Aileen Riggin Soule won her first gold medal in the 1920 Olympic Games Antwerp, Belgium, for the springboard event (then called fancy diving) when she was 14 years old.


Olympic swimmer
charmed generations

See also: Obituaries

By Dave Reardon

Aileen Riggin Soule, described by another Olympian as a national treasure, will be missed by admirers throughout the world and friends she made in Hawaii where she lived for nearly 50 years.

The world's oldest living individual Olympic gold medalist died Thursday night. The Manoa resident was 96. The cause of death was unknown yesterday, but Riggin Soule's health had been deteriorating in recent years. Arrangements are pending and being handled by Borthwick Mortuary.

Riggin Soule was much more than the answer to a trivia question. She was a lifetime ambassador for the Olympics, aquatics, and seniors and women in sports. A survivor as well as a pioneer, she competed until five years ago and still holds several age-group swimming records.

"I think she's had the longest athletic career of all-time," said Dr. Peter George, former president of the Hawaii chapter of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "She's a national treasure."

Aileen Riggin Soule, above, set a world record in the 50-meter freestyle for the 85-89 age group at the Oahu Club in 1991.

Riggin Soule lived in Hawaii since 1957. After her husband, Howard, died several years ago, she lived alone in Waikiki before moving herself into a Manoa care home in 2000.

She was 14 in 1920 and among the first group of American women to compete in the Olympics when she won the springboard diving gold medal in Antwerp, Belgium, becoming the youngest Olympic champion to that point.

She met Duke Kahanamoku at those Games, and they shared a lifelong friendship.

Upon her return to her native New York, Mayor John Hylan presented the teenager with a key to the city.

Riggin also won a silver in springboard diving and a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke in Paris in 1924, becoming the first, and still only, American woman to win Olympic medals in swimming and diving.

The photo at right was taken when she was 14 years old with Duke Kahanamoku and teammate Helen Wainwright, left.

"(The Olympics) are so much bigger," Riggin Soule said in a 1996 Island Scene magazine interview. "Back then it was like a county fair; everybody knew each other on a first-name basis, and it didn't matter what sport you were in, or what country you were from. There were only 23 countries involved then. It's grown so much it's mind-boggling."

In that era, world-class swimmers were as popular as ice skaters are today; they could make money by turning professional and touring. Riggin did so, and toured Europe with a group that also included Johnny Weismuller of Tarzan fame.

She also became an actress and writer. She had several minor roles in Hollywood films during the 1930s and wrote sports and advice columns for New Yorker magazine and the New York Daily Post.

"The movies and things were during the Depression," she said. "You did what you could for money. And it was fun, too."

Riggin Soule was honored twice as senior athlete of the year by the Honolulu Quarterback Club.

"She was always so jolly and full of pep," said Quarterback Club emcee Les Keiter. "Whenever I would mention her age, people would go nuts in disbelief.

"She was absolutely, unbelievably charming. So much energy. Her legacy will live forever in Hawaii and the worldwide aquatic and Olympic communities."

She is pictured with King Albert, who gave her an Olympic statue at the closing ceremonies of the Olympics.

In recent years, though, Riggin Soule was slowed by failing health.

"She developed a condition that wouldn't allow her to be in water that wasn't warm," said Hawaii Senior Olympics President Mark Zeug. "That kind of cut her out of competition."

She carried the flag at the 1984 Los Angeles Games for the U.S. team. Riggin Soule also attended the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, maintaining a heavy schedule of public appearances, endorsement photo shoots and interviews.

Riggin Soule was invited to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia to be honored as the oldest living gold medalist. But she turned down the trip.

"She was worried about being able to handle all the appearances," Zeug said.

Riggin Soule is a member of the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She was also a founding board member of the Hawaii Senior Olympics.

"I'm glad people think well of me," she said in 1996. "I think that's because athletic competition brings out the best in people. At least it did in my day. Sportsmanship was so important. And as amateur athletes, we tried to live up to such ideals. Although we were rebels as the first female athletes, we tried to conform to the ideals."

She is survived by stepdaughter Patti Anderson of Honolulu; daughter Yvonne May of Zurich, Switzerland; and stepsons Bruce Soule of Newport Beach, Calif. and Wallace Soule of Bakersfield, Calif.

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