Between 1930 and 1932, Seattle swimmer Helene Madison owned 23 world records for swimming and won every freestyle event at the U.S. Women’s Nationals three years in a row. Madison won three consecutive gold medals in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, but was unable to parlay her fame into a film career. She returned to Seattle, and worked various small jobs until becoming a swim coach in the 1940s. In 1966, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Blooming at Green Lake
Helene Madison was born in June 1913 in South Bend, and moved to Seattle with her parents when she was 2. When she was 6, her family moved into a home one block away from Green Lake, where the young girl would spend many a summer day swimming in its waters. As she grew, Madison participated in school sports, but enjoyed swimming the most.
Much of her early swim training came under the auspices of the Seattle Parks Department swimming program. Jack Torney (1905-1984) -- a University of Washington student instructor who went on to become the university's men's swim coach -- helped Madison refine her swimming technique, and by the time she was in her early teens, she was outracing all of the swimmers at Green Lake.
Ray Daughters (1905-1972), an instructor at the Crystal Natatorium in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, watched Madison swim in the summer league competitions, and decided to take her under his wing. Daughters helped her boost her speed during countless hours of training at the Crystal Pool, and later at the Washington Athletic Club, where Daughters worked after the facility opened in 1930.
In 1929, at the age of 15, Madison broke the state record for the women's 100-yard freestyle, and then quickly followed that up by breaking the Pacific Coast record. The following year, in her national debut, she broke six records in a single swim during the national championships in Florida, where she won every free style event. When she returned to Seattle, she was greeted by thousands of well wishers at Boeing Field before traveling to an honorary luncheon in downtown Seattle.
Over the next two years, Madison broke record after record, and became the first woman to swim the 100-yard freestyle in one minute flat. In 1931 the Associated Press named her its female athlete of the year. She returned to the United States Women’s Nationals in 1931 and 1932, and won every freestyle event each time.
When she wasn't swimming in competitions, she could almost always be found at the Washington Athletic Club, honing her technique. In early 1932, she traveled to New York City for Olympic trials, where she won the 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle. This qualified her for the United States Women's Team in that year's summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles.
In her first race -- the women's 100-meter freestyle -- Madison won the race with a time of 1 minute, 6.8 seconds, more than four seconds faster than the Olympic record. Four days later, she won her second gold medal, in the 400-meter relay race along with Josephine McKim (1910-1992), Eleanor Garatti Saville (1909-1998), and Helen Johns (b. 1914). Their winning time was 4 minutes, 38 seconds, which beat the previous world record by 9.6 seconds.
The next day, she competed in the women's 400-meter freestyle race. This race was close, but Madison won with a gold-winning time of 5 minutes, 28.5 seconds, beating out U.S. swimmer Lenore Kight (1911-2000) by a tenth of second. The race was considered to be one of the most exciting events in Olympic history.
No sooner had she won three consecutive gold medals than Ray Daughters announced to the press that "The Olympic Games was the climax of Helene's swimming career," and that she would most likely be retiring from amateur sports (The Seattle Times, August 15, 1932). Madison remained in Los Angeles for two weeks, pursuing a career in Hollywood.
When she returned to Seattle later that month, she was given one of the largest ticker-tape parades the city had ever seen. Fleet Week celebrations were already under way, and "Queen Helene" was named guest of honor at the Naval Ball held at the Olympic Hotel. A special platform was built outside the hotel, so that Madison could greet and speak to tens of thousands of adoring fans.
After being introduced by Mayor John Dore (1881-1938) Madison thanked everyone for their love and support. She confirmed that she would be leaving amateur competition, and although she could not divulge any of her plans, she would soon be returning to Hollywood, at which time she would know more about her future. The crowd cheered and sang "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," as she was escorted inside.
Two days later, Madison gave two swimming demonstrations at the Playland amusement park, north of Seattle. Crowds of people lined the shores of Bitter Lake in the pouring rain to see her famous crawl stroke and blazing speed. For her efforts, she received a free car as a gift from the Washington Athletic Club and other Seattle donors. And with that, her amateur status was over.
Seeking The Hollywood Dream
Before she left for Seattle, movie producer Sol Lesser (1890-1980), who had just acquired the rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan character, told the press that he was negotiating with Madison's agent for her services. Her participation in that project never came to pass, and instead she signed a movie contract with Mack Sennett (1880-1960).
It was announced that her first Sennett Comedy would be a two-reel film called Help, Help, Helene, and that she expected to do more comedies following its completion. The film was released as The Human Fish (1932), but it bombed at the box office. Her only other film roles were uncredited parts in the comedy It's Great to Be Alive (1933) and a sword-and-sandals feature, The Warrior's Husband (1933).
Her film career a bust, Madison tried to find work as a professional swimmer, but due to the Depression, paying gigs for competition swimming were almost nonexistent. Instead, she returned to Seattle, in hopes of becoming a nightclub entertainer. Those efforts failed too.
Looking for Work
Madison was even thwarted in her attempts to become a Seattle swimming instructor. The Parks Department barred women from teaching swimming, and even her three gold medals could not convince them to hire her on. Instead, she found a job selling hot dogs and soda pop at the Green Lake concession stand. She also found work clerking at a department store.
In 1936, she had saved up enough money to enter nurses' training school, and although she passed her probationary period at Virginia Mason Hospital with flying colors, she never became a registered nurse. Instead, she married Puget Sound Power & Light Company Executive L. C. McIver (1892-1978), a patient she'd met at the hospital. Their only daughter, Helene Jr., was born the following year.
In 1948, Madison opened a swimming school at the Moore Hotel pool, which had recently been renovated. One of her students, Nancy Ramey (b. 1940), went on to win a silver medal in the 1956 Olympics.
Back to Green Lake
In 1958, the McIvers divorced. By this time, Madison's health had begun to deteriorate, and she had suffered two minor strokes, as well as undergoing major back surgery. She closed her swim school, and although she remarried, she got divorced again in 1961. In 1965, she was diagnosed with diabetes.
Unable to teach swimming anymore, she found part-time work in a convalescent home. In 1966, Madison was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When word got out that she couldn't afford to travel there for the induction ceremonies, the Washington Athletic Club financed her trip.
In 1968, Madison was diagnosed with throat cancer, which involved the removal and reconstruction of her esophagus. She lived out the rest of her life in a small apartment, one block away from Green Lake beach, where she had swum in her youth.
Helene Madison died on November 25, 1970, at the age of 57.