Sybil Bauer soared to international fame by becoming the greatest female backstroker, taking Gold in the 1924 Olympics, setting record after record in all distances, and then tragically dying at the age of 23 in early 1927.
Sybil Bauer, a Hall of Fame backstroker and Olympian champion, should be ranked as the top female swimmer that Chicago ever produced between the world wars. In Bauer short seven year career, tragically ended by her death to cancer in 1926, she astonished the world with her remarkable backstroking, breaking every record, from the shortest lengths indoors to the longest marathon records outdoors, and rarely challenged. Bauer was the only woman in the history of the sport to break the reigning men’s record, in the 440 yard. Her 1924 Olympic gold medal world record setting win in Paris capped her career, and made her an international star.
Bauer was born September 18, 1903, in Chicago, to Carl and Johanna Bauer, Norwegian immigrants who settled in the Logan Square community on the North Side of Chicago. Her father had his own furniture manufacturing business, a common field in the Norwegian community in Chicago. One can assume that the girl grew up in at least an upper middleclass family. Bauer had two older brothers and one younger sister, none of whom became known for athletic achievement.1
Sybil Bauer entered Schurz High School in the fall of 1918, and joined the Schurz intramural swim team (which in later years would compete interscholastically). But Bauer was an all-around athlete, and starred in the intramural competition on the school’s basketball teams and the baseball teams, In an intramural swim meet, is where she starred most spectacularly, scoring 25 of her team’s 35 points in a meet in 1921. Bauer said that at Schurz High, “We got swimming stimulated, and a good team developed at Schurz long before other schools did. We had an instructor who helped us a lot.” Her freshman year, she competed in her first outside meet, at the Illinois Athletic Club (IAC), in January 1919, when she swam under the colors of Schurz High School, finishing out of the running.2
In February 1919, at another at another IAC sponsored meet, Bauer again under Schurz colors swam the 100 yard again, but finished first. She attracted the attention of the famed IAC coach, William Bachrach, at this time, but Bauer did not yet consider herself a backstroker but a crawl stroker (used in freestyle races). Bachrach saw her as primarily a backstroker, and had her switch her concentration from crawl stroking. In the profile on her in Bachrach’s book Outline of Swimming, it says, “Miss Bauer longs to swim the crawl stroke, but Bachrach insists that her racing be done in the backstroke events.3
Five months later, in July 1919, Bauer again competed, in the first in the series of Central District, Amateur Athletic Union (or simply Central AAU) outdoor meets, and took second both in the 100 yard freestyle and in the 50 yard back. This was the first time the event appeared to be offered for women in Chicago. She listed herself as unattached, probably because it was summer and was not in school at the time. Bauer finally first appeared in a meet under the IAC colors in November, opening the 1919-20 swim season with an all female dual meet between the Detroit Athletic Club and the Illinois Athletic Club. This appears to be the first dual meet between two women teams in the Midwest, with the IAC featuring a well-amped up women’s squad. While future the Olympic champion, Bauer, won her specialty, the 40 yard backstroke, the rest of the IAC women did not do as well, losing to the Detroit Athletic Club. In terms of national and world competition, Chicago’s competitive swim programs for women—which notably included the IAC, Sinai Social Center, and Chicago Hebrew Institute—had a long way to go.4
Bauer swam successfully for the IAC in 1920, in both freestyle and backstroke, but not successfully enough to qualify for the Olympic Games. Her performance during the year produced a lot of wins and some records as well. In the second Central AAU meet in early February, Bauer set world indoor marks in two backstroke events, the 100 yard and 50 yard, for which she was hailed in the IAC’s Tri-Color first featured photo of their new star. Then in mid-February, at another Central AAU meet, lowered them again. In the Midwest Bauer reigned supreme and won all her backstroke events throughout the whole winter. The IAC’s Tri-Color hailed her for being the first and only Chicago girl holding a world record in swimming. She would break a lot of them in her career.5
Bauer’s summer may have missed the Olympic Games, but her star burned much brighter in Chicago when she won the women’s section of the annual River Marathon, a two-mile race on the Chicago River that runs through the downtown Chicago. In a Central AAU outdoor meet in September, Bauer won the 100-yard backstroke and took third in the 440 yard freestyle. She had a good year it would only get better.6
During 1921 Bauer sustained her success of the previous year, breaking records monthly. On February 22, at the Great Lakes Naval Station, Illinois, she set a world’s record time in the 50 yard backstroke, erasing the record of the great Ethelda Bleibtrey of the WSA of New York. A few days later, she was in Detroit, where she set a world record in the 100-yard backstroke against Olympian medalist Margaret Woodbridge. The following month, in Chicago, Bauer again lowered her 100-yard backstroke record. She ended the winter season at Great Lakes Naval Station in April, again beating Woodbridge in record time. Bauer proved during this winter season that she had surpassed her Eastern rivals, breaking their records and beating them face to face.7
Before beginning the summer swim season, Bauer showed her thespian talents in a local play at the Chicago Norwegian Club, performing in the cast. Bauer capped the summer season setting the 100 yard backstroke outdoor record in a Central AAU tournament, and capturing her first National AAU 100 yard backstroke outdoors. Despite generally abandoning freestyle events, Bauer proved herself as a considerable long distance freestyler when on Labor Day, 1921, she won the first annual River Marathon for women, a race sponsored by the Chicago Journal newspaper. She beat twenty-four other female competitors, including newcomer, Ethel Lackie, a future Olympic freestyle champion. This huge local event, which was about a mile and a half in length, helped to bring Bauer’s name further into the public consciousness, at least in Chicago.8
The 1921-22 season was a continuous one of record setting while winning every backstroke race Bauer competed in. In November at the IAC pool, she set a new 150-yard indoor record, breaking another record set by Ethelda Bleibtrey. At a Central AAU meet in Detroit, in early February, she lowered her indoor 100 yard backstroke to 1:17, and two weeks later at another Central AAU meet in Detroit, she set a new record in the 50-yard backstroke. Near the end of February, Bauer supplanted Bleibtrey again as the record holder for the infrequently raced 150 yard backstroke. Bauer ended March and the winter indoor season by winning the National AAU 100-yard back indoor in Milwaukee in yet another world record time.9
Heretofore, Bauer had been setting records world records in the backstroke almost weekly in the previous two years, but in the East, particularly New York City, home of the nationally dominant Women’s Swimming Association, the public and swimming poobahs had never seen her. But in four days in early July, 1922, at Brighton and Manhattan beaches, of the eleven races she was timed in, she set world records in ten of them, which were set in 75 foot pools and 110 yard straightaway outdoor courses. As the IAC’s Tri-Color magazine exclaimed, “she virtually took New York by storm.” On July 1, Bauer set four backstroke world records—at first beating Ethelda Bleibtrey’s 100 meter from the previous year, and in the process also breaking her own 100-yard mark. Bauer in another race, beat her own 50-yard record outdoors twice, in the 75 foot pool and in the 110 yard straightaway. At the Manhattan Beach Lagoon, Bauer in the 440 yard backstroke set yet another remarkable outdoor record, coming close to the men’s record. At the end of her records assault, one New York writer, proclaimed Bauer as, “the greatest back stroke swimmer of all time.” She ended the outdoor season, winning the national outdoor 100 yards, an inaugural national title race (which would be changed to 100 meters the following year), at the AAU nationals in Indianapolis.10
Sybil Bauer entered Northwestern University in the fall of 1922, but in early October she along with nine other top women swimmers from New York and Philadelphia, competed at the St. George Hotel in Bermuda. “Women” may not be the right word, as ages of the ten swimmers ranged from 14 to 18. Bauer, one of the 18-year olds, “created a sensation” competing in the 440 yard backstroke, in which she broke three world records—for 300 yards, 400 yards, and 440 yards. Most outstandingly, the 440 yard record, topped the reigning men’s record, held by the IAC’s Stubby Kruger. Nothing like that had ever been seen in women’s swimming.11
Bauer was proving to be a strong all-around athlete, as evidenced by her subsequent college career. She became the star player on the school’s intramural field hockey, basketball, and swimming. Northwestern University as with most higher education institutions in the country barred intercollegiate competition. Bauer hoped to change that and advocated such competition, starting with swimming—considered the “ringleader” among the Northwestern women advocating change–but the educational establishment was too hidebound to Victorian attitudes on female physical and emotional strength, which was thought to be too weak to the handle the emotional and physical demands of public competitive sports.12
The IAC series of winter meets, December through April, was in essence the Johnny Weismuller and Sybil Bauer show, where each would routinely break a world record (for a 60 foot pool), against minimal competition or no competition. In a March meet, for example, when Bauer raced in the 220 yard backstroke she set a new world record swimming by herself. The Chicago Tribune ran side by side photos of both swimmers in its February 18, 1923 edition, with the label “The Champions.” Other world indoor backstroke records Bauer set during the winter season were the 50 yard and 440 yard. Bauer, in July of 1923 invaded the East again, and set a slew of new records. At a 60-foot pool in Long Island, she broke her own records in 150 yard and 100 meters, easily beating the WSA’s star swimmer, Aileen Riggin. Then at a 100-yard outdoor pool at Starlight Park before a crowd of 12,000 she set new backstroke records at 50 yard and 200 yard. Then at the Westchester-Biltmore Country Club at Rye, New York, she set a new 220 yard backstroke record.13
The highlight of the 1924 winter swim season for Bauer, was a Florida trip in early February. She competed in six meets running from February 5 through 10 in Miami, Beach, a meet designed to set records to appeal to summer vacationers. IAC sent down Bauer and Johnny Weismuller, along with two other of it male swimmers. Bauer fellow female competitors there were twelve members of the powerful WSA of New York. While Bauer had no real competition to push her in her backstroke specialty, she managed to set seven backstroke records in the Florida trip—50 yards, 100 meters, 200 yards, 200 meters, 220 yards, 400 meters, and 440 yards. Bauer was being considered a sure backstroke champion in the upcoming Olympics.14
Sybil Bauer, as the world record holder in the 100 meter backstroke, was heavily favored to win the event for the United States in the Olympic Games in Paris, France, in July, 1924. The two other Illinois competitors, diver Caroline Smith and freestyler Ethel Lackie, were not expected to take gold. In the two semifinals heats, Bauer won hers in world record time, and WSA’s veteran Aileen Riggin took the other heat by more than five seconds. In the finals, Bauer awed the world with her world record finish 1.23 1/5, five seconds ahead of her nearest competitor. The same day, Lackie won a close race with her surprised gold medal win in the 100 meter freestyle, and fellow Illinoisan from the southern tip of the state, Caroline Smith, impressed onlookers with her superb dives in the “plain high dive” to also take gold.15
The AAU as in previous years held its national championships in various events at different venues throughout the country during 1925. In February the AAU decided to hold the national indoor swimming championships for women in seven meets—in the Florida cities of St. Augustine, Tampa, and Winter Park. Of the 150 female swimmers that gathered at the national championships extravaganza, the IAC, showing how thin its women’s squad was, sent only two competitors, Sybil Bauer and Ethel Lackie. Bauer won her fifth consecutive indoor 100 yard backstroke title, and took second in the 300-yard medley swim. Her competing in Florida ended, however, right after she won her backstroke championship, when she was involved in an automobile accident—which occurred just as she was stepping from the car, the driver accidently restarted the car, throwing her down breaking both of her wrists.16
Bauer returned to competition in the Chicago Journal’s River Marathon for women in July 1925, having won the inaugural event in 1921. She led a team of IAC swimmers, easily taking first, showing she was still a top crawl stroke swimmer in Chicago, among a field twenty competitors. She achieved one of her most impressive records in her career at a National AAU meet in August 1925, when she broke by five seconds the WSA phenom Aileen Riggin’s record in the 220 yard backstroke. In September, in a half mile exhibition at Long Beach, Long Island, Bauer set new world backstroke records in five distances—500 yard, 600 yard, 700 yard, 800 yard, and half mile. The last record Bauer set in 1925, was at Coral Gables, Florida, on December 30, when she lowered her own 50 yard backstroke by more than two seconds, to 39 seconds. In February, 1926, Bauer, at the National AAU championships at St. Augustine, Florida, retained her national title in the 100 yard backstroke, breaking her own record in the 200-meter backstroke, and breaking her own world record in the 300-meter backstroke, winning three titles. Bauer was as strong as ever, and she looked forward to a very good remainder of the year. 17
Bauer’s successful National AAU title wins at St. Augustine in the winter of 1926 was the last meet she ever competed in. At a Central AAU meet, in early March, Bauer was a no show, because of illness. Within two weeks, the Chicago Tribune reported that Bauer would take a two months rest in Mississippi “to recuperate from illness from strenuous scholastic work at Northwestern University and in competition in numerous tank meets during the winter months.” The paper reported that her condition was “not serious.” Bauer died within a year of intestinal cancer, and this was probably the first signs of it, although not diagnosed at the time.18
By the fall Bauer’s condition had gotten more serious, and was hospitalized in early December at Michael Reese Hospital, undergoing an operation, in what proved to be intestinal cancer. She remained bedridden in the hospital for two months before dying at the age of 23 on January 31, 1927. By her side in her last days was her fiancé, New York newspaper man Ed Sullivan, who decades later became the famed television variety show host. Bauer was not able to complete her final term at Northwestern because of her illness. Her fame after her death never dimmed, being remembered ever after as one of the great female swimmers of all time. She was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967.19
1. Fourteenth Census of the United States 1920–Population; Bureau of the Census, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, Ward 28, Enumeration District: 169; Sheet 5A (Washington, DC, National Archives and Records Administration, 1992); Gerald R. Gems, “Bauer, Sybil,” Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 71-73.
2. Gems, “Bauer, Sybil,” p. 72; ; The Schurzone, Semi-Annual 1921 (Chicago: Schurz High School, February, 1921), p. 67; “Old Guard ‘Preps’ Feature in Prelims of Swimming Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 8 January 1919; “McGillivray Lowers World Swim Record; Lane is Prep Winner,” Chicago Tribune, 10 January 1919;
3. “Milwaukee Girl Beats Miss O’Brien in Swimming Race,” Chicago Tribune, 7 February 1919; William Bachrach in collaboration with Clarence A. Bush, Outline of Swimming: An Encyclopedia of the Sport, “Mermaid Viking Would Raid Men’s d Records” (Chicago: J. B. Bradwell, 1924), 53-61.
4. Joe Davis, “Hoosier Girls Capture Titles in A.A.U. Swims,” Chicago Tribune, 20 July 1919; “Detroit Girls Win Dual Meet Against I.A.C. ,” Chicago Tribune¸ 14 November 1919.
5. Frank W. Blankley, “Girl Swimmers Create World’s Records,” Tri-Color, February 1920, pp. 18-19 “Browne Beats I.A.C. Stars in Titular Swim,” Chicago Tribune, 19 February 1920; “Two New York Swimmers Break Back Stroke Mark,” Chicago Tribune, 19 February 1920; Charles A. Dean, “World’s Records Fall in Women’s Events,” Tri-Color, March 1920, pp. 45-46.
6. “River Marathon Taken by Ross; Kahele Second,” Chicago Tribune, 18 July 1920; “Water Carnival of Lincoln Park Club Viewed by 10,000,” Chicago Tribune, 7 September 1920.
7. “Sybil Bauer Adds World’s Record to Her Tank Laurels,” Chicago Tribune, 23 February 1921; “Sybil Bauer Breaks World Swim Record in Pool at Detroit,” Chicago Tribune, 27 February 1921; “Ross Shatters Mark for 500 Meters in Naval Station Tank,” Chicago Tribune, 16 March 1921.
8. “’Miss Fearless’” . Chicago Tribune, 11 May 1921; “Two World Marks Broken,” Chicago Tribune, 28 August 1921; “National A.A.U. Swim Won by Sybil Bauer,” Chicago Tribune, 29 August 1921; “Sybil Bauer Wins River Marathon,” Tri-Color, September 1921, pp. 32-34.
9. “I.A.C. Stars Swim to 2 World Records,” Chicago Tribune, 22 November 1921; “Sybil Bauer Sets New World Record in Swim,” Chicago Tribune, 5 February 1922; “Four New World Records in A.A.U. Swim at Detroit,” Chicago Tribune, 17 February 1922; “3 World Records Are Set in Swim at Great Lakes,” Chicago Tribune, 25 February 1922; “Miss Bauer Sets New Swim Mark,” Chicago Tribune, 20 March 1922. “Women Natators Set World Tank Records,” Chicago Tribune, 25 March 1922.
10. “Sybil Bauer Breaks Many World’s Records in New York,” Tri-Color, July 1922, pp. 34-37; “Helen Wainwright Sets Swim Record,” Chicago Tribune, 12 August 1922.
11. “Miss Sybil Bauer Breaks World’s Swimming Record in Bermuda,” Tri-Color, October 1922, pp. 30-32.
12. “Changes Her Sport” , Chicago Tribune, 20 November 1922; Bachrach, pp. 58-59; Gems, “Bauer, Sybil,” p. 72.
13. “7 World Swim Marks Fall in Races at I.A.C.,” Chicago Tribune, 8 December 1922; “The Champions” , Chicago Tribune, 18 February 1923; “Culver Gets Tie With Englewood in I.A.C. Swims,” Chicago Tribune, 2 March 1923; “Polo Title and 3 World Records to I.A.C. Stars,” Chicago Tribune, 6 April 1923; “Sybil Bauer Breaks More World’s Records,” Tri-Color, August 1923, pp. 24-26.
14. Oliver Horn, “Florida Swimming Trip,” Tri-Color, March 1924, pp. 31-32.
15. “Swim Records Fall Before Yankee Stars,” Chicago Tribune, 20 July 1924; “Yank Swimmers Win in Olympic by Huge Margin,” Chicago Tribune, 21 July 1924.
16. Oliver Horn, “Girl Swimmers Make Wonderful Record in Florida,” Tri-Color, March 1925, pp. 29-31.
17. “Sybil Bauer Wins Journal’s Annual River Race,” Tri-Color¸ July 1925, pp. 29-31; “Sybil Bauer Breaks Record at 220 Yards,” Chicago Tribune, 8 August 1925; “Sybil Bauer Lowers Five Swim Records,” Chicago Tribune, 13 September 1925; “Sybil and Agnes Turn in Three Swimming Marks,” Chicago Tribune, 31 December 1925; “Two Records Fall in A.A.U. Swim Tourney,” Chicago Tribune, 11 February 1926; “Sybil Bauer, Ethel Lackie Hold Titles,” Chicago Tribune, 12 February 1926; “Swim Records Again Fall in A.A.U. Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 13 February 1926.
18. Gems, “Bauer, Sybil,” pp. 72-73; “C.A.A. Relay Tankers Break World’s Mark,” Chicago Tribune, 10 March 1926.
19. “Sybil Bauer of Swimming Fame, Critically Ill,” Chicago Tribune, 25 January 1927; “Death Takes Sybil Bauer,” Chicago Tribune, 31 January 1927; “Sybil Bauer’s Funeral to Be Held Tomorrow,” Chicago Tribune, 1 February 1927; “ISHOF Honorees: Sybil Bauer (USA) 1967 Honor Swimmer, ” International Swimming Hall of Fame, 2019 [https://ishof.org/sybil-bauer.html], accessed 6 July 2019