Claudia Eckert: Chicago’s Greatest Female Aquatic Champion of the Depression Years; Essay by Robert Pruter

Claudia Eckert was the dominate swimmer and diver in Chicago during the Depression years, consistently winning swimming and diving championships in Chicago and nationally, for the AAU and the YMHA-YWHA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicago’s top female athlete in the pool in the Depression years was swimmer and diver Claudia Eckert. The Lake Shore Athletic Club, despite its great success with its women’s swimming team, as in taking a first (1936) and second (1937) in the indoor national AAU championships, never produced a female aquatic athlete as accomplished as Eckert. She competed the entire 1930s decade on the Shawnee Country Club team, in Wilmette, Illinois, and for a time she was a one-women team at Shawnee, under a coach she knew well, her father George Eckert. The Eckerts were of Jewish background and Claudia while at Shawnee competed in the annual national YMHA-YWHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association-Young Women’s Hebrew Association) meet. Near the end of her career she helped pioneer the new sport of water ballet (later called synchronized swim) while at Shawnee.

Shawnee was one of the few country clubs in the nation that sponsored nationally competitive AAU swimmers, and the reason was that its swimming director, George Eckert, came out of out of long experience in teaching and coaching swimming. He had previously coached for 14 years at the Sinai Social Center (later called Emil G. Hirsch Center) beginning around 1916, before joining Shawnee in 1930.1

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Hyde Park 1931 yearbook image of the 35-member team top swimming group, with Claudia Eckert in the center.

Claudia Eckert was born on February 3, 1916 in Chicago, to George and Claudia (born Blossom) Eckert, a couple of German heritage. The father at Eckert’s birth was working as the swim director and coach at the Sinai Social Center competitive swim team, men and women. Claudia was encouraged at an early age to swim and dive competitively. Her father had her competing for the swim team he was coaching there as early as 1927 (by that time called the Hirsch Center), when she was 11. When she was 14 Claudia took third at the Central AAU ten-foot (3 meter) board diving championship, representing the Shawnee Country Club, in 1930. This win represented her first AAU title.  In 1930, Eckert also won her first Chicago Tribune 100 yard swim in her age group. For the win she received a front sport page banner headline. Each summer the newspaper sponsored a huge extravaganza of 100 yard swimming races in multiple age groups, both boys and girls,, men and women,  In its heyday, it attracted more than a 1,000 competitors, and up to 40,000 onlookers. 2

In 1931, when Eckert was just 15 years old, she won her first national AAU title, taking the AAU junior championship in low board diving, while a sophomore at Hyde Park High School. Although the school did not form a team for outside competition (only one Chicago high school did at this time, Schurz High), it was producing a number of highly competitive swimmers and divers for AAU and AAF competition under teacher, coach, and trainer Doris E. Butts. The most notable of these Hyde Park talents were sprinter and diver, two-time Olympian Jane Fauntz, as well as her younger sister, Ruth Fauntz. In March, 1931, at a Central AAU meet, Eckert won the 10-foot springboard diving championship, superseding Jane Fauntz, the 1930 winner. By this time, Eckert was also doing what amateur swim and diving champions routinely did in the 1930s, doing non-paying exhibitions at aquatic shows, as the one she did in Barrington, Illinois, in September 1931.3

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Claudia Eckert wins her fourth consecutive Chicago Tribune 100 yard race for 19 year and over class. Alongside her is Michael Howett, who won the 19 year and over class for men for the third year.

Claudia Eckert was not highly competitive or even competing much during 1932. In February, she took second in the 50-yard freestyle in a Central AAU meet. The most successful diver in 1932 was Evelyn Kennedy of the IWAC, who retained her low-board title at a Central AAU meet in March, ahead of Ruth Fauntz and third place Eckert.4

Eckert had her breakout year in 1933, winning three Central AAU championship events. Needless to say, she received star billing in the senior year Hyde Park annual, where they reported on her Central AAU achievements. Next to her graduation photo, she was listed as captain of the swim team, member of the Senior English Honor Society, and member of the Glee Club. Eckert won the 50-yard freestyle, 100-yard freestyle, and the high springboard title in Central AAU meets during the winter of 1933. When she won the 100-meter in April, for the first time the Chicago Tribune called her a “star,” and ran a photo of her. Eckert gained further acclaim winning for the fourth year in a row the Chicago Tribune annual 100 meter swim. Eckert was not yet the top diver in the low springboard, when she took third after three-time champion Evelyn Kennedy and Ruth Fauntz in the first Central AAU meet of the season.5

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Claudia Eckert competing nationally in Washington DC in 1934.

The 1934 indoor season for Claudia Eckert was a less active one. At the end of the Central AAU series in April, she reportedly won her fifth (actually fourth) consecutive springboard 10- foot dive, defeating two highly respected divers on the Lake Shore Athletic Club team, Marion Mansfield and Ruth Fauntz.6

Eckert finally broke out on the national stage in 1935. In the indoor season, she defended her Central AAU high springboard title for the fifth time, defeating two top LSAC members, Marion Mansfield and up and comer Arlite Smith. At the National AAU indoor championships, held at the Lake Shore Athletic Club, in April, Eckert performed spectacularly serving as the Shawnee Country Club’s one-woman team. She took fourth in the 100-yard freestyle, fourth in the low-board dive, and first in the high-board dive. Eckert was the only Chicago woman to win an event in the nationals, and talk had already begun on her being a big prospect for the Olympic Games in Berlin the following year. She again demonstrated her all around excellence in swimming and diving, when in August of 1935 she traveled to New York City, and competed in the swim decathlon at New York Daily News swim carnival, and won it against some of the top swimmers in the nation. Eckert was clearly advancing each year, and was now being looked at as a potential Olympian in 1936.7

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Claudia Eckert 1936

In April, 1936, Claudia Eckert, at the indoor AAU nationals, won the 100-yard, breaking the record twice, in the qualifying heat and the final heat. Also that month, Eckert at the conclusion of the Central AAU winter series successfully continued her long reign as champion of the springboard high dive, again beating out Marion Mansfield for the third consecutive year. In June, Eckert, won the national 3-meter springboard dive at the AAU outdoor nationals. With national championships in both 100-yard and high board dive, Eckert was presumably well prepared and was expected by the swimming establishment to qualify in the 1936 Olympics trials in July. Much to the distress of Eckert’s Chicago supporters, however the trials proved to be a huge disappointment for the Northwestern University junior. In the three-meter springboard, Eckert was shockingly off in her diving, taking sixth place. In the 100-meter race, she was also off-form and was eliminated in the semi-finals. Her double failure in the trials stunned the swimming establishment. In the third week of August, Eckert, apparently intent to prove to herself and others in the swimming world that she was Olympic Games worthy, competed in a Central AAU outdoor meet intended apparent to showcase Eckert. In the six events—100 yard free, 100 meter back, 220 yard breast, 440 yard free, and diving—she won all six, setting Central AAU records in four of them.8

Despite the disappointment of not competing in the 1936 Olympic Games, Eckert continued her winning ways in 1937. Nineteen years old, by now a swim veteran, and a junior at Northwestern, she again served as one person swim team for the Shawnee Country Club at the National AAU championships held at the Lake Shore Athletic Club pool. She earned all the club’s 11 points by defending her 100-yard freestyle title in record time, taking second in high diving, and third in the 220-yard freestyle. In June at the conclusion of the Central AAU indoor season, she took both the 100-yard freestyle and her specialty, the high springboard dive. Eckert by this time was the city’s only nationally recognized female aquatic star, and the papers devoted a lot of ink to her and her achievements.9

Eckert by 1938 had graduated from Northwestern University and was teaching physical education in the Wilmette public school system. During the winter season she competed in the Central AAU indoor series of meets, winning both the 40-yard freestyle and 100-yard freestyle at the Medinah Athletic Club in early March, breaking her own records in both. Then a few weeks later at a Central AAU meet at the LSAC, she broke her own record in the 220 yard freestyle. In the National AAU championships in April, she lost her 100-yard title to Halina Tomska of the Detroit Athletic Club. During the summer, Eckert went on a “around the world” tour and was unable to compete in the National AAU outdoor championships.10

Eckert was back in top form during 1939. At the Central AAU final indoor meet of the season, she again emerged as titlist in the 100-yard freestyle and the springboard high dive, taking both events easily. The Chicago Tribune, as almost using a template in its report, used the identical headline from its report on the 1937 meet. Eckert in 1939 had become the core of a fairly formidable competitive swim team at the Shawnee Country Club. At the Central AAU outdoor meet in July Shawnee ‘ran away with team honors.” Eckert was not restricted on the number of events she could compete in and took five firsts and two seconds, while setting three records. Her firsts were in the 100 meter freestyle, 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle, 300 individual medley, and springboard diving; and seconds were in 100 and 200 meters backstroke.   In one afternoon, she raced a total of 1,300 meters against the best in the Midwest. In a report on one of the many exhibitions that Eckert was engaged in 1939, she was described as the “greatest all-round swimmer and diver in the world today. She undoubtedly will be the mainstay of the 1940 Olympic team.”11

The Shawnee Country Club added a new feature to their women’s swim team in 1940, a 10-girl water ballet team, which in one performance was described as “fifteen intricate numbers demonstrating synchronized swimming.” Water ballet, later called synchronized swim, was done to music, and at this time was not yet a competitive event, but rather an exhibition. This new sport was created and developed in the Chicago area at this time, and Eckert was one of the pioneers in the sport. The Shawnee water ballet team, which included Eckert, thus performed in aquatic shows, where Eckert and other individual swimmers also dove and swam races in exhibitions. In June 1940, notably, the Shawnee water ballet team performed along with the Chicago Teachers College team at an “aquacade” in Neenah, Wisconsin, along with the individual exhibitions.12

Despite the delightful new water ballet work that she was doing, for Claudia Eckert, the year 1940, when Europe was deep in a raging war, was one of great disappointment. She was deprived of being able to compete in the Olympics once again. Although the 1940 Olympic Games was officially canceled, the United States Olympic Committee decided to select a team in many of the sports anyway. Presumably the gesture was to honor those athletes that would have probably attained participation in the Olympic Games had they been so held. Not all the sports followed through, for example men’s swimming, but a women’s swim team was selected. The women’s AAU swimming and diving meet held in Portland, Oregon, served as the “try-outs.” Eckert was one of 13 women selected.13

Claudia Eckert in early 1941 was preparing for her marriage and at this time chose to leave competitive swimming. On February 19 she made her final public appearance in Chicago, when she was feted at an aquatic show and banquet at the Shawnee Country Club. A newspaper story on this occasion listed all her notable achievements in her nine-year aquatic career, starting with her first AAU title when she was 14 years of age. Her achievements included a national indoor 10-foot springboard dive in 1935 , a national outdoor 10-foot springboard in 1936; and two national indoor 100-yard freestyle titles, in 1936 and 1937. Her Central AAU titles were too numerous to mention, but she was the listed as the reining record holder in seven of the nine Central AAU events.  Probably Eckert’s last swimming and diving meet was four days later, when she representing Shawnee defended her diving title in the fourth annual YMHA-YWHA  meet in St. Louis.14

Eckert was married to Francis Noonan on March 4, 1941, in Brockton, Massachusetts after which the couple moved to a country in Central America, where Noonan was “in charge of all government swimming pools.” The wedding announcement said that Eckert was an “Olympic swimming star,” but with the marriage she “will retire from competitive swimming.”   Family tragedy followed seven years later, when Eckert’s father died in April 1948, following an accident at a swimming pool. Little is known of Eckert’s life after the 1940s, but she did appear in a Hollywood film as a bartender’s wife in the 1957 film The Sun Also Rises. Claudia and her husband later moved to Falmouth, Massachusetts, and then in retirement to Miami, Florida. Francis died there in 1978, and Claudia followed on September 30, 1987.15

Notes

1. Walter Eckersall, “Girls in Exhibition in Sinai Natatorium,” Chicago Tribune, 24 May 1916.

2.  Walter H. Eckersall, “Girls in Exhibition in Sinai Natatorium,” Chicago Tribune, 24 May 1916; Fourteenth Census of the United States 1920–Population, Bureau of the Census, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, Ward 2, Enumeration District: 98, Sheet 4B (Washington, D.C: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992); Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, Social Security Administration, Provo, Utah, 2015; “Culver Crew to Arrive Today for Water Carnival,” Chicago Tribune, 11 August 1927; Wilfred Smith, “Thousands See 900 Race in Tribune Swim,“ Chicago Tribune, 28 July 1930.

3. “Swimming Team,” The Aitchpe 1931 (Chicago: Hyde Park High School, 1931), p. 136; “Central A.A.U. Tank Titles Change Hands,” Chicago Tribune, 26 March 1931; “Aquatic Stars to Entertain This Evening,” Daily Herald, 7 September 1931.

4. Betty Eckersall, “Schwartz Wins in Swim Meet; Retains Title,” Chicago Tribune, 18 February 1932; Betty Eckersall, “Evelyn Kennedy Retains A.A.U. Diving Crown,” Chicago Tribune, 17 March 1932.

5. “Swimming,” The Aitchpe 1933 (Chicago: Hyde Park High School, 1933), pp. 33, 121; “Evelyn Kennedy Retains A.A.U. Low Board Title,” Chicago Tribune, 21 January 1933; “Al Greene Keeps Central A.A.U. High Board Title,” Chicago Tribune, 9 February 1933; “Horn Breaks A.A.U. Mark in Backstroke,” Chicago Tribune, 15 April 1933; Wilfred Smith,”40,000 Witness Crowning of Swimming Champions,” Chicago Tribune, 8 August 1933.

6. “Cornelius Sets 100 Yard Record in A.A.U. Swim,” Chicago Tribune, 1 April 1934.

7. “Four Central A.A.U. Swim Titles Decided,” Chicago Tribune, 7 March 1935; “National A.A.U. Senior Women’s Championship, SWIM,” The Discus, May 1935, pp. 12-13; “Going Up for a High One” , Laural Leader-Call, 4 May 1935; “Claudia Eckert Wins New York Swim Decathlon,” Chicago Tribune, 5 August 1935.

8.  French Lane, ”Claudia Eckert Wins National 100 Yard Title,” Chicago Tribune, 2 April 1936; “Claudia Eckert Wins 2 Titles in A.A.U. Swim Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 17 May 1936; “Chicago Girl Takes Honors in Diving Competition, Defeating 12-Year-Old Florida Contender,” The Coshocton Tribune, 28 June 1936; “Miss Rawls Wins Two Events in Final Olympic Trials,” Chicago Tribune, 12 July 1936; “Claudia Eckert Scores Sweep in A.A.U. Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 23 August 1936; “Final Women’s Swimming and Diving Tryouts Held at Providence R. I. July 10, 11 and 12, 1936,” Report of the American Olympic Committee: Games of the XI Olympiad, edited by Frederick W. Rubien (London: American Olympic Committee, 1936), 278-79.

9.  “National A.A.U. Meet: “LSAC Mermaids Score,” The Discus, May 1937, pp. 8 and 22; “Miss Eckert Wins 3 A.A.U, Swim Events,” Chicago Tribune, 17 June 1937.

10.  “Who Said It’s Winter” , Wilmette Life, 6 January 1938; “Claudia Eckert Sets 2 Records in A.A.U. Swim,” Chicago Tribune, 3 March 1938; “M’Collum Wins Two Events in A.A.U. Swimming,” Chicago Tribune, 20 March 1938; “Miss Tomska Wins A.A.U. Swim Title,” Chicago Tribune, 12 April 1938; Arch Ward, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Tribune, 20 July 1938.

11.  “Miss Eckert Wins 2 A.A.U Swim Events,” Chicago Tribune, 27 May 1939; “World Swimming Champs at 4th Celebration.” County Herald, 30 June 39; “Stars of Fourth Water Show in AAU Swim Meet,” Daily Herald, 21 July 1939.

12. “Variety of Aquacade Acts to Feature Pool Dedication,” Appleton Post Crescent, 13 June 1940.

13. “No Olympics, But America to Pick a Team, Anyway,” Chicago Tribune, 6 May 1940; “Splashback: The First All-Female Olympic Swim Team,” USMS Swimmer, November-December 2007, p. 46.

14.  “Claudia Eckert Feted Tonight,” Chicago Herald-American, 19 February 1941;  “Divers Keep Titles in “Y” Swim,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 February 1941.

15.  “Weddings Announced,” Chicago Tribune, 19 February 1941; “George Eckert Services to be Conducted Today,” Chicago Tribune, 25 April 1948; ‘The Sun Also Rises (1957} Full Cast & Crew,” Internet Movie Data Base [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051028/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm ] , 2018, Ancestry.com. U.S. Public Records Index, 1950-1993, Volume 2 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010; Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2011.

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