Aileen Riggin (Soule)

Inducted: 2004
Born: 05/02/1906
Died: 10/17/2002

Aileen Riggin won the first Olympic springboard title in 1920 when she had just passed her 14th birthday, the youngest-ever U.S. woman Olympic champion. She lost her record to another U.S. diver, Marjorie Gestring, at the 1936 Olympics. Riggin won three AAU outdoor and one indoor springboard title and was twice a member of the Women’s Swimming Association team, which won the AAU relay. Her first coach was Lou Handley, double gold medalist at St. Louis in 1904. She was the youngest gold medalist at the 1920 Olympics and the shortest, at only 4 feet 8 inches and weighing just 65 pounds. She went down in history as America’s smallest Olympic champion. She was the U.S. national springboard diving champion from 1923 to 1925. Born in Newport, Rhode Island, Riggin learned to swim at six in Manila Bay in the Philippines, where her father, a U.S. Navy paymaster, was stationed. Her family settled in Brooklyn Heights, New York. At the age of eleven, she became a charter member of the celebrated Women’s Swimming Association (WSA) of New York, which was founded by Charlotte Epstein. 

Riggin first took up diving in 1919 at the age of thirteen, practicing in a tide pool on Long Island because there were no training facilities provided in those days for female divers. She had spent some time studying ballet at the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet in New York, and her ballet training enabled her to fine-tune her performance in artistic diving. Riggin also competed at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris in diving and swimming, winning a silver medal in the 3m springboard diving and a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke swimming event. In doing so, she became the first female Olympian to win medals in two different sports at the same Olympic Games. She was a member of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), winning three national springboard diving titles (from 1923 to 1925) at the AAU Outdoor Championships. She was twice on the winning team in the 4×220m freestyle relay (1923 and 1924). At the National AAU Indoor Championships, she won one diving title and three freestyle relay titles (in 1922, 1923 and 1925).    

Riggin made the first underwater swimming film in 1922 and the first slow-motion coaching film for Grantland Rice in 1923. She retired from competitions in 1925 and spent her time helping to organize exhibitions and swimming demonstrations overseas. She had minor roles in several Hollywood films: she was a dancer in the 1933 musical Roman Scandals, and she skated in the first Sonja Henie film One in a Million in 1936. She starred in Billy Rose’s first Aquacade at the 1937 Cleveland Exposition, which she also helped to organize. She wrote books about her experiences in swimming and became a successful sports journalist, writing newspaper columns for the New York Daily Post and the London Morning Post. Her articles were published in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Collier’s. 

Her first husband was Dwight D. Young, a Navy doctor whom she married in 1924. They had one daughter together called Yvonne May. Young was killed in World War II. Following the death of her first husband, she later married Howard Soule, changing her name to Aileen Soule. She moved to Hawaii in 1957 with her second husband, where they lived together for almost 25 years. She was widowed for the second time in 1981 and lived alone in Waikiki after her husband’s death. In 1967, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As a result of her fundraising and motivational presentations, she was selected to serve as Grande Dame of the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1988. She was a founder of the Hawaii Senior Games Association and remained a board member into old age. 

Riggin was one of the most sought-after swimming celebrities in Hawaii and the USA. As one of the surviving members of the United States team at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, she was chosen to escort the Ceremonial Olympic Handover Flag, known as the Antwerp Flag, at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and she was invited to address Team USA at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as a motivational speaker. She continued to swim into old age, and at 85, she broke six world records in freestyle and backstroke sprints in the World Masters for her age group (85–89). By the end of 1996, she held eleven national records and five world records in the following age group (90–94). At the end of the 20th century, Riggin was the last surviving champion from the 1920 Olympic Games, and she was celebrated as the nation’s oldest living female Olympic gold medalist. 

Aileen Soule died on October 17, 2002, in a nursing home in Honolulu, Hawaii. Friends and family remembered her as a “pioneer of women’s sports.” In November 2002, she was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame. She was also inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2004. 

For additional reading: 

1. “Aileen Riggin American Athlete”. Encyclopedia Britannica. May 2, 2017.

2. “Aileen Riggin biography & results”. Olympedia. 

3. Evans, Hilary; Gjerde, Arild; Heijmans, Jeroen; Mallon, Bill; “Aileen Riggin”. Olympics at 

4. “Aileen Riggin Soule (USA) 1967 Honor Swimmer/Diver”. International Swimming Hall of FameSports Reference LLC. 

5. Litsky, Frank (April 29, 2003). “Remembering Aileen Riggin Soule”. U.S. Masters Swimming.  

6. “Fact of the Day: Aileen Riggin Soule is Swimming’s Oldest Living Olympian”. October 8, 1999. 

7. “Pioneering athlete looking forward to a birthday; new category awaits her.” The Galveston Daily News. December 5, 1999. 

8. Lennartz, Karl (January 2003). “Aileen Riggin (1906–2002)” (PDF). Journal of Olympic History. 

9. “Aileen Riggin at the Olympic,” Olympian Database Project. 

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