Sybil Bauer: When a Woman Was the Fastest Backstroker in the World

  7 SwimSwam | February 20th, 2014 | National, News

Matthew Hodler walks us down a path of history, to a time where the fastest backstroker in the world was, in fact, a woman. Matthew is a PhD candidate in Health & Sport Studies at the University of Iowa

The thing about swimming — the thing that almost all of us swimmers believe at one time or another – is that, in the end, your time is indicative of what you deserve it to be. We are drilled over and over into believing that those extra sets will “pay dividends” later. Our hard work will translate into dropped times, or, in other words: “the clock never lies.” Sure, we know that one slip on the blocks; one ill-timed bout of food poisoning; one bad break-up; one bad night’s sleep; or any other variable that can keep us from reaching our potential. In the end, however, we believe in the meritocratic ideal. We are always chasing that unattainable and unachievable 00:00.00 on the stopwatch – and hard work, commitment, and dedication are the only ways to get there.

Men’s times are always closer to 00:00.00, so therefore, they are naturally better, right? This line of reasoning relies upon the fallacious notion that women are naturally inferior to men, and many scholars in my field of Sport Studies call this gender ideology. The notion that men are better swimmers than women is “proved” by those inarguable facts of numbers closer to 00:00.00. The problem with objective proof and unassailability is that moment that that proof is negated. You know, that moment when Columbus didn’t fall off the side of the Earth. This is why my favorite swimmer is Sybil Bauer. You can have Johnny Weissmuller, Gertrude Ederle, or Duke Kahanamoku. For me, it’s Sybil Bauer. A 1967 International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee, Bauer is the underappreciated, under-discussed, and under-documented gold medalist in the women’s 100-meter backstroke.

I first learned of Sybil Bauer from Susan Cahn’s great book about American women in sporting history, Coming on Strong. It was a short sentence stating that the 20-year old from Chicago broke the overall world record in 1924. As a former collegiate swimmer, I had been privy to numerous “irrefutable” arguments that the “fastest woman could never beat the fastest man” in the pool.  Along with ignoring the feats of Sybil Bauer (among others), these arguments belittle the achievements of those women who can beat most men.  They are also held up as “proof” that Title IX was/is unnecessarily punitive towards athletes who are men and especially men’s swimming teams.  Sybil Bauer’s performance struck me for two reasons: one, it was a remarkable story that I had never heard, and two, it made me think about the stories we tell ourselves and the stories that remain untold.

Bauer’s excellence did not fit into what I understood as a basic narrative of women in sport: that they (it is always they) are slowly gaining on us (it is always us), but that women will never be as good as men in the athletic realm (and therefore the “real world”).  All of the “evidence” seemed to fit this narrative: the best women’s swimming times were slower than the best men’s swimming times; the best women’s running times were slower than the best men’s running times; and the best women’s jumping distances were shorter than best men’s jumping distances.  With one sentence, Cahn caused me to ponder why some histories are told and why others are not and what else was out there for me to know. A history of Sybil Bauer helps us think about the limited range of historical stories available to us and offers a foothold from which to build other possible histories about women in sport.

A word about the practice of history: history is written with a purpose. As stories about the past, the histories we write and read are very important to our understandings of our selves and our world. Some stories are told and some stories are not told – and that is very much related to larger social and cultural power relations. Sport studies scholars have argued for the uncovering and telling of marginalized histories as a way for us to re-imagine our present sporting experiences in a more just and equal way. In other words, I am sharing this unfinished history about Sybil Bauer to make us re-think our understandings of not only the capabilities of women in swimming, but to think about our understandings of the possibilities of women outside of the pool.

2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the benchmark passage of the legislation known as Title IX.  Sports Illustrated, dedicated its May 7th cover to the famous 37 words of the legislation and then filled the issue with nine Title IX stories.  The multi-platform sport media behemoth ESPN also joined the celebration with a succession of stories in its magazine and on its websites and television networks. Most of these focus on the success of the legislation, and treat women’s sports participation and performance as progressively improving over the last four decades. Whether it be through stories about the U.S. women’s soccer team or college basketball programs such as Tennessee, it is almost a matter of popular gospel that women’s sporting participation and performance has slowly and steadily improved since 1972.

This popular representation of women’s sport in the United States echoes American Studies professor Nancy Struna’s conclusion that the dominant academic historical narrative of women’s sport “project[s] a picture of progress, of positive change, on the long road toward equality for women in sport.” Fellow academic Allen Guttmann concludes his landmark Women’s Sports: A History with a chapter entitled “Three Contemporary Controversies.”  The first of these, “Catching up with the Men?” lays out a long running narrative of women’s sports in which women are constantly striving to “catch up” to the athletic performances of men.  Guttmann argues, on the basis of mathematics and statistics arguments that, although women are closing the gap, “the fact remains that the best men continue to surpass the best women in almost every sport where victory is objectively determined by times and distances,” an argument that is in line with the broader narrative of progress evident in both academic and popular sources.

One way to trouble this easy narrative of progress and to consider its broader implications is to uncover and tell counter-narratives. The story of Sybil Bauer is one such counter-narrative.

Sybil Bauer died of cancer in late January of 1927, at the age of 23. At her death, she held eight world records in her specialty (backstroke) and at one time held every single woman’s world record of every distance in that stroke. A member of Gamma Phi Beta sorority, Mortar Board, the student council, and the field hockey, basketball, and swimming teams, she was a prominent member of the Northwestern University community.  Johnny Weissmuller and other Olympians served as her pallbearers at her February 2nd funeral. For me, the most interesting athletic accomplishment of her short life is the fact the she was the first woman to hold an overall swimming world record: she broke the record the first time in Bermuda in October 1922, and then broke it again in February 1924 — 90 years ago this month.

Her dominating performances led to some serious and worried discussions in the mainstream press about the rise and future dominance of the woman athlete.  These accomplishments also demonstrated that women could participate on an equal playing field (or in this case, pool) with men and beat them. 1924 was an Olympic year so these discussions inevitably led to whether or not she would be “allowed” to compete against male swimmers.

The 1924 Paris Olympics were only the third Olympics in which women swimmers were allowed to officially compete and only the second ones for American women swimmers. International and national sports administrators (who were mostly upper class, and men) relied upon ideas of what was “appropriate” and “proper” to determine which sports they would allow women to compete in at international events such as the Olympic games. Historian Joan Hult states that, by 1900, swimming was a “well-established” sport for collegiate (which, at that time, was almost only upper-class and middle-class) women, and other scholars have agreed that swimming was seen then as an appropriate sport where women could demonstrate their athletic prowess while maintaining their traditional femininity.

One can look at L.D. Handley’s 1924 Spalding Athletic Library: Swimming for Women[1] for confirmation. Handley, the well-respected coach for the New York Women’s Swimming Association and the coach at the 1924 Paris Olympics, calls the sport the best “form of physical culture” for women, primarily because it “produc[es] supple, resilient, well-rounded muscles” and “is an effective normalizer… [and] establish[es] standard body proportions by building muscles…”[2] As such, it is no surprise that swimming was one of the first women’s sport to be embraced by the American Olympic Committee.

The late 1910s to early 1920s was a time when (some) women had opportunities to participate in (some) sports at the elite level. Although I won’t detail it here, it is important to remember that these years were a time where these women’s sporting opportunities took place within a context of power struggles at the international and domestic levels, and along and within gender, race, and class lines. Despite these lines of contention, swimming seemed to be an inarguably “appropriate” sport for American women.

As a young, white, single, middle-class college student, Sybil Bauer fits the notion of what kind of woman would be swimming in the 1920s.  She was also privileged by traditional notions of beauty, so much so, that even her International Swimming Hall of Fame plaque called her “exhibit A of the grace and beauty of women in sport.” Although many newspapers commented on her looks, the few articles that I have found so far demonstrate that — unlike many other women athletes of the time and ours — journalists were more likely to discuss her in terms of her athletic achievements than her physical appearance and most of the major newspapers’ photographs during her career are action shots rather than the common posed photographs.

Most of these articles from 1922-1924 either reported Bauer’s performances at a recent swim meet, or served to announce a meet in town where a record would be attempted, and Weissmuller and Bauer were the two most popular names trumpeted in the headlines. Upon initial review, Bauer’s athletic achievements were the primary interest of the newspapers during her career and she was rarely treated as anything other than a great swimmer.

On October 9, 1922, the New York Times ran a short article with the dateline: Hamilton, Bermuda, Oct. 8th, and the headline “Woman Breaks Man’s Record for First Time in Swim History.” This article first mentions Gertrude Ederle’s women’s world record in the 150-yard freestyle, and then they note that Sybil Bauer’s 6:24, 4-5 in the 440-yard backstroke broke Harold Krueger’s previous record of 6:28 — her swim was so fast that she set world records for both the 300-yard and 400-yard backstroke on her way to the 6:24, 4-5 for the 440-yard swim. This historic swim received notice in only one other newspaper that I could find. A little more media attention was generated when she broke her record again in Miami on February 11, 1924 – possibly because it was an Olympic year.

At a “water carnival” near Miami, Florida, Bauer dropped her previous world record in the quarter-mile backstroke to 6:23. A few wakes later, articles in major newspapers predicted that she would win the men’s Olympics’ backstroke, if given the chance. Headlines such as “Bauer Stands Alone As Back-Stroke Mermaid,” “Girl May Race Men Olympians,” and “Miss Bauer Only Woman to Break Records of Men” demonstrate the importance of her historical feat, but also mark it as a point of curiosity and a counterpoint to the perceived superiority of male athletes. In fact, each article argued that, as long as it was within the rules, that Bauer should be allowed to compete at the Olympics against men.

Despite this support, there was an undercurrent of sexism in the articles.  Kreuttner’s Washington Post article detailed Bauer’s dominance over the other women swimmers: it noted that Bauer had won every backstroke race against women since 1921 and suggested that this may have been a result of her training techniques. In not so subtle terms, Kreuttner argues that Bauer’s success is a result of her training with men – she was a member of the Illinois A.C., along with training partner Johnny Weissmuller, and several other members of the Northwestern men’s team. At first glance, this article is laudatory of Bauer’s achievements – and rightfully so – but upon further review, one can begin to see some problems with it. Kreuttner is implicitly arguing that Bauer has so thoroughly dominated other women swimmers that she has earned the right to swim against men, which also – once again — presumes the physical and athletic inferiority of (almost) all women to all men.

It seems to me that Kruettner, and a few of his supporters, are saying that the fact that she held the fastest time in the world since October of 1922 does not in itself make her worthy to swim against the men at the 1924 Olympics. No, it is that and the fact that she has clearly outclassed all the women which gives her the right to compete against men. Inadvertently or not, Kreuttner makes the argument that women should only compete against men once they have become so objectively worthy of it that it cannot be argued, but until they reach that level, they should just stay with the women. (I am reminded of some of the ways the Dallas Mavericks’ invitation to Brittney Griner were discussed last year.)

Two other articles have a similar point of view in that they discuss Bauer’s dominance over other women swimmers while also recommending that she should get a chance to compete against the men at the Olympics based on her past performance. The un-credited New York Times article is worthy of closer scrutiny. This article is explicit in framing Bauer as a feminine athlete.  Both her feminine appearance and attitude are mentioned, as is her subservience to her (male) coach.[3]  This subservience to and/or reliance upon men is most apparent when the author discusses her likelihood of swimming against men at the Olympics. According to the article, despite her obvious qualifications (her times in the pool) and despite the lack of any specific rules prohibiting her participation, Bauer would have to have her (male) coach advocate for her. She would not be allowed to compete against men (who she’d already beaten objectively) without a man campaigning on her behalf.  In essence, both Bauer’s times and voice were silenced by her gender when it came to being able to compete against men in the Olympics. This is emblematic of the broader structural obstacles and inequalities faced by women athletes then (and sometimes now).

Bauer did not compete against the men at the 1924 Paris Olympics, and she had to settle for an individual gold medal in the women’s 100-meter backstroke.[4]  I have not found any sources that indicate that she war barred from competition, nor have I found any sources that indicate her (or her coach) formally applying for inclusion – or any sources about any possible “controversy” one way or another.  The story seems to go like this: she broke the record, for the second time, in February 1924, then a few prominent newspaper and magazine articles contented that she should be allowed to compete against men at the Olympics, and then it was not publicly discussed again. Either she never attempted to enter the men’s competitions, or she was privately denied entrance, I do not know, and have had no luck finding out so far. (Cahn uses an unpublished dissertation to claim that “Olympic officials quickly turned down” Bauer’s request to swim against the men.) I can only speculate, but given IOC President Baron de Coubertin’s antipathy towards women athletes and the fact that his 1924 hometown Olympics were the last he would preside over, I imagine Sybil Bauer never had a chance to swim against the men.

As is so often the case with women athletes of the past – and now – her own voice is conspicuously absent from this history. The early 1920s were a time of great social and cultural change in the United States — after all this was only a few years after the passage of the 19th Amendment. The last articles about Bauer during her lifetime indicate some of these tensions surrounding the relationships between and among gender, sexuality, and sporting participation. In November 1926, her hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, announced that she was set to retire from the sport because she became engaged to a New York writer named Ed Sullivan (yes, that Ed Sullivan). However, she was also fatally ill with cancer, so the announced engagement may not be the only reason for public talk of retirement. Besides taking her too soon, her illness also deprived us of her voice: she could not give an oral history or write about her time as a swimmer. Unless a diary is found, we’ll probably never get a chance to read Bauer’s thoughts (if she had any) during her reign on top of the swimming world.

This history, as are many, is incomplete and more of a starting off point than an endpoint: in a sense, we are jumping off the blocks, not touching the wall, in the story of Sybil Bauer. As I stated earlier, my purpose for sharing this story is for creating space for us to re-imagine and re-think our understandings of women in sport and gender, in general. I want to offer this story about Sybil Bauer in order to confuse the perception of women’s sporting performances as simply one of progress. Cultural theorist Paul Willis argues that the ideological power of sport is its obviousness. He writes that sport is a site where “female difference becomes the fact of female sports inferiority” which leads to a broader, commonsense “ideological view” that “of course women are different and inferior” — we can see it on the sporting fields.  Bauer’s story disrupts this ideological view.  In this specific case, for this specific person, we see that progress is not the narrative that fits: the best woman swimmer is not closing the gap on the best men, she has already beaten them. And, in this way, it helps us understand and consider the ideological implications of all historical narratives and the importance of continuing to challenge them.

[1] Handley, 1924

[2] Handley 1924, p. 9-10.  Handley was the well-respected coach for the New York Women’s Swimming Association and the coach at the 1924 Paris Olympics. (Riggin’s oral history, 1994).

[3] “Miss Bauer wears her hair cut short, as so many girl swimmers do, for comfort as well as becomingness.  She is not spoiled by her success, and enjoys life very much.”  Her reliance on her (male) coach and benefactors is mentioned twice: once in the introduction of her as being “discovered” by her coach and the other in that she would need his advocacy and support to be able to swim against men.   This is also reminiscent of the Washington Post article citing Bauer’s training with (and like) men as a reason for her success.

[4] I could not find a reliable time for her swim, but a few unreliable sites displayed her winning time as both slower than her own world record at the time and slower than the men’s time. It is also worth noting that the 440-yard backstroke was not an Olympic event for men or for women at the 1924 Paris games.

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7 Comments on "Sybil Bauer: When a Woman Was the Fastest Backstroker in the World"

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Terrific article. Thanks!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Castor Semenya controversy of several years ago. I don’t think there’s ever been an equivalent situation in swimming, though.

Catherine, Thanks for the kind comments; I’m glad you enjoyed the article! It has been a lot of fun uncovering her story. You’re right: the Caster Semenya controversy is related to the notion of gender ideology that I discus here. There is some really good work about Semenya in our field (check out Penn State’s Jaime Schultz if you want to read a really good academic article), but I think her story is a little more complicated than Bauer’s. Whereas, to my mind, the folks who questioned Semenya’s woman-hood were definitely following the basic notions of gender ideology, their comments and concerns were often wrapped up in Western ideals of what a woman was “supposed” to look and act like… Read more »
I think I’m stepping in it now. I think there’s more to the Castor Semenya story than the fact that her competitors felt she looked mannish. Unfortunately for her, it was widely know that she had to undergo gender identification tests after her world cup victory. Although the results aren’t public knowledge, it seems that they showed that she had a rare condition that gave her both female and male characteristics and, as a result, had much higher testosterone levels than most females. (I’m getting this from which I admit is a pretty unreliable source). If that’s true, and I admit it’s a big IF, I think it’s wide open to question whether she should have been permitted to… Read more »
Catherine, I have read the similar things that you have — about Semenya taking a test — but I think we might disagree (amicably, I hope?) on interpretation of these facts that we both “know.” It’s not my area of expertise, but the gender “verification tests” have been a part of international sport testing since the 1960s. In fact, many scholars have persuasively (to my mind) argued that the imposition of these tests are rooted in Cold War politics. The tests began as a simple “eye test” where doctors, who were always men, would look at women’s genitalia to make sure that they were women (there is some powerful first person accounts of the dehumanizing aspects of this process for… Read more »

I swam for Northwestern in the early 1980’s and Sybil Bauer’s portrait was displayed on the wall of the old pool alongside other stars from that era. I did not realise just how amazing her accomplishments were until reading the “History of Olympic Swimming” by Peter Daland. I see this book is still available on the USA Swimming site. A great read.

Great article – well written!