On June 6, 2013, the swimming world lost one of its pioneers, Esther Williams, who died at age 91. Most of the world knew her as The Bathing Beauty, a real-life mermaid who wowed audiences in dozens of water musicals made in the 1940s and 50s. But the renowned MGM star was first an athlete. She grew up in Los Angeles and started swimming at local pools at age 8. Male lifeguards taught her the butterfly—back then, a “male only” stroke. By 16, Williams had won three national championships and was primed to swim in the 1940 Olympic Games. That dream eluded her, however. The Games were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II. Thus began her transition from star athlete to movie star.
Williams was signed to MGM in 1941 and began starring in its “aquamusicals.” She glided like a dancer in water in those Technicolor films, often performing among a dozen or more swimmers, who complemented her like a corps de ballet does its soloist. Aquatics expert and USA Swimming Hall of Famer Dr. Jane Katz, who is a longtime Williams fan and acquaintance, recalls her unique brand of cinematic appeal. “She was anomaly—talented in her swimming prowess and also a natural actress,” she said. “She conveyed her love of the water so clearly on the screen that it advanced the sport we now call synchronized swimming.” With her gilded costumes and ever-present smile, Williams’ on-screen performances certainly felt joyous and intangibly magical. Her films drew audiences into a world that was beautiful, yet surreal—almost like a dream come to life. Katz, who attended an event with Esther Williams some 20 years ago, shares the advice she got from the star: “Her coaching to me was to swim gracefully and to swim pretty.” Williams will always be remembered for doing just that.
Dr. Jane Katz has taught thousands of students about the benefits of water fitness at the City University of New York, since 1964. She is a professor at John Jay College in the Department of Physical Education and Athletics teaching fitness and swimming to New York City’s police and firefighters. Dr. Katz has been recognized for her work as an educator, aquatics innovator and author. Among many prestigious honors for her work is the Townsend Harris Academic Medal from her alma mater, CCNY, and award bestowed to fellow alumnus, former Secretary of State Colin Powell. As a member of the 1964 U.S. Synchronized Swimming Performance Team in Tokyo, Dr. Katz helped pioneer the acceptance of Synchronized Swimming as an Olympic event. Her achievements as a Masters competitive, long-distance, synchronized and fin swimmer have earned her All-American and World Masters championships.