Madison makes her mark in the pool
For most Olympians, appearing at the Games is the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition, but Helene Madison was something of an unusual case.
The American freestyle swimmer spent much of her adolescence near Green Lake in Seattle, doing her best to avoid aquatic competition, paranoid that her inexpert diving would show her up in front of other more talented and graceful girls.
Indeed, according to a newspaper article on Madison published in October 1932, it was not until she was 13 that she learned to plunge into the water with finesse. The late bloomer then set about making up for lost time in the most sensational fashion.
Under the auspices of the Seattle Parks Department swimming programme, she was soon outperforming her contemporaries and was taken under the wing of a local swimming instructor by the name of Ray Daughters.
In 1929, at the age of 15, Madison broke the state record for the women’s 100-yard freestyle and followed that up by breaking the Pacific Coast record. Over the next three years she seemed to smash records every time she entered a swimming pool.
Her name was now common currency in the USA and beyond and, in August 1930, a full two years before her Olympic debut, a Michigan newspaper described her as no less than “the greatest woman swimmer the world had ever known”.
Qualification for Los Angeles seemed a formality, and so it proved when she travelled to New York in early 1932 for the Olympic trials, where she duly won the 100m and 400m freestyle events to officially seal her place at the Games.
As a performer who had always found the mental side of competition to be gruelling, Madison was not helped by the fact that the swimming events were scheduled at the tail end of the Olympic programme, meaning she faced a long and tense wait to compete. However, if her nerves were frayed, she masked it impeccably.
In her first race -- the women's 100m freestyle -- Madison won with a time of 1 minute 6.8 seconds, lowering the Olympic record by more than four seconds. Four days later, she se-cured her second gold medal in the 400m relay in which the US quartet clocked a time of 4 minutes 38 seconds to beat the previous world record by a full 9.6 seconds.
The following day, competing in the women's 400m freestyle race, she made it three golds with a time of 5 minutes 28.5 seconds, beating American swimmer Lenore Kight by just a tenth of second.
That race would be remembered as one of the most exciting in Olympic history. It would also, to the surprise of everyone, be Madison’s final act as a competitive swimmer. No sooner had she stepped out of the pool than Ray Daughters announced to the press that Los Angeles would be “the climax of Helene's swimming career” a mere five years after it had begun.
As it turned out, while Madison’s dedication to her sport was unquestionable, her heart lay elsewhere. After a brief incursion into the movie industry, she met her future husband while training to become a nurse and in 1937 the couple gave birth to their only child.
“Of course, 1932 was a thrill,” she told a California newspaper in August 1938. “But I have found more happiness and contentment in my marriage than in my career.”
Madison did make one return to her original calling in 1948, when she opened a swimming school at the Moore Hotel in Seattle. And in the years before her death in 1970 there were occasional flickers of pride at her sporting achievements.
“Once I did lose,” she told a Virginia newspaper in November 1968. “They put me in a backstroke race against Eleanor Holm and I splashed half the water out of the pool and swallowed the rest.
“But,” she was keen to point out, “I placed third.”