Life as a professional athlete isn’t an easy one. It takes considerable discipline, both mind and body, to compete in sports that distinguish the top 1%. One does not simply wake up one day and decide to swim for a living. It takes years upon years to build up the physical and psychological fortitude needed to participate in organized sports.
Historically, swimming was considered an amateur-only sport. It’s only recently that it was recognized as a true field for athletes. Unfortunately, both organizations that govern the ‘swimming union’ are non-profit in the U.S., meaning there is very little money to go around for professional swimmers. There is even less profit in the sport once the administrative body and port development costs are subtracted. Many professional swimming athletes work part-time (some even full-time) jobs to support themselves and their rigorous training regime. This does not fully apply to many European countries where an athlete on a national team can receive a governmental salary and bonuses based on participation.
Today, women’s participation in the Olympics is not unusual as ever more ladies like Katie Ledecky compete and win gold medals. But it wasn’t always like this. Women weren’t allowed to take part in the Olympics until the 1900 Games. Hélène de Pourtalès from Switzerland was the first woman to compete at the Olympic Games. She became the first Olympic champion in the 1- to 2-ton sailing event.
The first-ever Olympics summer swimming event was held in 1912. Two female participants, Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie were allowed to participate. Their courage and strength of spirit would inspire future generations of women athletes to break out of the mold and chase after their dreams. Here is a list of female swimmers who changed the history of professional swimming, paving the way for future generations of female athletes.
Fanny was an Australian competitive swimmer who took part in the first Olympic games that admitted Women’s swimming participation. Fanny’s achievements and perseverance forged the path for women to participate in Olympic Swimming.
From an early age, Fanny was interested in swimming. She learned to swim in Sydney’s Coogee Baths under her mentor’s tutorship. She won several competitions in swimming from 1906 to 1910, where she lost the 100-yard breaststroke and the 220-yard freestyle to Mina Wylie. The two would form a close friendship and later compete in the Olympics together. At the 1912 Summer Olympics, Fanny won the gold medal in swimming, making her the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in professional swimming.
For years she was considered the greatest female swimmer in several disciplines. Fanny was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967 and the Victorian Honor Roll of Women in 2001.
Together with Fanny Durack, Mina was one of the first two women admitted to the Olympic Summer swimming event in 1912. Having bested Fanny at a competition in 1910, the two athletes became inseparable friends. They would train together and try to beat each other’s time per lap.
At the 1912 Olympics, Fanny took the gold medal, while Mina secured the silver, making the first Australian swimmer to receive a silver medal in swimming. While Fanny’s time in the 100-meter final was 1:22.2, Mina’s was 1:25.4. After the Olympics, Mina competed in the New South Wales and Australian championships from 1906 to 1934. She won 115 in backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle.
Both Fanny and Mina remained friends.
Donna de Varona
Donna de Varona is a formal athlete, having participated in the 1960s Summer Olympics in Rome and the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. She is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and women in sports. She has spoken numerous times, both in print media and on television, to defend transgender athletes. Besides swimming, de Varona was a shout caster for athletic events.
During the Rome Summer Olympics in 1960, de Varona was only 13. She did splendidly in the women’s 3×100 freestyle relay but did not receive a gold medal because she did not participate in the final round. Four years later, during the 1964 Summer Olympic games, de Varona won a gold medal for her presentation in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay event. De Varona had already set eighteen best times and world records at this point in her life.
Besides her glorious swimming career, de Varona played an important role in Title IX, an Equal Education Amendment Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded educational institution. De Varona currently serves on the Executive Board of Special Olympics International and the International Olympics Committee’s Women and Sports Commission and is a member of several prestigious committees all aiming to bring equality and fairness to sports.
Shelley Isabel Mann
Shelley Mann was an American professional swimmer in the 1950s. Shelley suffered from polio in early childhood. She was hospitalized for several months with a paralyzed right leg. Under advice from her doctor, Shelley took up swimming as physical therapy. The therapy paid off – she regained the function of her right leg but was left with a limp. What she did discover, however, is that she could move her leg freely in the water. Thus, she was motivated to take up professional swimming.
At fourteen years old, Mann already had several victories under her belt. She became the 24th AAU national champion in backstroke, butterfly, freestyle, breaststroke, and individual medley. At the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, she won the gold medal for women’s 100-meter butterfly. She additionally won a silver medal for the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle the same year.
Shelley Mann was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. To this day, she’s one of the most inspirational figures in women’s athletics.
Sophie Pascoe is a New Zealand professional swimmer. Sophie suffered a terrible accident when she was two years old: her father’s ride-on lawnmower ran over both her legs. One leg had to be amputated, while the right leg was left with severe scarring. Despite this, Sophie decided to pick up swimming at the age of seven under the coaching of Roly Crichton. As she swam, she found that the near-weightlessness in the water reduced the pain of walking.
Sophie took part in the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Pascoe. She won a gold and silver medal for the 100-meter breaststroke and 100-meter butterfly event respectively, as well as a gold medal for the women’s 200-meter individual medley. She also shared a gold medal for the 100-meter backstroke with the South African competitor. These victories in a single event made her New Zealand’s youngest athlete at the Paralympics at only fifteen years of age.
Sophie carries 21 gold medals and 8 silver medals throughout her career. She continues to compete to this day and has expressed enthusiasm about winning the gold in the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Janet Beth Evans
Janet Evans is a former American competitive swimmer with a total of four gold medals at the 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympics. Her specialty is distance freestyle.
Evans began swimming at an early age. Her first record-breaking was at the national level in distance events. Her fans claimed jokingly that she had gills instead of regular lungs due to her seemingly inexhaustible oxygen supply. Evans is a firm believer in hard work and diligent training. When she was attending Stanford University, the NCAA placed weekly limits on athlete swimming training hours. So, Evans quit university to focus on her training.
Evan’s achievements are most notable for her ability to out-swim bigger and more powerful opponents. Many times, it was discovered that her swimming adversaries (many of which had years more training than her) were abusing illegal enhancing drugs. Evans won against them every single time.
These amazing women have played a major part in the history of professional swimmers, paving the way for many other female swimmers we know today. Without them, the history of the Olympics could have been very different. Their dedication and will to succeed keeps inspiring today’s athletes, setting a great example to follow.