Esther Williams, a swimming champion who parlayed her success in the pool into a Hollywood career, has died. She was 91 years old. ABC News reports that she died in her sleep early this morning according to her publicist Harlan Boll.
In 1939, representing the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Williams claimed her first gold medal in the 100m freestyle at the AAU Championships (which was National Championships during that era). According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF), Williams won in 1:09, a time that was faster than all except one of the winners over the following six years.
William was a clear favorite to medal at the 1940 Olympic Games, but they were cancelled because of World War II.
William wasn’t one to live with disappointment for very long, and she quickly used her swimming skills to land a screen test with another swimming and Hollywood superstar, Johnny Weissmuller. The gig was for the 1940 San Francisco World’s Fair Aquacade, and she got it. The ISHOF, swimming’s keeper of history, reports that Weissmuller wanted a tall star to work with, and that’s why he picked her. William quickly showed her skill and stage presence, winning the San Francisco crowd, and a star was born.
William’s film career developed into one of the biggest of her era, and she starred opposite screen legends such as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Howard Keel, Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, and many more.
William’s contribution to the sport is immeasurable as she inspired an entire generation to swim. She’s one of the rare swimmers who truly leapt from the sport’s limelight into the world of Hollywood celebrity.