It's been nearly 60 years since Aileen Riggin, then a 65-pound 14-year-old, got her first look at the ship that would take her to the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. World War I had ended a year and a half earlier, and the Princess Matoika, a troop transport that had managed to steer clear of German torpedoes, was being loaded with supplies for the American Expeditionary Forces still in Europe. Its passenger list consisted entirely of members of the U.S. Olympic team. "Our hearts sank a little when we saw the old tub," says Aileen, "but we really didn't care. We were all excited to finally be going, and nothing else mattered very much."
Mrs. Howard Soule (nee Aileen Riggin), 73, sits in her Honolulu condominium, fingering old photographs and recalling sepia-tinted memories from a time when life was simpler and anything seemed possible, especially to a teen-age girl. "The morning after we sailed, we went up on deck and were absolutely amazed at what we saw," she says. "The ship had been transformed into one large gymnasium. The decks had been covered with cork to make a track for the runners to practice; there was a boxing ring, trap-shooting equipment for the pistol and rifle teams and a swimming pool. It was just a square wooden box in which a canvas tank was suspended and filled with sea water. It was only a few feet deep and just about long enough for a six-foot man to extend himself. A belt attached to two sides of the tank could be fastened around a swimmer's waist so that he or she could swim in a stationary position."
Because Aileen's events were platform and springboard diving, she found there was little she could do to stay in condition aboard ship except to work out in the tank and do calisthenics. This did not daunt her. After all she'd been through, she felt grateful just to be on the Princess Matoika.
It was only with reluctance that the U.S. Olympic Committee had agreed to allow women on the team for the first time in 1920, and at that, of the 400-member team only 15 were female. "In my day, women didn't compete in any very strenuous sports," Mrs. Soule says. "It was considered harmful to one's health and created an unfeminine picture." But when Aileen and two other youngsters—Helen Wainwright and Helen Meany, who were 14 and 15, respectively—qualified for the swimming and diving team, the USOC declared that while it might bend its principles to let adult females participate, there was no way it would allow children in the Olympics.
December 17, 1979
The USOC said it would select the highest-scoring adult women to take the youngsters' places. "The two Helens and I were so depressed," Mrs. Soule says. "We felt that we had fairly won and that we should represent our country. We also wanted the wonderful trip to Europe." Finally, after the team manager and several other women appealed to the committee, it very grudgingly allowed the girls to go.
Thirteen days after departing New York, the Princess Matoika sailed up the Schelde River to Antwerp. The U.S. swimmers, anxious to see the stadium where they would be competing, went out to the site early the next morning. "I'd never seen anything like it," says Mrs. Soule. "It was outdoors and had probably been used for rowing races. There was what appeared to be a clubhouse at one end. It was rumored that the pool had been part of the city moat, and I didn't doubt it. The water was black, and the whole setup was most uninviting."
Though it was a cold, windy, overcast day, it was the first chance the swimmers and divers had had to really practice in nearly two weeks. The first girl to dive into the pool let out a bloodcurdling shriek. "The water was the coldest we'd ever encountered," Mrs. Soule says. "The swimmers tried to swim their laps, but some of them became so chilled they had to be helped out of the water. We were completely miserable."
Because the water was so cold and dark, some of the divers became disoriented. When entering the pool after performing a somersault, Aileen wasn't always certain which way was up. "If the sun was shining I could see that it was lighter above," she says, "but when it rained or was overcast, as it was most of the time, I couldn't see which way to go and on several occasions I became frightened when I felt I was lost and running out of air."
When the swimming team wasn't working out, it went sightseeing through the countryside. Belgium a year and a half after the war was a grim and depressing place. "I don't know how we happened to be allowed to walk around the battlefields," Mrs. Soule says. "They hadn't been cleared yet and some parts were just as they had been in 1918, at the time of the armistice. We picked up shells and German helmets and other equipment that was lying around. There were many trenches and pillboxes filled with mud and oil-slicked water, with debris floating on top. I picked up a German boot but dropped it very quickly when I discovered that it still had the remains of a foot inside."
At the opening ceremonies, King Albert of Belgium welcomed athletes from 29 countries to the Games of the VIIth Olympiad. Aileen's first event was platform diving, a competition that included four swan dives—a running and a standing dive were each executed from heights of five and eight meters. Although it seemed a ridiculously simple program, Aileen soon discovered it wasn't all that easy to complete four perfect swan dives. The English and Scandinavian women excelled in the event, and Aileen ended up in fifth place, the best finish for an American.
It wasn't until the next-to-last day of the Games that the springboard competition took place. Unlike platform, springboard involved six compulsory dives, four optionals and two others that were drawn from a hat just before the diving began. Included among the compulsories were several dives that required a participant to enter the water with her arms at her sides. The Americans considered such dives to be both unesthetic and dangerous. "They made a horrible splash and did not permit a smooth entrance into the water," Mrs. Soule says. "And when doing gainers, it could be dangerous not to have your hands up to protect your head from hitting the board. Besides, hitting the water with one's head is very painful and conducive to headaches."
The springboard competition remained quite close until the very last dives, the two picked out of a hat. Aileen's draw required her to execute a forward somersault in the layout position, and a dive she describes only as "some kind of gainer."
"I was diving last," she says. "This is not always the best position because the judges can compare the diver with all the earlier ones, but I was lucky. I had watched all of the others make bad entries, so I told myself to go as slow as possible and make a clean entry." In those precomputer days, it took a long time for the officials to add up the scores, so it wasn't until hours later that Aileen found she had won the gold medal. Helen Wainwright won the silver. Aileen thus became the youngest U.S. Olympic champion ever, the smallest ever and the first woman to win an Olympic springboard diving championship.
Aileen's accomplishments did not end in 1920. Four years later she went to the Paris Olympics where she became the first competitor in the history of the Games to win medals in both swimming and diving—a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke (1:28.2) and a silver in springboard. Although she had visited Paris after the 1920 Olympics, she found that "being in Paris when one is 18 is very much different from being in Paris when one is 14." The ever-present chaperons relaxed their grip, and she went to the Folies Bergère, lunched at the Ritz, went tea-dancing in the Bois de Boulogne and attended the races at Longchamp.
In January of 1926 somewhat reluctantly she decided to turn professional. "There weren't many jobs for women in sports," she says, "and there was a certain stigma attached to being a pro. People didn't think of money so much in my time, but of competing for the love of the sport." Starting when she accepted a job managing the pool at the new Deauville Hotel in Miami, her life became filled with glitter and glamour. In May 1926 she appeared on the stage of New York's Hippodrome theater, and along with Wainwright and Gertrude Ederle, she did some fancy diving and swimming in a large glass tank. She went to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam as a hostess, working for Knute Rockne, who had chartered a liner to take fans to the Games. After the Olympics, she joined Johnny Weissmuller in a swimming and diving act that played in Paris for a few weeks. She got $100 an exhibition. Then she moved to Hollywood, where she appeared in two Busby Berkeley movies, Footlight Parade and Roman Scandals. In 1937 she helped organize and coach Billy Rose's first Aquacade, which was presented at the Cleveland Exposition.
Almost 40 years later Aileen Riggin Soule was still competing. On Sept. 6, 1976 she completed a 2.375-mile rough-water swim from Diamond Head to the Hilton Hawaiian Village, an annual event sponsored by the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation. The 70-year-old Mrs. Soule, who was entered in the Masters Division for women 55 and over, finished second. The woman who won was 15 years younger than she.
Today, Mrs. Soule looks nearer 50 than 73, swims every day and wears a size eight dress. She still receives fan mail, a recent letter coming from a young East German who wanted her autograph. And she speaks occasionally of the many changes that have come about in sports during the 60 years since she won her gold medal. "They now have jet planes to fly to a meet," she says. "And when it is over, they fly home again. I think we had so much more fun in our day, because we got to know each other better. During those Olympic summers we made many lifelong friends."