890-1980), who had just acquired the
rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan character, told the press that he was
negotiating with Madison's agent for her services. Her participation in that
project never came to pass, and instead she signed a movie contract with Mack
It was announced
that her first Sennett Comedy would be a two-reel film called Help, Help, Helene, and that she expected to do more comedies following its completion. The film was released as
The Human Fish (1932), but it bombed at the
box office. Her only other film roles were uncredited parts in the comedy It's Great to Be Alive (1933) and a
sword-and-sandals feature, The Warrior's
Her film career
a bust, Madison tried to find work as a professional swimmer, but due to the Depression, paying gigs
for competition swimming were almost nonexistent. Instead, she returned to Seattle, in hopes of becoming a nightclub
entertainer. Those efforts failed too.
Looking for Work
Madison was even
thwarted in her attempts to become a Seattle swimming instructor. The Parks Department
barred women from teaching swimming, and even her three gold medals could not
convince them to hire her on. Instead, she found a job selling hot dogs and
soda pop at the Green Lake concession stand. She also found work clerking at a
In 1936, she had
saved up enough money to enter nurses' training school, and although she passed
her probationary period at Virginia Mason Hospital with flying colors, she
never became a registered nurse. Instead, she married Puget Sound Power &
Light Company Executive L. C. McIver (1892-1978), a patient she'd met at the
hospital. Their only daughter, Helene
Jr., was born the following year.
In 1948, Madison
opened a swimming school at the Moore Hotel pool, which had recently been
renovated. One of her students, Nancy Ramey (b. 1940), went on to win a silver
medal in the 1956 Olympics.
Back to Green Lake
In 1958, the
McIvers divorced. By this time, Madison's health had begun to deteriorate, and
she had suffered two minor strokes, as well as undergoing major back surgery.
She closed her swim school, and although she remarried, she got divorced again in
1961. In 1965, she was diagnosed with diabetes.
Unable to teach
swimming anymore, she found part-time work in a convalescent home. In 1966, Madison
was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale,
Florida. When word got out that she couldn't afford to travel there for the
induction ceremonies, the Washington Athletic Club financed her trip.
In 1968, Madison
was diagnosed with throat cancer, which involved the removal and reconstruction
of her esophagus. She lived out the rest of her life in a small apartment, one
block away from Green Lake beach, where she had swum in her youth.
died on November 25, 1970, at the age of 57.
Girl Breaks Coast Water Record," The Seattle Times, June 5, 1929,
p. 25; "Seattle Girl Is Facing Climax of Rapid Rise in Sports," The
Seattle Times, July 21, 1929, p. 21; "Helene Sets Six Records in One
Swim," The Seattle Times, March 19, 1930, p. 23; "Chamber Has
Luncheon for Happy Helene," The Seattle Times, March 28, 1930, pp.
1, 14; "Seattle Naiad Carries Hopes of U.S. Victory," The Seattle
Times, July 31, 1932, p. 18; "Miss Madison's Semifinal Win Made in
Stride," The Seattle Times, August 8, 1932, p. 10; "Helene,
Champ, Had Ace Up Sleeve," The Seattle Times, August 9, 1932, p.
11; "Helene Madison Wins Her Heat in 400 Meters," The Seattle
Times, August 11, 1932, p. 1; "Helene Wins Fast Semifinal," The
Seattle Times, August 12, 1932, p. 12; "Helene Wins Final Race, Sets
Record," The Seattle Times, August 14, 1932, pp. 1,18; "Swim
Champion to Never Again Reach Heights," The Seattle Times, August
15, 1932, p. 12; "Crowd Sings 'Sweetheart' for Helene," The
Seattle Times, August 27, 1932, p. 1, 3; "Swim at Park Puts Helene in
Pro Ranks," The Seattle Times, August 29, 1932, p. 4; "Helene
'Tarzan' Picture May Be Lot of Swimmer," The Seattle Times, August
30, 1932, p. 10; "Helene Signed by Sennett," The Seattle Times,
November 15, 1932, p. 14; "Helene Madison to Forsake Swimming for Nurse's
Cap," The Seattle Times, August 11, 1935, p. 2; "Helene
Madison Wins Again and Dons Uniform of Nurse," The Seattle Times,
January 12, 1936, p. 7; "Helene Madison Nurses, Weds Power Official,"
The Seattle Times, March 7, 1937, p. 1; "Helene Madison to Coach
Swim Team," The Seattle Times, November 4, 1948, p. 22; "Green
Lake Raft Beckons Queen," The Seattle Times, May 17, 1966 p. 2; "Back in Swim: Miss Madison Honor
Bound," The Seattle Times, December 12, 1966, p. 18; "'Invincible Mermaid' Begins Biggest
Fight," The Seattle Times, December 13, 1968, p. 77; "Helene
Madison Succumbs at 57," The Seattle Times, November 26, 1970, p.
B-2; Doris Hinson Pieroth, Their Day in the Sun: Women in the 1932 Olympics
(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996); David Eskenazi, "Wayback Machine:
'Queen' Helene Madison," SportsPressNW website accessed May 15, 2014
(www.sportspressnw.com); "1932 Summer Games, " Sports-Reference
website accessed February 9, 2014 (www.sports-reference.com).
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.
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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)