1884 – 1938
The year 1996 marked the centennial of the modern Olympic Games, and the anticipation of American women’s gold medal triumphs in swimming and diving continued a legacy of athletic excellence linked to the efforts of Jewish American Charlotte Epstein. Referred to as the “Mother of Women’s Swimming in America,” Charlotte Epstein was born to Morris and Sara (Rosenau) Epstein in New York City in September 1884. She demonstrated her love of swimming by influencing U.S. women’s swimming to reach prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. Known as “Eppie” by friends, colleagues, and swimming champions, Epstein started the renowned Women’s Swimming Association of New York, launching the national and international fame of American women swimmers in the early twentieth century.
Founded in 1917 by Charlotte Epstein and a few other women charter members who wanted to teach and participate in swimming, the Women’s Swimming Association (WSA) promoted the health benefits of swimming. Epstein enjoyed swimming, although she herself did not become a champion swimmer. As a court stenographer, she and a few other businesswomen wanted to swim after work for exercise. In 1914, Epstein started the National Women’s Life Saving League to foster swimming for women and girls. She also appealed to the Amateur Athletic Union to allow women to register as athletes in swimming events.
At the WSA, Epstein demonstrated outstanding administrative ability as the swimming club team manager, and then as president in 1929. Epstein attracted young female swimmers who desired to participate and compete in the sport. Louis de B. Handley became the swimming coach of the WSA and taught the girls the American crawl stroke. Under Handley’s teaching and Epstein’s management, WSA members proved successful in competition, producing outstanding champions like Gertrude Ederle, Aileen Riggin, and Eleanor Holm. Girls pursued both swimming and diving at the WSA and exhibited excellent results in swimming competitions.
Charlotte Epstein played a crucial role in enabling American women to participate in the Olympic Games and compete for medals. In fact, Epstein served as the team manager-chaperone on the 1920 U.S. Women’s Olympic Swimming Team, the first time females were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. One of Epstein’s WSA club members, the 1920 and 1924 Olympic diving champion Aileen Riggin, recalled Epstein’s importance in providing her and other WSA members with the opportunity to compete in the 1920 Olympics. “We were the three youngest members competing, 14 and 15 years old, and this seemed to cause great commotions with the officials.” “They said,” Riggin remembers, “there was absolutely no way they were going to take children to the Olympics.” Epstein battled the Olympic officials. According to Riggin, “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.” WSA swimmers dominated the tryouts for the Olympic team. Helen Wainwright won the tryouts for the springboard, and Aileen Riggin placed second and third in high diving, while Helen Meaney won for high diving.
The WSA team members achieved victory at the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920 with Epstein serving as team manager and chaperon. Aileen Riggin won the gold medal in Olympic fancy diving at age fourteen, and Ethelda Bleibtrey won gold medals in swimming. WSA members broke records and won races, dominating the sport for American swimmers.
During Epstein’s leadership at the WSA from 1920 to 1936, WSA members continued their swimming and diving dominance in competitions. Aileen Riggin in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games became the first U.S. Olympian to win medals in different events, diving and the swimming relay. Also in 1924, WSA swimmer Gertrude Ederle won the gold medal in the 400-meter relay and bronze medals in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events. Then, in 1926, Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel, and she accomplished this feat in a faster time than the men’s time.
Charlotte Epstein achieved the official position of Olympic team manager of the U.S. Women’s Swimming Team in the 1920, 1924, and 1932 Games. She attended the 1928 Games, but not as an Olympic official. She was appointed chair of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Swimming Committee, as well as chair of the national women’s swimming committee of the Amateur Athletic Union. Epstein’s swimmers at the WSA, although holding national and world records, maintained their commitment to their team manager and the swimming club. Epstein’s swimmers held fifty-one world records and won thirty national champion team relays during her twenty-two years with the WSA. She fostered adherence to the WSA team slogan, “Good Sportsmanship Is Greater Than Victory.” Individual swimmers desired to participate in championships for their WSA team. Swimming champion Aileen Riggin explains that Eppie “was a great influence,” and she told the team members, “’Get points for the club, get in there and dive and never quit, never show off.’”
Epstein, determined to help the WSA prosper, was relentless in locating pools for the WSA members to swim in, arranging trips for swimming meets, and fund-raising for nationals in which her WSA swimmers could compete. Until her death, Epstein maintained her position in the WSA and in other important swimming organizations, promoting competitive swimming for women.
In 1936, she refused to attend the Olympic Games in Berlin because she was opposed to American participation. She withdrew from the American Olympic Committee in protest against Nazi policies. In 1935, Epstein chaired the swimming committee in charge of the trials and selection of the teams for the second Maccabiah Games at Tel Aviv, often called the Jewish Olympics.
In recognition of Epstein’s distinguished services, on June 26, 1939, the American Olympic Committee issued a “Resolution on the Death of Miss Charlotte Epstein.” The resolution expressed that Epstein “received national and international recognition for the part she played in the development of many swimmers and divers, as well as for her outstanding executive ability.” In 1974, to honor her achievement in the development of women’s swimming, the International Swimming Hall of Fame inducted Charlotte Epstein as a Contributor. She also is a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel, inducted in 1982. Moreover, in 1994, Epstein became one of the first women inducted into the B’nai B’rith/Klutznick National Jewish Museum, Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. She died in New York in 1938. Epstein provided a significant contribution to the history of American women’s swimming and the history of the Olympic Games.
AJYB 41:421; Epstein, Charlotte. Archives. Charlotte Epstein Collection, Women’s Swimming Association Archives, Henning Library, International Swimming Hall of Fame, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and Young Women’s Hebrew Association Records, 92nd Street Young Men’s/Young Women’s Hebrew Association Archives, NYC; “Indoor Swims for Girls.” NYTimes, November 12, 1916, 4:5; “Miss Epstein Dead; Olympics Official.” NYTimes, August 27, 1938, 13:4; “Passed On.” American Hebrew 143 (September 9, 1938): 16; Postal, Bernard, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver. Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports (1965); Simons, John, ed. Living Jews of the U.S. and Canada. Vol. 13 (1938–1939); Slater, Robert. Great Jews in Sports (rev. ed. 1992); Soule, Aileen Riggin. Interview with author, Department of History, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich., June 16, 1995; Welch, Paula D., and Harold A. Lerch. “The Women’s Swimming Association Launches America into Swimming Supremacy.” The Olympian (March 1979): 14–16; WWIAJ (1938).