If you have watched professional swimming in the last few decades, there’s no debate that women are crushing it!
Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin, Katinka Hosszu, Simone Manuel and dozens of other women have redefined the sport. They shattered world records, snatched up medals and achieved milestones that will go down in history.
These women are role models for the next generation. They prove that anything is possible. But it wasn’t always this way.
Women have been swimming for centuries. But female swimming events weren’t added to the Olympics until 1912 — 16 years after the first modern Games in 1896. Ever since then, women have trained just as hard — if not harder — than their male counterparts, paving the way for more inclusive competition.
Let’s take a look at a few of swimming’s most influential female athletes. Our story begins back in 1912!
1. Fanny Durack
Fanny Durack was a true swimming powerhouse — and the first female Olympic champion in history.
At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, Fanny won gold and set a new world record in the 100-meter freestyle – a blazing 1:19.8! She represented Australasia, a combined team of athletes from Australia and New Zealand.
Her journey to the Olympics wasn’t a smooth one, though. Despite her incredible talent, Fanny’s swim club initially refused to allow her to compete in the 1912 Olympics. They changed their tune eventually, and allowed Fanny to go, as long as she paid her own way.
Fanny’s career extended beyond the 1912 games. From 1910 to 1918, the Australian swimmer held every record in women’s swimming, from the 100-meter freestyle to the mile. That would be unheard of today!
2. Gertrude Ederle
Next we’re moving to open water. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel — a huge step for women’s marathon swimming!
With a time of 14 hours and 34 minutes, Gertrude’s swim was 2 hours faster than the top men’s time. And she did it in a 2-piece bathing suit and special goggles she designed herself.
Related: Watch Our Interview with English Channel Swimmer Catherine Breed!
Gertrude’s Channel swim wasn’t her first claim to fame. Between 1921 and 1925, she held 29 amateur and national records. Her record for the 16-mile swim between The Battery and Sandy Hook, New Jersey stood for 81 years before being broken. She also won a gold medal and 2 bronze medals for the United States at the 1924 Paris Olympics!
3. Enith Brigitha
In 1976, Enith Brigitha of The Netherlands set the stage for black swimmers’ success for decades to come. At the Montreal Olympics, Enith became the first person of African descent to win an Olympic medal.
She took home 2 bronze medals for the 200- and 100-meter freestyle. But she didn’t stop there.
Over the course of her career, Enith set 5 short course records and won 21 Dutch titles. She also medalled at a few World and European championship meets.
After it was revealed that the East German swim team was doping at the 1976 Olympics, Enith said that she considers herself the gold medalist for the women’s 100-meter freestyle. She finished 3rd in that race, behind 2 East German swimmers.
4. Dara Torres
Now let’s fast forward a few years. American sprinter Dara Torres has planted herself firmly in the swimming history books, with one of the longest swimming careers ever.
Dara was the first American swimmer to compete in 5 Olympic Games: 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008. She won 12 medals during her 28-year career.
She retired after the 1992 games, but made her first comeback in 2000. And she didn’t disappoint. She won a whopping 5 medals at the Sydney Olympics!
She stepped back from the sport again after Sydney, but the pull of the pool was strong. She came back for her final Olympics in 2008. After qualifying for the women’s 50-meter freestyle at trials, Dara became the oldest swimmer to make a U.S. Olympic team. She was 41!
She won 3 silver medals in Beijing, cementing her place in history as the oldest swimmer to ever win an Olympic medal.
5. Krisztina Egerszegi
Krisztina Egerszegi is one of the greatest Hungarian swimmers of the modern era. She competed in the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympics, winning 5 gold medals.
In 1988, Krisztina became the youngest female Olympic champion in history. She won the 200-meter backstroke at 14 years and 41 days old! She didn’t have that title for long, though. Japanese swimmer Kyoko Iwasaki of Japan snatched this title away in 1992, winning the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1992 Olympics at just 14 years and 6 days old.
Related: How to Swim Backstroke with Perfect Technique
Being the youngest Olympic champion is the least of Krisztina’s accomplishments, though. She held the world record in the women’s 200-meter long course backstroke for more than 17 years!
She is one of 3 people to have won the same event at 3 consecutive Summer Olympics, alongside Michael Phelps and Dawn Fraser.
6. Natalie Coughlin
We can’t talk about female Olympians without mentioning Natalie Coughlin. She’s a 12-time Olympic medalist and, in 2008, she became the first U.S. female athlete to win 6 medals in one Olympiad. She’s also the first woman to win gold in the 100-meter backstroke in 2 consecutive Olympics.
Her collection of 12 Olympic medals ties her with Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most all-time medals by a female swimmer.
7. Katinka Hosszú
Another Hungarian powerhouse we have to mention is 3-time Olympic champion Katinka Hosszú: The Iron Lady.
She’s considered one of the greatest individual medley swimmers of all time! Her dominance in the 200 and 400 IM has put her in the spotlight for the better part of the last decade.
She often wins her races by over a body length and dominates the competition in a multitude of strokes and distances. She has competed in 4 Olympics so far, and holds the world record in the 100, 200 and 400 IMs, along with the 200 backstroke.
Related: How to Swim the 400IM Like Michael Phelps & Katinka Hosszú
She was the first swimmer, male or female, to ever hold world records in all 5 medley events at the same time. And in 2014, she became the first swimmer to earn $1 million from prize money alone.
On top of her intense training and racing schedule, Katinka owns a swim club called Iron Swim Budapest, and co-owns and competes on Team Iron in the International Swimming League.
8. Katie Ledecky
Speaking of crushing the competition, we have all seen Katie Ledecky win races by a landslide. And she has some epic hardware to prove it. She has won 5 Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship medals!
At age 15, Katie set an American record in the 800-meter freestyle to win a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. She has since remained unbeaten in all major international competitions.
Related: Analyzing Katie Ledecky’s Freestyle Technique
She is the current world-record holder in the women’s 400-, 800- and 1500-meter freestyles and the women’s 500-, 1000- and 1650-yard freestyle events.
Katie isn’t slowing down anytime soon. She swam in the International Swimming League’s inaugural season, representing DC Trident. And she also gives back outside of the pool, working with organizations that raise awareness for STEM education.
9. Simone Manuel
Sprinter Simone Manuel is the first African American female swimmer to win an Olympic medal in an individual event.
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Simone tied for first with 16-year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle, setting a new Olympic record of 52.70. She also won gold in the 4x100m medley relay, and silver in the 4x100m free relay.
Simone understands the importance of this milestone, and doesn’t take her position as a role model lightly. She uses her platform to educate people about the history of racial injustice in the US, both on the pool deck and off.
10. Jessica Long
Rounding out our list is 23-time Paralympic medalist Jessica Long. Jessica was born with fibular hemimelia, which required her legs to be amputated below the knee when she was 18 months old.
Related: Watch our Interview with Jessica Long!
But that didn’t slow her down. At age 12, Jessica was the youngest athlete on the US Paralympic team, competing in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. She won 3 gold medals, in the 100-meter freestyle, the 400-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.
She has gone on to win 10 more Paralympic gold medals, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.
Looking back, we have come so far since those first women’s Olympic swim races more than 120 years ago. And there’s still so much to achieve!
What do you think about these amazing female swimmers? This is by no means an exhaustive list. We’d love to hear who your favorite female swimmer is. Let us know in the comments!
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Donna De Varona really should have been included as not only was she an Olympian at age 13, she was the main force behind Title 9 which changed the lives of women athletes after 1974 forever.
Thank you for this great suggestion, Carol!
Janet Evans and Tracy Caulkins!
You guys are good swimmers,keep up the good work
Love the list. Many more of course could be added, but always hard to narrow it down.
Love this and learned a lot. I guess it’s a good thing that there are so many swimmers that Diana Nyad didn’t make the cut but she would have been the top of my list.
Shelley Mann of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Stricken with polio, she took up swimming as therapy, and recovered well enough to set 16 national and world records and win two Olympic gold medals before retiring.
Yay to your top ten.
And Donna would never mind that you missed her.
What’s interesting she swam to the top pre Title 9 breaking all those barriers on her own. And what she later did for women in sports you really should do an interview with her.
Sophie Pascoe, Pralympian swimmer from NZ. Competed in 3 Paralympics to date for 9 gold & 6 silver plus numerous world champs and Commonwealth Games medals.
SHANE GOULD – the only swimmer ever – male or female – to simultaneously hold ALL world records from 100m – 1500m. No one will ever emulate that. Also the only female swimmer to win 3 golds with 3 world records.
Yes this fact is not widely known.
And she retired as a teenager.
Just imagine what she could have achieved if she continued.
💯 agree – Shane Gould easily should be on the list!
Janet Evans should have been on this list. She was the fastest female swimmer in the 400m, 800m, and 1500m during the entire 20th century! All of her world records occurred in 1988 and 1989. Her records in the above events were not broken until the 21st century 18-19 years later. She held the longest standing world record in woman swimming of all time! Janet should have been on this list.
I’d love to be as good as the female swimmers it is an inspiring example for other swimmers like me
I really loved this it made me have more confidence in swimming and I feel like I can swim! Thank you for telling me this