SWIMNEWS ONLINE: October 1995 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

Born in Rome in 1874 of American parents, Louis deBreda Handley, athlete, coach, educator, and communicator, was a man of singular accomplishment. He was one of the great figures in the history of swimming.

His father, Francis Montague Handley, American sculptor residing in Rome, was Private Chamberlain of Sword and Cape to two Popes (Pius X and Leo XII), as well as the first American to be made a Commander of the Order of St. Gregory.

Handley's two sisters were nuns. One of them, Mother Mary Angeliquem, was Superior of several convents in the U.S.A., before becoming Superior of the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Rome. Handley came to America at the age of 22, where he was to spend a long life as a volunteer dedicated to promoting the new American crawl, as well as the emanicipation of women swimmers. When he died of a heart attack in New York on December 28, 1956, at the age of 82, Louis deB. Handley had transformed the sport of swimming.

Handley refined the early Australian crawl-stroke, and, in so doing, developed the "American crawl", in effect an entirely new stroke soon adopted all over the world. To this day, the American crawl, albeit in far more advanced form, remains the stroke of choice in freestyle events. Handley's creative thinking, skilled coaching, and lucid writing on all phases of swimming brought him fame and a universal following. He was acknowledged as the foremost authority on swimming, water polo, and watermanship. 'L. deB.', as he was popularly known, was coach-educator to the world, and swimming's first great communicator.

Australia's three pioneer swimmers, Fannie Durack, Mina Wylie, and Annette Kellerman, first "captured public sympathy" for the plight of early woman swimmers. But, in America, it was L. deB. Handley's influence that was responsible for the complete emancipation of women swimmers. Annette Kellerman had said: "Not only in matters of swimming but in all forms of activity women's natural develoment is seriously restricted and impaired by social customs and costumes, and all sorts of prudish and Puritanical ideas."

"As womanhood approaches, these restrictions become even more severe and the young woman is corseted and gowned and thoroughly imbued with the idea that it is most unlady-like to be possessed of legs or to know how to use them. All of this pseudo-moral restriction discourages physical activity in woman, and yet she manages fairly well as a land-animal, and accommodates her steps to hampering petticoats with a fair degree of skill."

He Put Women's Swimming on the Map

The influence of Handley's work at the Women's Swimming Association of New York (W.S.A.), whose membership quickly grew to over 300 eventually put women's swimming on the map world-wide. Handley developed America's first female Olympic champions. Outstanding W.S.A. swimmers such as Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, Charlotte Boyle, Ethelda Bleibtrey, Aileen Riggin, and many others, were household names. They inspired young women everywhere, so much so that "The New York Times" (Oct. 7, 1924) reported: "It is interesting to note the amazing strides made by girl swimmers since the games in Antwerp four years ago. "

"Nothing more remarkable has featured athletic activities the world over. Even our watermen have not improved at the same rate as a class. With very few exceptions the present topnotchers are girls with several years improvement before them, while child mermaids are displaying speed never attained by their predecessors. There is every assurance, therefore, of increasingly brilliant exploits as the champions and newcomers grow to maturity."

Role of Women in Developing American Crawl

The Women's Swimming Association was formed in 1917, after the Amateur Athletic Union had undertaken to standardize water sports for women. The founders of the W.S.A. could not afford the expense of a professional coach so they appealed to Handley to oblige them with his help and he consented, and contributed his services gratis. He retained the post of head coach for the best part of 40 years. Under his guidance, W.S.A. women swimmers were chiefly instrumental in developing the American crawl stroke.

At a time when American authorities and leading contestants were unanimous in declaring that it would never be possible to effectively use a leg thrash faster than a four beat for more than a 100 yards or so, L. deB. Handley's pupils introduced and proved the value of the six, eight, and ten-beat varieties.

As a result W.S.A. stars dominated the national and world pictures for many years. Charlotte Boyle, Helen Wainwright, Gertrude Ederle, Ethelda Bleibtrey, Aileen Riggin, Alice Lord, Helen Meany. Eleanor Holm, Claire Galligan, Ethel McGary, Lisa Lindstrom, and Agnes Geraghety were among the many champions produced by L. deB. Handley; and he developed from novicehood six of the twelve girl stars who represented the United States in the Olympic Games of 1920 at Antwerp.

Throughout his career, L. deB. Handley volunteered his services and never took a penny in return. His import business suffered severe losses during the two world wars. He recovered from the first setback, but never completely from the second. He spent his closing years living in reduced circumstances in a small apartment, without a telephone, on lower Manhattan, refusing to accept assistance from his many followers and admirers. Handley gave his services to the W.S.A. for nearly 40 years, and, even in his old age, he came to the club, once a week (on Tuesdays) to coach the senior team from 7 to 8 p.m.

A Renaissance Man

Louis deB. Handley came to the United States in 1896, where he obtained employment with an importing firm in New York City. An all-round athlete, he was first a member of the old Knickerbocker Athletic Club. After it disbanded, he joined the New York Athletic Club (N.Y.A.C.), where he devoted his efforts mainly to football, rowing, swimming and water polo.

Handley won renown as a competitor in aquatic sports. He was on the Knickerbocker Athletic Club's eleven from 1898 to 1900, rowed sweeps and sculls for the Atlanta Boat Club, and the Knickerbocker and New York Athletic Clubs. Among L. deB. Handley's many hobbies were cross-country horseback riding, training and breeding bird dogs, hunting and sailboat racing.

Louis deB. Handley was educated by the Christian Brothers in Rome. He studied many languages, including Latin and Greek and was fluent in French, Spanish and Italian. He mastered the art of writing, acquiring a classsic style not unlike that of Macaulay, the great essayist. He used this gift to promote swimming for women, and the use of the American crawl stroke from an early age and at all distances.

Handley was immaculate in speech, manner and dress. Early photographs show him as a dapper, handsome, and fair-complexioned young man with the build of an athlete. His hair was neatly parted in the centre, and he sported a crisply curled moustache. He wore, according to the occasion, either a Homburger hat, or a straw 'boater'. In the city he usually wore tweed suits, with watch chain stretched across his buttoned vest coat. His high, white starched collars reached just below the chin, where a W.S.A. pin was proudly displayed in the tie knot.

Although Handley dressed fastidiously, he certainly was no weak-kneed fop. He played water polo with and against some of the toughest and roughest who ever played the game. In fact there were those who likened him to the elegant and fashionable world heavyweight boxing champion, "Gentleman Jim' Corbett, the man who beat the great John L. Sullivan in 21 rounds on September 7, 1892. But, back to the point; not only did Handley play water polo with, and against, the toughest and best, and was a top goal scorer, he was considered the authority on the game.

Louis deB. Handley on far right with relay teammates in 1904.

Handley was captain and participant in both N.Y.A.C. swimming and water polo teams at the St. Louis Olympic Games in 1904. Both teams won Olympic gold medals. He was captain of the Knickerbocker A.C. water polo team. And when the Knickerbocker A.C. closed down, he became captain of the N.Y.A.C. water polo team. These two teams accounted for all the National Amateur Athletic championships from 1898 to 1911, with the exception of one indoor and one outdoor match. At one time, Handley held the American record for 440 yards freestyle.

Handley's "Salmon Leap"

It was commonly said that there had never been a stronger water-polo team than the one that represented the N.Y.A.C. during the season of 1903-1904. The team was organized in the fall of 1902, just after the breaking up of the Knickerbocker A.C., and was composed of the best men from the two clubs. It was coached and captained by L. deB. Handley, and since its formation it hadn't suffered a single defeat, "although it boasted of never having refused a challenge." During the season 1903-04 seven important match games were played, and the team won every one, averaging a total of 35 points to their opponents' nothing.

In one memorable match, The N.Y.A.C. water polo team defeated the Columbia University "All Stars" by a score of 3 to 0, in one of the fastest and most interesting games ever seen around New York. The three forwards, Goodwin, Handley and Hesser, gave a fine exhibition of trick scoring. Handley made the first goal with the celebrated "salmon leap" that he and Goodwin had worked successfully on almost every team in the country; then Hesser tallied on a submerged criss-cross, and Goodwin scored the last point with one of his famous hurdles. Steen, Bratton, Van Cleaf and Ruddy, the backs, covered the goal so closely that the all-stars never had a chance to get near it.

On another occasion that same year, Handley won the N.Y.A.C.'s 100 yards handicap race in 1:09 2/5 secs., with Olympic champion, Charles M. Daniels, finishing in second place. It should be explained that 'handicap races' were a frequent feature of swim meets in those days, the idea being to extend the faster swimmers while giving slower swimmers a better chance to excel. The slower swimmers started first, and then the starter walked behind each remaining swimmer, calling the time from the moving stop watch needle. Unfortunately, there is no existing account of how many seconds Daniels gave Handley on this occasion, or of what start Handley, in turn, gave to the swimmers who took off ahead of him.

Water Polo Made Swimmers Fit

Nearly all the top male swimmers of the time excelled at water polo, including Charles M. Daniels, America's first great champion. It made them very fit and tough. When the English game of water polo, dubbed "soccer" polo in imitation of the English football game, was introduced into America, the N.Y.A.C. held a remarkable trial of this style of water polo. The first "soccer" team, which won after two lively halves by 6 goals to 2, consisted of Daniels, Handley, Ruddy, Dockrell, Wahle, Ruberl, and Adams. On the second team were Webb, Trubenbach, Mulvey, Naething, Steen, Kress, and Well.

The new game was taken up with considerable interest by all the swimmers, many of whom had never played the American game. They rapidly became skilful players. The game was devoid of many of the rough features of the regular water polo, and was more exhausting because the players were constantly on the move. The new game had the effect of causing the swimming squad to exercise without really knowing it. Each Sunday afternoon the regular practice attracted the whole squad of swimmers who played the game with great zest. (New York Athletic Club Journal", May, 1906.) I

n 1908, Handley started coaching and lecturing as a volunteer (unpaid coach) at a number of colleges, schools and clubs, and in several states. He also served as a volunteer coach at Yale, Princeton, and New York Universities, and the New York Athletic Club.

Typical of Handley's complete interest in every aspect of swimming was his contribution to water safety. When the press charged the New York City authorities with employing incompetent life guards at the public beaches, L. deB. Handley was engaged to organize and conduct qualifying tests for candidates. The examinations proved so successful that L. deB. Handley was retained to establish tests for city swimming instructors as well.

Experiments With the Crawl

When the Australian crawl first arrived in the United States in 1903, American swimming was in its infancy. The new Australian stroke was considered a novelty, and athletes continued swimming the trudgen, which was still considered the premier stroke. But Handley's earlier training had taught him the value of keeping an open mind. He made the effort to obtain a detailed description of the new stroke from Australia. This information reached him in the form of newspaper clippings from correspondents in that country.

Handley set to work analyzing the technical information at his disposal. From all accounts, the Australian crawl was characterized by a very fast arm action with a leg kick timed with the arm stroke. As one arm pulled downward the opposite leg kicked downward. There was a very pronounced deep knee bend, far more than in the modern crawl stroke.

This was the stroke that Handley tried to copy. But he couldn't get it to work. His legs kept sinking. And all the other swimmers at the New York Athletic Club had the same experience. Then it dawned on them; the stroke had been developed in the pools around Sydney harbour, where salt water gave the legs better flotation to perform the desired two beat action.

Gus Sundstrom, the N.Y.A.C.'s instructor, had an idea. He demonstrated his favourite stunt, the so-called "Swordfish Stroke". He stretched his arms out in front of him with thumbs locked together, and sped across the pool with a continuous drive of the legs.

Those who were watching quickly got the point. They practiced Sundstrom's rapid leg action, and soon acquired the knack of it. Then they combined the skill with the double overarm-stroke. Thus was born a completely new stroke, the"American crawl". The new stroke had a fast leg kick, and the thrash was narrow with the feet opening less than in the Australian crawl. But the stroke was still crude and energy-consuming.

Handley, Wahle, and Daniels - Refine the American Crawl

Handley and, another club-member, Otto Wahle (pronounced "Wally") set about refining their crude invention. They were both keen students of the sport who helped the club's swimmers and water polo players, although still active participants themselves. Wahle, an Austrian by birth, was fortunate in that he had the ideal subject on whom to try the ideas that he and Handley were developing-a youngster by the name of Charles M. Daniels. Daniels had newly transferred to the N.Y.A.C. from the defunct Knickerbocker Club. Wahle was to coach Daniels throughout his long career (from 1903 to 1911).

Both L. deB. Handley and Otto Wahle became a big influence in the career of Charles M. Daniels. Daniels was to spend two more years, 1903-1905, developing his power and expertise as a conventional trudgen swimmer, before taking up the American crawl, and modifying it to suit his own needs, with results that echoed around the world. (Colwin, 1994)

The American crawl was distinguished from the Australian crawl mainly by a faster leg kick and a more stretched out arm action. There was no conscious timing between arms and legs. For the first time in the history of swimming, a stroke was used in which the legs were independent of the arm stroke, resulting in a more relaxed, free-flowing action. But the new American crawl needed refining to make it easier to swim over longer distances. With each succeeding year of his competitive career, Daniels' action became more polished, and other swimmers, particularly those who learned the crawl as their first stroke, were able to swim further without undue strain.

The combined work by Handley and Wahle, with Daniels as their talented and successful protege, was the subject of an important book, Speed Swimming (1907), written by Daniels, with the assistance of his two mentors. The book remains one of the most authoritative books on the early development of the American crawl stroke.

'A Stroke that Lends Itself to Many Variations'

At one stage there was great confusion because of the many types of crawl stroke that were being swum.

Writing in "The Swimming Stroke of the Future", (Outing, April, 1914, pp. 99-103), L. deB. Handley said: "American coaches were reluctant to give up the wide "scissors" kick of the trudgen stroke. Frank Sullivan, one of Chicago's leading instructors, with the idea of making the crawl useful for distances over 100 yards, experimented with a stroke that combined the features of the trudgen and the crawl."

A "Symposium of the Crawl Stroke" was held in 1918, and was published in 1922 in the Intercollegiate Swimming Guide, and the opinions of L. deB. Handley, Hindman, Kistler, Langner, MacKenzie, Manley, Mann, Nelligan, Sullivan, Whitaker, and White were given on many important details of the crawl-stroke technique.

Handley's summing up was that "The American standard accepted today is the six-beat trudgen crawl. Results in national and international competition have furnished convincing proof of the supremacy of the American Crawl, so there can be no question concerning the advisability of adopting it."

Louis deB. Handley coaching at the New York Women's Swimming Association.

The teachings of L. deB. Handley did much to bring about remarkable performances with the crawl stroke. It developed to the stage where it was not only being used over the short sprint distances but also over the longer swims, and even the marathon swims of ten or more miles. Exponents of the American crawl completely eclipsed all records set with other strokes, and defeated conclusively devotees of the latter over the longer marathons. The greatest feats of combined speed and endurance soon stood to the credit of swimmers using the American Crawl.

Swimming's First Great Coach-educator-communicator

During this period of his life, Handley commenced a long career as a freelance author and writer on swimming, contributing to such newspapers as "The New York Times", "The New York Herald Tribune", "The New York Globe", "The World", and "The American". In addition, he contributed regular articles to "Outing" magazine.

Although a quiet shy man, Handley was a captivating public speaker. But it was through the power of the written word, the clear, renowned prose of which he was a master, that he sent his innovative ideas around the world.

Handley published five books, all of which became best-sellers. For many years, Handley was invited to write the section on swimming for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Handley's famous "Questions and Answers" column, published in "News", the monthly journal of the Women's Swimming Association of New York, spread the gospel of the new American crawl. The "News" was read world-wide by swimming enthusiasts, as well as his peers, who freely acknowledged their gratitude for what he taught them.

Fifty Women Started a World-famous Club

In 1917, the same year in which women won full suffrage in the State of New York, about fifty young women from the business world of New York banded together to promote interest in swimming among women. In December of that year, they formed the New York Women's Swimming Association, an organisation, and a club that was to popularise women's competitive swimming around the world. In its heyday the W.S.A. was the undisputed world leader in women's competitive swimming. (It is said that the W.S.A. won more national titles than any other team in the history of American swimming.)

The purpose of the founders of the W.S.A. was to encourage women to learn to swim as a safeguard against the danger of drowning; urge them to practise for recreation and physical improvement; provide them with competent elementary and advanced instruction at rates low enough for as many as possible to participate. There followed an amazing growth of interest in swimming among American girls and women.

Less than a decade before, the great majority of women hadn't known the first thing about swimming. They looked upon swimming as a pleasant accomplishment, desirable no doubt, but not really essential. Little effort was made to teach women to swim, very few acquired proficiency, and, as for organised competition for women it simply did not exist, so that American girls were hopelessly outclassed by their rivals of other nations.

But within a brief period the situation changed. Educators came to realize that swimming was not only a means of protecting life, but the most enjoyable and beneficial form of exercise, and this caused most girls' schools and colleges to build pools and make swimming a compulsory course. Heads of clubs, YWCA's, social settlements, recreation centers and other organizations and institutions began to appreciate the value of swimming for pastime and physical culture. They encouraged its practice more and more.

Probably the greatest factor in fostering this striking progress was the national standardization of aquatic competition for women. From the time the Amateur Athletic Union undertook to supervise women's swimming, they were able to strive officially for championship and record laurels, thus providing even more incentive to develop expert skill.

This opening of opportunity furthered the cause of swimming in more ways than one. Girls immmediately sought competent coaching, and began to train faithfully and intelligently. They improved rapidly. The newly produced stars came into the public eye with increasing frequency as water carnivals grew steadily more popular. As a result, girls and women throughout the United States were given practical demonstration of the efficiency of the modern stroke, as propounded by swimming's maestro, L. deB. Handley. This competition proved highly motivating, causing a greater influx into the ranks of devotees.

The outcome was that America, in a very few years, rose from the rear ranks to be the foremost nation in women's competitive swimming. The percentage of women able to swim efficiently became larger in America than anywhere on earth and grew consistently larger. American women swimmers won undisputed international leadership at the Olympic Games in Antwerp, where they won four of the five championships at stake, shattered every Olympic record, and scored more points than the representatives of all other countries put together.

Handley Promoted Crawl Stroke for Women

"Girls and women who seek instruction in swimming should not be misled into believing that old-fashioned strokes are best for them" said Handley. "Unfortunately, quite a few of our teachers still cling to methods of bygone days and do not advocate the modern strokes, except for competitive purposes, which is a great mistake."

Handley said that every prospective swimmer should realize that the "up-to-date" strokes now used for racing could not have brought success, and become accepted in competition, had they not afforded greater speed and endurance than their predecessors, "out of the same amount of power, represented by human strength and stamina."

Said Handley" "Now greater efficiency from the identical fund of energy can mean only one thing, viz. reduced effort. Obviously then, these newer strokes will enable girls and women to utilize more adequately their natural resources and either cover a given course faster, or last longer in an unlimited swim, than earlier styles."

"The extent of the progress may be gauged from the fact that American girls hold virtually all the world's swimming records for women today, while six years ago our national marks were so far behind the latter as to be a source of merriment to foreigners."

"It is interesting to note, too, that women have actually played a prominent role in the evolution of the American swimming stroke, now recognized universally as superior to all others. And we of the W.S.A. may take especial pride in the fact, because from the ranks of our organisation stepped forth the history makers."

"Many are taking credit nowadays for introducing the six-beat double trudgeon-crawl, our standard national stroke, the stroke which must be held largely responsible for the world's supremacy attained by the United States in swimming. As a matter of fact, two of our own girls, Claire Galligan and Charlotte Boyle, were first to use it successfully in competition. At the time they took it up experts did not believe it could be held advantageously for distances longer than 100 or 150 yards."

"Indeed, before our girls ever displayed it in racing, letters asking for opinions concerning it were sent by a local coach to the leading men swimmers and instructors of the entire country and not one favored it. All declared it entirely too punishing for the middle and long distances; all spoke of the four-beat, with either single or double rhythm, as the only stroke for courses of 220 yards and upward. And these expressions of opinion are still on record in black and white, furnishing incontestable evidence." "Claire and Charlotte provided the earliest proof of the value of the six-beat with double rhythm in the 500 yard championship of 1918 in Detroit. Claire took the title, while Charlotte, who was swimming her first race longer than the furlong, finished third, a bare touch behind Olga Dorfner of Philadelphia, the former record holder."

"This was in April. That summer both did wonderful work with the new stroke, and Claire, among other achievements, hung up a world's record for 880 yards which remains untouched to this day. Nor is there the least doubt, despite other claims, that the brilliant feats of our two champions led men and women stars everywhere to try the stroke and so brought about its general adoption eventually."

(Note: Charlotte Boyle, acclaimed as America's first woman to win an Olympic title, was actually of Canadian parentage. Her father, who was known in his youthful days as "Klondike Jim", later became Sir James Boyle, having been knighted by King George V for rescuing Queen Marie of Romania from the Romanian "troubles" of 1914. Queen Marie, for the interest of royalty buffs, was originally Marie of Edinburgh, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The writer obtained this information in a recent conversation with Master Swimmer, Mrs Aileen Riggin Soule 89, now resident in Honolulu, who, as 14-year-old Aileen Riggin, and one of Handley's first female stars, was the first women's Olympic springboard diving champion. Later, at the age of 18, she became the only female in Olympic history to win medals in both diving and swimming—silver in the 3 metre springboard, and bronze in the 100 metres backstroke.)

To be continued in our next issue.


Handley, Louis deB. Swimming and Watermanship. New York: MacMillan, 1920.
Handley, Louis deB. Swimming for Women, New York: American Sports ,1922.
Handley, Louis deB., & W.J. Howcroft, Crawl Stroke Swimming. London: E.J. Larby, 1929.


Handley, Louis deB. "Evolution of the Latest Swimming Strokes", Mind & Body, June, 1910.
Handley, Louis deB., "The Best Swimming Stroke", Outing. Vol. 60, 1912, pp. 537-543.
Handley, Louis deB. "The Swimming Stroke of the Future": Outing. April, 1914.
Handley, Louis deB. "Questions and Answers". Women's Swimming Association News, Inc. 1922-1929.

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