Happy Birthday, Helene Madison

US #2500 from the 1990 Olympians set.

Olympic swimmer Helene Emma Madison was born on June 19, 1913, in Madison, Wisconsin. 

Madison’s family moved to Seattle, Washington when she was two.  As a child, she loved swimming in Green Lake.  She played other sports in school, but always liked swimming the best.

US #2500 – Classic First Day Cover.

Jack Torney provided Madison with some of her early swimming training, helping her to improve her technique.  By the time she was a teenager, she outswam all the other swimmers at Green Lake.  Another coach, Ray Daughters, had seen Madison’s success in summer league competitions and offered her further training. 

US #2500 – Colorano Silk First Day Cover.

When she was 15, Madison broke the state record for the women’s 100-yard freestyle.  Not long after, she broke the Pacific Coast record.  Madison made her national debut the following year and broke six records in one swim at the national championships in Florida.  Madison continued to break records over the next two years and became the first woman to swim the 100-yard freestyle in one minute. 

In 1931, the Associated Press named Madison their female athlete of the year.  That year and the following year, she won every freestyle event at the US Women’s Nationals.  And in 1932, she qualified for the summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

US #718 was issued for the 1932 Summer Olympics.

In her first race at the 1932 summer Olympics, Madison won the women’s 100-meter freestyle with a time that was four seconds faster than the Olympic record.  She then won her second gold medal in the 400-meter relay, with her team breaking the previous world record by 9.6 seconds.  Madison won a third gold medal the following day in the 400-meter freestyle, a race that many consider to be the one of the most exciting in Olympic history.

“Queen Helene,” as she came to be known, returned home to Seattle and received one of the city’s largest-ever ticker-tape parades.  After much celebration and a swimming demonstration, Helene went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career.  She only appeared in a few movies – The Human Fish (1932), It’s Great to Be Alive (1933) and The Warrior’s Husband (1933) – but didn’t find much success as an actress. 

US #2500 – Fleetwood First Day Proofcard.

Madison returned to Seattle and hoped to find work as a swimming instructor, but the city’s parks department didn’t allow women to teach swimming, even with her three gold medals.  Instead, she found work at a concession stand and a department store.  In 1948, she opened a swimming school at the Moore Hotel, but closed it in the late 1950s after suffering two minor strokes and undergoing back surgery.  She went on to work part-time in a convalescent home and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1966.  She died four years later on November 27, 1970.

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  1. The city’s parks department didn’t allow women to teach swimming? What a missed opportunity for the youth of that city. Glad that is no longer the case.

  2. An Olympic Gold medal winner and she could not teach swimming because she was female. WOW and the young people today think they have it rough.

    1. That’s not true, she taught me to swim. I broke my leg before I could walk. She taught me how to swim after my body cast was removed. I was swimming before I walked.
      She was a huge part of my recovery.

  3. One of the many hurdles that women had to overcome in our country. Everyone was supposed to be equal except……………… (fill in the blank).

  4. My father may have met Helene Madison, but I know he knew about her, because he mentioned her to me when I was very young and at my first swimming meet, in which I was not yet good enough to be in an event.

    My father also was a swimmer, and a very good one. I am but one of his seven sons, and three of us sons became competitive swimmers and lifeguards. Both of my daughters (and some of my nephews) also became lifeguards. And all because my father wanted me to be as good a swimmer as Helene Madison and Johnny Weismueller were.

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