ON THIS DATE in 1920, fourteen-year-old American Aileen Riggin dove into the muddy waters of an Antwerp (Belgium) canal and won the first-ever gold medal in Olympic springboard diving.
The youngest member of the first American women’s Olympic swimming and diving team, Riggin became the tiniest champion ever, standing just four foot seven and weighing 65 pounds.
“Until two months before the tryouts, we had no idea of the dives required, and some were entirely new,” Riggin wrote in 1974. What worried her most, though, was the mud at the bottom of the diving canal. “I kept thinking, the water is black and nobody could find me if I really got stuck down there,” she said, quoted in Greg Kehm’s Olympic Swimming and Diving (2007). “And if I were coming down with force, I might go up to my elbows and I’d be stuck permanently, and nobody would miss me and I’d die a horrible drowning death.”
Riggin survived to compete again, four years later, at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The Rhode Island-born New Yorker won a silver medal in springboard diving and a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke, making her the only woman to win medals in swimming and diving in the same Olympics.
Aileen Riggin Soule, ninety-six, died in a Honolulu nursing home in 2002. She had been the oldest living American female gold medalist.