If you know artistic swimming, formerly known as synchronized swimming, then you almost certainly know Esther Williams, the Godmother of Artistic Swimming, by name and sight. You probably know her filmography and that she swam and played alongside some of the most legendary names ever to arise from Hollywood. (Can you name three of them?) You might know she did color commentary for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. What you may not know is that Esther Williams was an ardent fan and booster of Santa Clara Artistic Swimming over the years. In 2004, we were privileged to capture an in-person visit from this pioneer of both artistic swimming and cinematic success on video!
Born in 1921, Esther Williams became interested, and quite proficient, in swimming at an early age. By her teens, she was routinely competing in high-level aquatic events and had set her sights on competing in the 1940 Olympic Games. Sadly, this dream crumbled amid the drumbeat of marching feet, bombs and the staccato crack of gunfire as World War II engulfed the planet, canceling the Olympics for her and much of a generation of young athletes.
But Fate and fortune had other plans than Olympic gold for her. She was soon discovered working in a retail store in Los Angeles by a well-known agent. Her classic All-American beauty, winsome smile, and athleticism quickly gained the notice of studio executives at MGM, and Esther exploded onto the big screen. It wasn’t long before MGM decided to launch an entirely new genre of movies: the aqua-musical, featuring water-based choreography, upbeat music, and of course, striking men and women.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Esther acted and swam alongside some of the most legendary figures ever to grace the silver screen, including a five-month stint swimming with the original screen Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, and landing a role with Mickey Rooney. However, MGM and Hollywood in general soon lost their appetite for aqua-musicals, and Esther pivoted to “meatier” dramatic roles which failed to land with the moviegoing public in the same way. Soon, Esther faded from the public eye except for the occasional guest appearance on TV, turning her energy and attention to a variety of successful entrepreneurial endeavors including a metal refinery and a wildly popular swimwear line.
Although her notoriety in Hollywood waned, Esther continued to be a devoted and enthusiastic artistic swimmer in her own right, serving as a coach and lending her star power to promising young athletes. Santa Clara’s current swim coach was inspired in large part because of Esther Williams’ ongoing popularity among young swimmers. Esther became a dedicated booster of Santa Clara Artistic Swimming from its inception, attending many of their meets and even acting as an honorary swim coach on several occasions.
In 2004, at age 83, Esther visited Santa Clara Artistic Swimming and we were able to capture the experience on video. During her visit, as with every other time she dropped in, she was the soul of grace and enthusiasm, offering encouragement, compliments, and advice to everyone from the newest novice to elite veterans. She also went a long way to dispelling the myth that artistic swimming is “only for girls.” After all, it was good enough for the most iconic screen Tarzan ever!
Today, Esther’s legacy lives on in the body of work she left behind as inspiration for generations of artistic swimmers. From iconic cat-and-mouse comedy duo Tom and Jerry to Van Jones, Johnny Weissmuller, Basil Rathbone, Sebastien Leger, and comic legend Red Skelton, she has thrilled, delighted, and excited eighty years’ worth of cinephiles and inspired generations of athletes to recreate and surpass the discipline and beauty she brought to the water.
Esther Williams passed away peacefully of natural causes in 2013 at age 91, but her legacy lives on. Santa Clara Artistic Swimming now also hosts the Santa Clara Aquamen, led and coached by Chris Carver and mentored by Bill May, who were themselves inspired by Esther Williams and her legendary costars. In fact, we don’t feel it’s an overstatement to say that without Esther Williams, there might well be no Santa Clara Artistic Swimming, or Aquamaids Bingo, today!
As the Santa Clara Artistic Swimming set out for Colorado Springs and the 2021 Junior Olympic Championship, we cannot think of a better sendoff for our elite athletes than by taking a reflective look back at the woman who made synchronized and later artistic swimming the attention-grabbing athletic discipline it has become. We are proud to continue the legacy she built and honor the friendship she had with our organization, and we have every expectation Santa Clara Artistic Swimming will do us, themselves, and Esther proud.