SWIMNEWS ONLINE: June 1996 Magazine Articles

Shopping Media Kit Trial Issue Swim Camp Directory


Cecil M. Colwin

At the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, Aileen Riggin, 14, became the youngest U.S. Olympic gold medalist, winning gold in springboard diving. In the 1924 Olympics, she became the only woman in Olympic history to win medals in both diving and swimming, with a silver in the 3-metre springboard, and a bronze in the 100 m backstroke. Among her many accomplishments are outdoor and indoor national springboard titles, and national relay titles in swimming. Aileen Riggin toured the world as a professional, starring in Hollywood movies and swimming spectaculars. Her articles have appeared in Good Housekeeping and Colliers, among others. Today, Aileen Riggin Soule swims in Masters competitions. The following was written in the fall of 1992, and is reproduced in SWIMnews Magazine by permission of the Author.

Aileen Riggin Soule

The first time I met Mr. Handley was in a small steaming swimming pool in the basement of a hotel in Brooklyn Heights, New York. This was about 1917, during the war years. Mr. Handley was a very courteous gentleman and welcomed me to the Women's Swimming Association (W.S.A.) of New York. I had just missed becoming a charter member of this newly formed club by about two weeks. Mr. Handley volunteered to coach the women who belonged to this club. He was interested in promoting his theories of swimming and was very willing to help us. He wanted to experiment with his new concepts of the American crawl stroke.

Youngest Olympic Champion Aileen Riggin, USA, a member of the W.S.A. receiving trophy for fancy diving from King Albert at 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. She won the silver in 1924, and added a backstroke bronze, in Paris.
For larger 64k photo click on image.

My first impression of him was that he was very polite, a perfect gentleman; and that was the impression that remained for the rest of my life. He was looked up to by all of the young women in the swimming club. We respected him and we all tried our very best to please him by swimming well. We all thought Mr. Handley was quite handsome. He was fair and had that fine build, not too muscular, a swimmer's build-which was his sport. He played water polo for the United States in the Olympic Games in 1904, which were held in St. Louis at the Exposition. He also competed for the New York Athletic Club. Sports were his hobby. He did sports for fun-yachting, sailing, raising dogs, bicycling, and competing in various different athletic activities.

A Great Believer in Amateur Sports

He was a rather tweedy type, more of an English country gentleman, I would say, than an American swim coach. He always used to wear tweeds. Sometimes in the winter he would wear spats. For you young people out there, spats are pieces of felt worn over a man's shoes, supposedly for warmth and also for a dressy appearance. When I ask my friends now what they remember of Mr. Handley, no one forgets those spats. He was always very well dressed and put up a very good appearance.

Mr. Handley was such a quiet person that no one knew a great deal about him and his private life. He was born in Rome of American parents; so he was an American citizen. As a young man he was in the importing business. His business suffered greatly during the two World Wars. He recovered from his first loss, I believe, but never quite had the success he formerly had.

He was one of the best educated persons that I have known. He spoke four or five languages. He was raised in Europe and could converse in at least all of the romance languages. He could represent U.S. in meetings with foreign coaches and the committees who made the rules for the Olympics and other sports events. To have someone who could speak up for us was a very valuable contribution to the sport.

Mr. Handley was a great believer in amateur sports and we were a 100% amateur team. We also had to be good sports. I know it sounds like Horatio Alger, "For God, for Country, and for Yale," but it was not this way. We had a motto for our club, which was "Good sportsmanship is greater than victory!" We had to live up to a certain standard. Mr. Handley did this by his example. He always spoke in low cultured tones; never any ranting or screaming. He congratulated us when we did something well. He was sorry when we lost out on some event. He always encouraged us in every way. The rest of the team were all very good sports.

No Prima Donnas

If any new member got a little conceited or did something that we did not think was sportsmanlike, the older members of the team informed them of this mistake and told them they had better correct it. We were all in this to help each other and to get points for our club later on in competition. The club came first and we were very willing and anxious to do our best to promote our team. There were no prima donnas in the club.

We had barely enough money in the club and it was hard to keep up. Mr. Handley donated his services and several of the other older women volunteered and donated their help. In this way we were able to continue although financially strapped.

We started collecting national championships in our club and people became interested in girls' swimming. This was something new at that time. We got great publicity because, over time, our girls seemed to be breaking national or world records because of our stroke. We also were competing at the same time as women were wearing one-piece bathing suits for the first time-in the United States at least. This coincided with the improvement of our swimming.

Perhaps wearing less cumbersome uniforms to swim in helped us with our speed. I am sure it did. Up to that time, women wore the gay 90's type of bathing suits with the large bloomers and heavy serge material. I do not know how they kept from drowning in those clothes. We had great coverage in the newspapers and magazines before television, radio, and all the other media. We dominated the news because this was a new sport. People were realizing that women swimmers were really good athletes. And they became proud as well because American girls were making world records.

Our team, coached by Mr. Handley, was invited everywhere along the east coast and as far west as California and Honolulu, and did very well everywhere we went. Any girls who cared to come join our club could so. It was by no means a closed club. The yearly dues were $3 for team members. The others paid more because they were taking lessons and such, but those who were actually on the team had a very low rate.

First Official Olympic Women's Swimming Coach

We were really true amateurs in those days. Girls would come to us from many places in the United States and even from Panama. They would come for the coaching. They were welcomed to free coaching by Mr. Handley. They did not have to represent our club. He was interested in good sportsmanship and transferring his ability to others. It pleased him if they were successful. Some of them were very successful. We had not only Gertrude Ederle, who at the time became the most famous woman swimmer, we had Martha Norelius; Ethelda Bleibtrey who won at the Olympics; Helen Wainwright my rival; Charlotte Boyle; Helen Meany who was really a diver but was a member of the club; Agnes Geraghty who won a tremendous number of breaststroke races. We also had Eleanor Holm later on, the backstroke swimmer, was a member of our club.

Mr. Handley did not go on many trips with us. He preferred to stay in New York City and attend to business. He did go to Paris for the Olympic Games in 1924. He was the official women's swimming coach and this was a first. The previous Olympic games in 1920 , which was the first one in which American girls competed, did not have a women's coach. He was a great help to us in Paris because of his linguistic abilities. Just his presence helped us greatly. He inspired confidence. Of course we were very naive swimmers. We never heard of dope in my day-in those days I should say. We were all raised that good sportsmanship is greater than victory. We also felt that one-upmanship was to give your opponent the advantage and then beat him or her. That we did sometimes, especially in handicap races. Our coach and assistants all felt that handicap races were a great influence and helped in developing speed. It gave an advantage to the up-and-coming swimmers. The champions would have to catch up with them. They were given a few seconds advance start. It worked pretty well. They felt this was a good method. I do not know if they do that any more-I doubt it.

Mr. Handley had us swim about a mile every day. Every time we got in the pool we swam approximately a mile. Nobody knew in those days how far we should go, how to train, or what we should do when we did get in the pool. Mr. Handley tried to keep us on a simple regimen as far as food was concerned. He did not recommend anything. We were not supposed to have lots of candy or ice cream and chocolates and things like that. He was against sodas. We used to dream about them. After some big National or Olympic Games, we would go out and fill up on French pastry-"pig out" as they say nowadays.

He did not want us to play any other sports while we were competing. I used to like tennis, played a little golf, rode horseback some, ice skated, but he asked us not to do that while we were actually competing. We could do it later, on our own time. He thought that swimming was a natural exercise and sufficient for our development. It appeared to be. We were all true amateurs in the true sense of the word. We never expected to turn professional or earn any money from the sport we loved. And we really did love it. Sometimes during laps, in the winter time in a cold pool, it can be boring, dull and miserable but altogether we really liked it and stuck with it. It was stimulating when we started breaking records. I myself was a diver. I did swim in the Olympics, backstroke, and national relay team, freestyle. They did not have medleys in those days. I was the slowest one in the relays but it was good enough for a gold medal in the nationals.

With all the victories that our girls had, Mr. Handley's name spread as well the name of the W.S.A. club, but he remained the same dedicated amateur coach. He was delighted with our success, and with the proof of his theories that his stroke was the best stroke at that time.

A Secret Winter Swimmer

He was an all around athlete. Mr. Handley competed in so many different sports. He held the world's record in something called the medley race. That consisted of continuous quarter miles of walking, running, horseback riding, rowing and swimming. In that order. His time was 16 minutes 27.45 seconds, which sounds pretty fast to me.

Another of Mr. Handley's hobbies was to be an all year round swimmer. In New York the winter gets very cold, as we all know. He would go down to Manhattan Beach which is near Brighton Beach. A group he knew would gather there. They would lie in the sun and then go for a swim in the ice cold water. He felt that this kept him in good shape. He never told us about this. I had heard much later that he kept up his swimming all year round. Although I never actually saw him swim, I am sure he did the old fashioned Australian crawl with the scissors kick. No one ever caught him at it to my knowledge. Sometimes in the indoor pool, which was very hot and overheated, he would wear a bathing suit; the old fashioned kind, all we knew in those days, the one piece man's suit. They never wore trunks without a shirt as they do now.

After the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, the American girl swim team was invited to give exhibitions in England. One day while there, we went to visit Mr. Handley's cousins, nieces and nephews at their beautiful country home outside London. It was a typical British afternoon party with tennis, croquet and swimming, followed by high tea. We enjoyed Mr. Handley's charming family and the chance to break through and get a glimpse into his private world.

I never realized how strong Mr. Handley's influence had been until I started swimming in the master program in 1988. When I went for my first swim at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, I found two women from New York who were younger than I, but had been coached by Mr. Handley. They were still competing and they still had the W.S.A. six-beat-double-trudgen crawl stroke. One of them is 55 years old; the other is 65 years old. She placed third in the world's master championship this past fall in Australia, while I competed in the 80 to 85 group. They are going this summer to Europe to compete in the World's Masters Championship. I thought what a marvelous tribute to the man who spread the cult of American crawl swimming throughout the United States and eventually the world-the stroke with some slight modifications now as it was then. I wonder how many more of his pupils still swim and compete, 70 years later.

P.S. I forgot to say that Mr. Handley has been an honoree of the International Swimming Hall of Fame since 1967.

Home | E-Mail | Top of Page | June 96 Contents | Magazine
Mag Archives | Calendar | World Rankings | Meet Results | Links to Sites
Photo Library | Biographies | Forums | Shopping | Classifieds

COPYRIGHT © 1995-1998 SWIMNEWS MAGAZINE, All Rights Reserved.
URL: http://swimnews.com