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Pat Bigold

The Way I See It

By Pat Bigold

Tuesday, May 4, 1999


Time to give
Riggin Soule
fitting tribute

YOU might have seen her boarding a city bus to go shopping. She's a tiny lady with silvery white hair, dressed immaculately in a long-sleeved blue pant suit with a scarf and white gloves.

"I get cold," she explained about the outfit one day as she pushed a cart full of groceries through the produce section. "I'm allergic to the cold."

Hard to believe that Aileen Riggin Soule, who turned 93 on Sunday, confronted natural elements that would make most athletes cringe to win her gold medal in springboard diving at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp.

At 14 years old, weighing only 65 pounds, she was nearly blown off the 3-meter springboard and the 8-meter platform (she was fifth in that event) by the unseasonable Belgian August winds.

"It was awful," she'll tell you like it was yesterday.

She said she dreaded looking down at the cold, dark water of the moat - that's right, a moat, not a pool - because she was afraid she wouldn't come back up once she left the board.

But dive she did, in honor of her country in the wake of World War I. Her little heart beat furiously as she swam for the ladder that was the only exit from the moat. Her modest woolen diving suit hung heavy on her tiny frame and her teeth chattered uncontrollably as teammates rushed to dry her off with towels.

Soule hit the unforgiving water more times than she likes to remember in Antwerp, between practice and actual competition. It was the worst thing the little girl who was born prematurely in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., and nearly died of influenza at age 11 could ever imagine.

THERE was an emotional toll too. During a stopover in France, she remembers leaning over the railing of the converted troop transport ship that ferried her and the U.S. Olympic team to and from Europe, watching pine caskets of American "doughboys" being loaded into the hole.

"My teammate, Helen Wainwright (who was 14), was with me and we were holding each other, crying, because each of the caskets had an American flag on it," she said. "It was a miserable sight."

Soule was the youngest and smallest gold medal winner of her day, and the first female springboard champion. She was a pioneer in the women's Olympic movement, and today she is a nothing less than a living, breathing treasure.

As the oldest living American gold medalist, she's a link to an era of athletic hardship we can't even imagine.

Soule was also the only woman to ever win medals in both diving and swimming at an Olympics. She did it with a silver in springboard diving and a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke in Paris in 1924.

WITH the 2000 Olympics in Sydney next year, I am hoping Aileen Riggin Soule, a Hawaii resident for the past 42 years, is accorded the tribute she so richly deserves as an American sports pioneer.

"It will be the 80th anniversary of Antwerp," she said, noting she would jump at the chance to attend if the Australian organizers invite her.

In Atlanta in 1996, I thought it was a shame that she was left out of the opening ceremonies while 1924 gymnast Leon Stukelj of Yugoslavia was honored as the world's oldest Olympic gold medalist at age 96.

But there's no one left from 1920 with the medal stature of Aileen Riggin Soule.

Australia is a country where heroes of swimming and diving are revered. It would seem a fitting venue for Soule's long-overdue hurrah.



Pat Bigold has covered sports for daily newspapers
in Hawaii and Massachusetts since 1978.



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