CHARLOTTE EPSTEIN'S WOMEN'S SWIMMING ASSOCIATION
OF NEW YORK, COACHED BY L. DEB. HANDLEY,
PUT WOMEN'S SWIMMING ON THE MAP WORLD-WIDE
Cecil M. Colwin
Annette Kellerman, of Australia, one of the first great women's swimming
champions, said in 1916 that women swam more gracefully than men, and "what
is more, they can swim with almost as much strength, and at least in distance
swims very nearly equal men's records." She added, whimsically, "I
am not trying to shut men out of swimming. There is enough water in the
world for all of us. But as men can indulge in so many other sports where
women make a poor showing or cannot compete at all, swimming may well be
called the women's sport." (Kellerman, Annette. How to Swim. New York:
George H. Doran Company, 1916.)
Annette Kellerman's comment was followed, in December, 1917, by news of
Charlotte Epstein's founding of the Women's Swimming Association (W.S.A.)
of New York. This was the same year that women won full suffrage in New
York State, and it was also the year in which America entered the First
World War. "Debutantes and young matrons flocked into the motor corps
organized by the National League for Woman's Service. They could be seen,
smartly uniformed, driving staff cars and ambulances about the city at all
hours of the day and night. Women replaced absent men in business offices,
banks, department stores, factories; they filled the numerous wartime agencies
set up by the Federal Government. The emergency shattered traditions and
swept convention into discard. The younger generation achieved its emancipation
without any struggle." (Morris, Lloyd, and Hamish Hamilton. Incredible
New York. London, 1950.)
Charlotte Epstein was the administrative genius behind the success of the
W.S.A., and the debonair L. deB. Handley was its coaching genius. Together
they were to change the face of world swimming. Charlotte Epstein was a
court reporter by profession, and a remarkable organizer. "Eppie"
as she was known to club members, was to prove a dynamic and driving force.
She started the club in a little pool at the Hotel Terrain in Brooklyn,
and lucky for those days, the pool also happened to be chlorinated.
Eppie spent much of her spare time attending to the logistics of running
the W.S.A. As the membership grew, it became necessary to spread the club's
activities to several venues. She was kept constantly busy finding more
pools to hire, as well as the finances to pay the rentals involved. Eppie
arranged for the team to travel to swimming meets, from local competitions
to national championships. She was an expert at everything she did, meticulous
to a degree, but always maintaining a close rapport with the swimmers on
In 1932, Charlotte Epstein was appointed the assistant manager of the United
States Women's Olympic Swimming Team, the first time a woman had been appointed
to this position. Eppie loved nothing better than to plan train trips to
swimming meets, and it was said that she knew the train schedules to major
cities off by heart. "She always went on the trips as chaperon-manager"
said 89-year-old W.S.A. master swimmer, Aileen Riggen Soule recently. "We
would go to Buffalo, Toronto, and Philadelphia, to compete, have dinner
and come home on the train. In Detroit we would stay over night. As the
Manager, Eppie was on the sidelines, helping all the young people."
(Borish, Dr. Linda J. "Telephone Interview with Aileen Riggin Soule,"
"Eppie and I were good friends. The chaperon and the youngest one roomed
together. I was 14 years old in 1920 at the Olympics. In 1924, I roomed
with Eppie for one week in a hotel outside of Paris. We needed time to practice,
and it was about an hour's drive to the pool in Paris. We were frantic.
I had to swim as well as dive, all in one hour; I was in the 100 meters
backstroke, as well as the diving. The week before the contests, we got
nervous about this lack of time, and we asked if we could stay in Paris
and get up at dawn before the pool was really open to anyone. Eppie was
always there at workouts at 5:00 a.m."
A Fine Leader
Not only was Charlotte Eppie Epstein a wonderful administrator, with an
eye for detail, she was also a fine leader and source of encouragement to
every girl on the team. Aileen Riggin Soule said: "The United States
Olympic Committee wouldn't take children to the Olympics. Helen Wainwright,
Helen Meany and Aileen Riggin were the three youngest members competing,
14 and 15 years old, and this seemed to cause great commotion with the officials.
They said there was absolutely no way they were going to take children to
"They had several meetings about this, and they said that they would
take the next highest rated women in our place. Our manager, Charlotte Epstein,
and other women went to the committee and lodged a complaint. They had a
bitter session but finally we won, and the committee members said they would
allow us to go."
"During this time of about a week, we packed and unpacked our steamer
trunks. We wanted to represent our country and wanted the wonderful trip
to Europe. Then Eppie called and said 'Pack again.' We got our passports,
and were measured for our uniforms at Spauldings."
"Eppie was always around, an inspiration to all of us. Mr. Handley
knew all about swimming. But Eppie knew the manipulations of all the plans,
who would compete, where to go. Eppie was terribly important to me. Swimming
coach Mr. Handley was too. She was a great influence. My parents thought
she was great. She was a very good companion. She was always way ahead of
everybody. Eppie could talk us into competing. 'Get points for the club,
get in there and dive and never quit, never show off.' These were some of
her axioms. 'Behave and have a dress code, compete no matter how you felt.'
She was understanding and kind. Eppie was wonderful company, she knew so
much. I was one of her most avid pupils. They were great people to look
up to; Mr. Handley and "Eppie" were role models. A great team
"Attitudes changed completely after the 1920 Olympics. Women participated
more in sports. The team got larger after the Olympics. So girls joined
the W.S.A. Our W.S.A. swimmers broke records and won races. Eppie was always
manager until she became ill. She had cancer." Charlotte Epstein was
born September, 1884 in New York City, and died August 2, 1938.
· Telephone Interview with Aileen Riggin Soule by Dr. Linda J. Borish,
June 1995, Department of History, Western Michigan University. This research
project was supported by the Western Michigan University Research and Development
· Annette Kellerman swam in the first New South Wales Ladies Swimming
Championship in the 1901-1902 season. She travelled to the United States
and Europe, where she was famous as a marathon swimmer, "motion picture
mermaid," and the synchro swimmer who "flirted with Toto, the
Funny Fish, through the walls of the glass tank at the New York Hippodrome."
Film star Esther Williams later made a film of her life.
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