Sybil Bauer, Fastest Woman Backstroke Swimmer


The thing with swimming — the thing that almost all of us swimmers think at some point — is that your time is indicative of what you deserve. We are constantly brainwashed into believing those extra sets would “pay dividends” later. Our efforts will result in dropped times, or, as the saying goes, “the clock never lies.” Sure, we know that one slip on the track, one awful break-up, one bad night’s sleep, or any other condition can prevent us from attaining our full potential. But, in the end, we believe in the meritocratic ideal. We are continuously chasing that unreachable and unachievable 00:00.00 on the stopwatch – and the only way to get there is via hard effort, commitment, and dedication.

Men’s times are always closer to 00:00.00. Thus, they must improve. This line of thinking is based on the erroneous belief that women are inherently inferior to males, which many scholars in my discipline of Sport Studies refer to as gender ideology. The idea that men are stronger swimmers than women is “proved” by unarguable facts of numbers closer to 00:00.00. The problem with objective proof and unassailability comes when such proof is challenged. That one time when Columbus didn’t tumble off the side of the Earth. 

October 8, 1922, HAMILTON, BERMUDA. The entire universe was turned upside down. The women began to arrive after that. One female swimmer changed the way people thought about women in sports. Women were not permitted to compete in Olympic swimming pools until 1912. In reality, only a few women had been allowed to swim. 

On October 9, 1922, the New York Times reported on a swimming competition on the Caribbean island of Hamilton, mentioning no less than two world records achieved by women. Gertrude Ederie had smashed the world record for the 150m freestyle. And an 18-year-old woman named Sybil Bauer, competing for the Illinois Aquatic Club of Chicago, had broken the world record for the 440-yard backstroke. For those more familiar with the metric system, 440 yards is nearly 400 meters. 

Her time of 6:24 meant little to the merchants and bankers reading the paper, but they undoubtedly swallowed their freshly cut cigars when they read that Bauer had broken the world record for women and men!

Her teammate Harold Kruger had previously held the record at 6:28. Thus, Bauer’s performance was more than just a little trimming – she ensured that his record was discarded. 

Sybil Bauer is my favorite swimmer. You can hire Johnny Weissmuller, Gertrude Ederle, or Duke Kahanamoku. Sybil Bauer is the one for me. Bauer, who was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967, is an undervalued, under-discussed, and under-documented gold medallist in the women’s 100-meter backstroke.

Coming on Strong, Susan Cahn’s excellent book about American women in sports history, introduced me to Sybil Bauer. A brief sentence indicated that 1924 the 20-year-old from Chicago smashed the world record. As a former collegiate swimmer, I’d heard enough of “irrefutable” arguments that the “fastest woman could never beat the fastest man” in the pool. Along with dismissing Sybil Bauer’s achievements (among others), these arguments diminish the accomplishments of women who can outperform most males. 

They are also held up as “proof” that Title IX was/is unnecessarily harsh on male athletes, particularly men’s swimming teams. Sybil Bauer’s performance touched me for two reasons: one, it was an excellent narrative that I had never heard before, and second, it made me reflect on the stories we tell ourselves and the stories that go unsaid.

Bauer’s accomplishments did not fit into what I perceived to be a core narrative of women in sport: that they (always they) are steadily gaining on us (always us), but that women will never be as good as men in the athletic domain (and hence the “real world”). 

The “evidence” seemed to support this narrative:

  • The best women’s swimming times were slower than the best men’s.
  • The best women’s running speeds were slower than the best men’s running times.
  • The best women’s jumping distances were shorter than the best men’s.

Cahn made me wonder why some histories are shared, others are ignored, and what else was out there for me to learn. A Sybil Bauer history helps us think about the restricted range of historical accounts available and provides a foundation for other possible narratives regarding women in sports.

A note about history writing: history is written with a purpose. The records we write and read are vital to our knowledge of ourselves and our world because they are stories about the past. Some stories are recounted, while others are not, and this is closely tied to more significant social and cultural power dynamics. Sports scholars have argued that unearthing and telling underrepresented histories might help us reimagine our current sports experiences more just and equally. In other words, I’m publishing this unfinished narrative of Sybil Bauer to force us to reconsider our perceptions of women’s swimming ability and prospects outside the pool.

The 40th anniversary of the landmark Title IX Act was celebrated in 2012. Sports Illustrated dedicated its May 7th cover to the legislation’s famous 37 words and filled the magazine with nine Title IX stories. ESPN, the multi-platform sports media powerhouse, also contributed to the event with a series of features in its magazine and on its websites and television networks. Most of these articles focus on the legislation’s effectiveness and portray women’s sports participation and performance as steadily growing over the last four decades. Whether through headlines about the United States women’s soccer team or college basketball programs like Tennessee, it’s practically become common knowledge that women’s sporting participation and performance have consistently improved since 1972.

This popular portrayal of women’s sports in the United States echoes American Studies professor Nancy Struna’s conclusion that the dominant academic historical narrative of women’s sports “project[s] a picture of progress, of positive change, on the long road toward equality for women in sport.” Fellow academic Allen Guttmann concludes his seminal Women’s Sports: A History with a chapter titled “Three Contemporary Controversies.” it lays out a long-running narrative of women’s sports in which women are continually attempting to “catch up” to men’s athletic performances. Guttmann contends that, while women are closing the gap, “the fact remains that the best men continue to surpass the best women in almost every sport where victory is objectively determined by times and distances,” an argument that is consistent with the broader narrative of progress evident in both academic and popular sources.

Discovering and telling counter-narratives is one approach to challenging this straightforward narrative of progress and understanding its more profound ramifications. Sybil Bauer’s story is one such counter-narrative.

Sybil Bauer died of cancer at 23 in late January 1927. She held eight world records in her specialty (backstroke) at the time of her death, and she once held every single woman’s world record for every distance in that stroke. 

She was an active member of the Northwestern University community, belonging to the Gamma Phi Beta sorority, Mortar Board, the student council, and the field hockey, basketball, and swimming teams. Johnny Weissmuller and other Olympians served as pallbearers for her funeral on February 2 February. For me, the most intriguing sports achievement of her brief life was that she was the first woman to hold an overall swimming world record: she broke it in Bermuda in October 1922 and then again in February 1924 — 90 years ago this month.

Her dominant results sparked serious and concerned debate in the mainstream press regarding the rising and future domination of female athletes. These achievements also indicated that women could compete with males on an equal playing field (or, in this example, pool) and beat them. Because 1924 was an Olympic year, the conversation eventually turned to whether she would be “allowed” to compete against male swimmers.

The 1924 Paris Olympics were just the third Olympics in which women swimmers were legally allowed to compete and the second for American female swimmers. International and national sports administrators (mainly upper-class males) used perceptions of what was “appropriate” and “proper” to choose which sportswomen may compete in international tournaments like the Olympics. Swimming was a “well-established” sport for collegiate (which, at the time, was almost exclusively upper-class and middle-class) women by 1900, according to historian Joan Hult, and other scholars have agreed that swimming was seen as an appropriate sport where women could demonstrate their athletic prowess while maintaining their traditional femininity.

One can consider L.D. For confirmation, see Handley’s 1924 Spalding Athletic Library: Swimming for Women. Handley, the well-respected coach for the New York Women’s Swimming Association and the coach at the 1924 Paris Olympics, calls the sport the best “form of physical culture” for women, primarily because it “produce[s] supple, resilient, well-rounded muscles” and “is an effective normalizer… [and] establish[s] standard body proportions by building muscles…” As such, it is no surprise that swimming was one of the first women’s sports to be

From the late 1910s until the early 1920s, (some) women had the opportunity to compete in elite-level sports. Although I won’t go into detail, it’s crucial to recall that these women’s athletic possibilities occurred in the context of power conflicts at the international and domestic levels, as well as along and across gender, race, and class lines. Despite these disagreements, swimming appeared to be an unquestionably “appropriate” sport for American women.

Sybil Bauer, a young, white, single, middle-class college student, fits the stereotype of a woman swimming in the 1920s. She was also privileged by traditional notions of beauty, so much so that her International Swimming Hall of Fame plaque referred to her as “exhibit A of the grace and beauty of women in sport.” 

Although many newspapers commented on her appearance, the few articles I have found so far show that — unlike many other women athletes of the time and ours — journalists were more likely to discuss her athletic achievements than her physical appearance. 

From 1922 through 1924, the majority of these stories either highlighted Bauer’s previous swim meet performances or served to announce a meet in town where a record would be sought, with Weissmuller and Bauer being the two most common names trumpeted in the headlines. Initially, Bauer’s physical accomplishments were the primary focus of the press during her career, and she was rarely referred to as anything other than a superb swimmer.

The New York Times published a short article on October 9 October 1922, with the dateline: Hamilton, Bermuda, October 8 October, and the headline “Woman Break Man’s Record for the First Time in Swim History.” This article first mentions Gertrude Ederle’s women’s world record in the 150-yard freestyle. 

Then they noted that Sybil Bauer’s 6:24, 4-5 in the 440-yard backstroke broke Harold Krueger’s previous record of 6:28. Only one other newspaper mentioned this historic swim that I could discover. When she broke her record again in Miami on February 11 February 1924, she received more media attention, probably because it was an Olympic year.

Bauer lowered her previous world record in the quarter-mile backstroke to 6:23 at a “water carnival” outside Miami, Florida. A few months later, prominent newspaper articles projected that she would win the men’s Olympic backstroke if given a chance. Headlines like “Bauer Stands Alone As Backstroke Mermaid,” “Girl May Race Men Olympians,” and “Miss Bauer Only Woman to Break Records of Men” highlight the historical significance of her feat but also serve as a source of curiosity and a counterpoint to male athletes’ perceived superiority. In reality, each piece claimed that Bauer should be allowed to compete in the Olympics against men as long as he followed the rules.

Despite this encouragement, the articles contained an undercurrent of sexism. Bauer’s domination over the other women swimmers was documented in Kreuttner’s Washington Post piece, which observed that Bauer had won every backstroke race against women since 1921 and claimed that this may have been due to her training practices. In blunt words, Kreuttner contends that Bauer’s success stems from her training with males – she was an Illinois A.C. member alongside training partner Johnny Weissmuller and numerous other members of the Northwestern men’s team. 

At first look, this essay is laudatory of Bauer’s accomplishments, and rightly so, but upon closer inspection, numerous flaws emerge. Kreuttner suggests that Bauer has so thoroughly dominated other female swimmers that she has earned the right to swim against men, which again assumes (nearly) all women are physically and athletically inferior to all men.

Kruettner and a few of his followers argue that she has held the fastest time globally since October 1922 does not automatically qualify her to compete against men in the 1924 Olympics. No, it’s that, together with the fact that she surpassed all the women, that gives her the right to compete against men. 

Inadvertently or not, Kreuttner makes the case that women should only compete against males if they have proven themselves to be objectively worthy of it and that, until that point, they should stick with the ladies. (It reminds me of some ways the Dallas Mavericks invited Brittney Griner last year.)

Two more articles take a similar stance, discussing Bauer’s domination over other female swimmers but simultaneously urging that she be given an opportunity to compete against men in the Olympics based on her past achievement. The uncredited New York Times piece deserves closer examination. Bauer is explicitly framed as a female athlete in this piece. Her feminine appearance and demeanor and her subservience to her (male) coach are mentioned.

This subservience to and dependency on men is most evident when the author considers her chances of swimming against men at the Olympics. According to the article, despite her apparent qualifications (her pool times) and the lack of any particular restrictions preventing her participation, Bauer would have to rely on her (male) coach to fight for her. She wouldn’t be permitted to compete against males (who she’d already objectively beaten) unless a man campaigned for her. In effect, Bauer’s time and voice were stifled by her gender when it came to competing in the Olympics versus males. This exemplifies the more significant structural difficulties and injustices women athletes experienced back then (and perhaps still face).

Bauer did not compete against men in the 1924 Paris Olympics, and she had to settle for an individual gold medal in the women’s 100-meter backstroke. 

I have not found any sources indicating that she was barred from competing, nor any sources suggesting that she (or her coach) formally applied for inclusion – or any authorities about any possible “controversy” one way or the other. The tale goes as follows:

  • She broke the record for the second time in February 1924.
  • A few famous newspaper and magazine articles agreed that women should be allowed to compete against men in the Olympics.
  • It was never addressed publicly again.

I don’t know if she ever tried to enter the men’s competitions or was quietly denied entry; I’ve had no luck finding out thus far. (Cahn claims in an unpublished dissertation that “Olympic officials quickly turned down” Bauer’s request to swim against the men.) 

I can only speculate, but given IOC President Baron de Coubertin’s antipathy toward female athletes and that his hometown Olympics in 1924 were the last he would preside over, I imagine Sybil Bauer never had the opportunity to swim against the men.

Her voice is noticeably lacking from this narrative, as it is so often the case with female athletes in the past – and now. Following all, just a few years after the enactment of the 19th Amendment, the United States saw a significant social and cultural shift in the early 1920s. 

The last pieces written on Bauer during her lifetime reflect some of the difficulties within and among gender, sexuality, and athletic engagement. Her hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, declared in November 1926 that she was leaving the sport because she had become engaged to a New York writer called Ed Sullivan (yes, that Ed Sullivan). 

However, she was also terminally ill with cancer, so the publicized engagement may not have been the leading cause for the public discussion of retirement. Her sickness not only took her too soon, but it also took away her voice: she could not provide an oral history or write about her time as a swimmer. Unless a diary is discovered, we’ll never be able to read Bauer’s thoughts (assuming she had any) during her tenure as swimming world champion.

This history, like many others, is incomplete and more of a beginning point than an endpoint: in the story of Sybil Bauer, we are jumping off the blocks but not touching the wall. 

As I previously indicated, my goal in sharing this tale is to provide space to reimagine and re-think our perceptions of women in sports and gender in general. I’d want to share this anecdote of Sybil Bauer to muddy the impression of women’s sporting performances as mere advancement. According to cultural analyst Paul Willis, sport’s ideological potency stems from its obviousness. 

He writes that sport is a place where “female difference becomes the fact of female sports inferiority,” leading to a broader, commonsense “ideological view” that “of course, women are different and inferior” — we can see it on the playing grounds. 

Bauer’s story challenges this ideological viewpoint. In this example, growth is not the appropriate narrative for this unique person: the best female swimmer has already surpassed the best male swimmers. In this sense, it assists us in comprehending and considering the ideological implications of all historical narratives and the significance of continuing to confront them.

More About Sybil Bauer 

Bauer had made headlines even before her record. She and her fellow club member, the legendary Jonny Weissmuller, had been the major attraction at contests around North America. 

However, the record spawned new publications and began a lengthy debate: Would women catch up with, or even surpass, men in physical performance? 

Bauer’s record called into doubt an unquestioned truth: men were faster than women in short and long-running distances. Men in tights and mustaches lifted iron bars over their heads, while women were scarcely allowed to carry their baggage. 

Men leaped higher and longer. Men hurled heavier objects farther. While men competed in throwing events such as the discus, javelin, and the 16-pound iron ball, women had to make do with the sling ball, which was made expressly for their delicate and sedentary bodies. They weren’t even permitted to compete. The modern Olympic Games were founded by Baron de Courbertin, who saw female athletes as an artistic abomination and desired that women not engage in sports. 

The publication has now begun to compare women’s advancements in sports other than swimming. Even though British golfer Abe Michell had struck a difficult latex ball for 341 yards, Glenna Collett Vare, who was only 18 years old, was closing in quickly with 313 yards. Sure, the Sheffield women’s field hockey team won by a single goal. Every feminist author began to advance beliefs that women will even outperform men in certain sports. 

Bauer broke her record by an additional second a year and a half later at a water festival in Miami. The amount of newspaper clippings grew, especially since 1924 was an Olympic year. The headlines concluded that she could beat all men at the Paris Olympics if given a chance.

There is no documented evidence that Sybil herself took part in this dispute. She most likely accomplished what she enjoyed doing best: swimming and studying at Northwestern University. She easily won the 100m backstroke at the Paris Olympics, setting a new Olympic record. 


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