Ethel Lackie: Surprise Olympic Swimming Champion; Essay by Robert Pruter

Ethel Lackie, as winner in swimming of numerous national and world record-setting races and a two-time gold medal winner in the 1924 Olympics she ranks as one of the top  Chicago women athletes between the wars.

Ethel Lackie was a world class sprint swimmer for the Illinois Athletic Club in during the mid-1920s, and a winner of two gold medals in the 1924 Olympics. During her career she largely swam in the shadow of her teammate Sybil Bauer, the exceptional backstroke champion, and Bauer was supreme during the three years–1924, 1925, 1926–that Lackie was making a name for herself. She learned to swim in the Lake Michigan, and excelled at long distance swimming, at least against Chicago swimmers, but was never competitive in long distance against the swimmers from New York. None the less, Lackie ranks as one of the top representatives of athletic achievement by Chicago women between the wars.

Ethel Lackie was born to Lester and Flora Lackie in Chicago on February 10, 1907, on the South Side on 74th Street a block from Lake Michigan and the huge Cheltenham Beach. Her heritage was Scottish from her father’s side via Canada and German from her mother’s side. The neighborhood was considered middle class. Lester Lackie first worked in a steel mill but by 1920 he worked as a salesman in a clothing store. Ethel came from a large family of swimmers, and her father was most enthusiastic, and taught all three of his children to swim, but only Ethel became an amateur competitor. Ethel was told that she was taught how to swim at the age of three, and she recalls her first big achievement under her father’s tutelage, swimming to the 74th street water crib 3 ¼ miles out in Lake Michigan at the age of 14.1

To illustrate concept in text.

Ethel Lackie, as member of the Sinai Social Center swim team, 1922

Lackie attended public grade schools, but when she was ready to attend high school her father had her enroll in the prestigious University High of the University of Chicago. Unlike with many of the Chicago public schools, the University High girls swim team was only intramural and did not conduct meets with other schools or amateur teams. Lackie only participated as a freshman and sophomore, but was the immediate star swimmer on the team. Her specialty was the backstroke. Lackie may have appeared in her first outside meet after her freshman year, when she entered the first annual River Marathon for women on Labor Day, 1921, a mile and a half race through downtown Chicago in the Chicago River. She finished nineteenth out 0f twenty-four competitors, which was won by Sybil Bauer, her future colleague at the IAC. It may have been her first time representing the Sinai Social Center.2

After her sophomore year, Lackie was regularly competing for the Sinai Social Center during the summer of 1922. Most eventful for Lackie was her fourth place finish in the second annual women’s River Marathon, among a field of thirty-four competitors. But Chicago women were way behind New York in long-distance open water swimming, as Helen Wainwright, of the WSA defeated the Chicago field so handedly, crossing the finish line two blocks ahead of the second place finisher. Wainwright likened her pace as a “practice swim.” In August, Lackie competed in a big meet held as part of the Pageant of Progress on the Municipal Pier. It was undoubtedly an AAF meet given the classes of competition—senior, junior, secondary, novice, and women–as well the type of competition—settlement houses, park districts, swimming pools, and YMCAs. Lackie won the two events she competed in, the 50-yard freestyle and the 100-yard freestyle.3

In early September, Lackie competed for Sinai at the Edgewater Beach meet in Chicago, gainst many IAC swimmers, winning both the 50-yard freestyle and 50-yard back the first day (world record holder Sybil Bauer did not compete in the backstroke). In the second day of competition, Lackie took second to her future teammate Sybil Bauer in the individual medley (a length or lap of crawl, backstroke and breaststroke). Lackie, who was mentioned as being the AAF medley champion, may have been discovered by Coach Bachrach at this meet. The profile of Lackie in Bachrach’s book does not tell how he discovered the swimmer, although the profile asserts that Lackie “had achieved some note as a high school swimmer” before joining Bachrach’s squad. This profile overlooks her career with Sinai, but it does make mention that Lackie was a backstroke champion in AAF competition (when she was competing for Sinai). In January, 1923, Lackie was still competing for Sinai, for example, in a meet against the Kokomo YMCA, in Indiana, where she won three events—40- and 100-yard freestyle and 40-yard backstroke.4

By the beginning of summer of 1923, at the end of her junior year in high school, Lackie was fully ensconced as a member of the IAC team. Bachrach saw more promise in her as a freestyler than a backstroker and had her concentrate on only sprint freestyle events. This switch was just the reverse of what Bachrach did with Bauer, switching her from freestyle to backstroke. As a freestyler Lackie used the American crawl, proven to be the fastest stroke for sprints. Bachrach attributed her swimming prowess as follows: “…she became the stylist among women crawl stroke swimmers. More delicate and slight of build than most of her rivals, she earned her margin of superiority by perfection in the execution of the ideal American crawl.”5

In a combined Central AAU/National AAU meet in open water competition at Edgewater Beach in July 1923, Lackie beat a top Eastern swimmer, Helen Wainwright, in the 100-yard freestyle, a win significant enough for a big write up in the IAC house publication, <em>Tri-Color</em>. The following month, on August 23, in an AAU meet in Indianapolis, she took second to the great Gertrude Ederle of the WSA in the 100-yard freestyle. At the National AAU championships held the Edgewater Beach, in late August, in the 50-yard freestyle, in which New York’s Gertrude Ederle easily triumphed. Lackie failed to place. Lackie was surely a rising star at IAC, but her record against the best in the East was at best mixed.6

During the 1923-1924 indoor season, Lackie’s development as a world class swimmer would dramatically soar under the tutelage of Bachrach. At the IAC annual interscholastic swimming meet in early December, Lackie in one of the open events for women set her first world record in the 100-yard freestyle for 6o-foot pools.7

To illustrate concept in text

Ethel Lackie, 1924, double Gold Medal winner in the Paris Olympics

The new swimming season began in earnest in January 1924, when the IAC men and women swimmers invaded the new Loyola University 75-foot pool for an evening of record breaking. Five world records and one American record were set, notably Ethel Lackie set a new world record in the 75-yard freestyle, breaking the record of New York’s Adelaide Lambert, one of the WSA’s outstanding swimmers. Every victory of an IAC swimmer over a WSA swimmer or of an IAC breaking the record of a WSA swimmer was considered extra special. Less than a month later in early February at an IAC meet, Lackie as sole swimmer set a new American 100-yard record (done in a 60-foot pool). In June, at the Olympic trials held in Briarcliff Manor, New York, Lackie qualified in the 100-meters freestyle, taking second to Mariechen Wehselau of Hawaii (the top three finishers in each event qualified for the Olympics). Illinois swimmers qualified in two other events—Sybil Bauer in the 100-meter backstroke, and Caroline Smith in the ten meter platform dive. She had a just graduated Cairo High School student from the southern tip of the state and seemingly came out of nowhere. Most American female swimmers were young—Lackie likewise had just finished high school, and Bauer was only a year out of Schurz High.8

Lackie, along with Smith and Bauer, accompanied the rest of the United States swim and diving team to the Olympic Games held in Paris, France, in July, 1924. Lackie was not the favorite United States swimmer to win the 100-meter freestyle. Hawaii’s Mariechen Wehselau held the world record in the event and had beaten Lackie in the Olympic trials. The third U.S. competitor was Gertrude Ederle of the WSA, a swimmer Lackie had never beaten in competition. Chicago’s best hope for Lackie was that she would win a third-place bronze. In the three semifinals heats, each of the American swimmers won their heats. In the finals, the three Americans as expected took the three medal positions, but most unexpectedly Lackie won Gold, while Wehselau and Ederle took silver and bronze respectively. Lackie tied Wehselau’s world record, as she barely touched the wall mere inches before Wehselau and Ederle, as all three raced the two lengths neck and neck through the entire race. The same day, Caroline Smith wowed the audiences with her spectacular swan dives to win the “plain high dive,” and Sybil Bauer as expected easily took the 100-meter backstroke in world record time. It was a good day for the IAC and Illinois competitors.9

To illustrate concept in text.

Ethel Lackie, 1925, while member of the Illinois Women’s Athletic Club,

Lackie after the Olympics proved that her win in Paris was not a fluke. In early August she took her first national outdoor AAU title in the 100-yard freestyle, beating her strongest rival Mariechen Wehaelau. Lackie faced something of a glitch in her career, when in late August she and eleven otheremale swimmers were suspended indefinitely by the Middle Atlantic AAU for competing in an “unsanctioned meet.” While the National AAU and most regional AAU groups had eased in their attempts to restrict its swimmers to only AAU events, the Middle Atlantic AAU apparently was still restricting athletes. On August 28, the swimmers were reinstated when the swimmers pleaded successfully that they had not known the event was “unsanctioned.”   Two days later, Lackie competing at a meet in Bay Shore, New York, set a new outdoor world record in the 100 yard.10 top f

 Lackie, along with 150 of America’s best swimmers competed for three weeks in February, 1925, in Florida, in various cities in a variety of meets. Most important were the AAU national indoor championships in seven meets—in the cities of St. Augustine, Tampa, and Winter Park. The IAC–sadly demonstrating that by this time its female swimming squad was based on only two nationally competitive swimmers—sent to Florida only Sybil Bauer and Ethel Lackie. In the nationals, Lackie was upset at a meet in St. Augustine, losing the 100 meters to a 15-year-old “unknown,” Eleanor Garratti, of Rafael, California. Lackie should not have felt too bad about it, as Gertrude Ederle lost in the same race. At the same meet, however, Lackie outsprinted both Garratti and Ederle to win the national title in her signature 100-yard event, At a meet in Miami, designed with rarely raced distances to break records, Lackie broke three world records. She first set records in the 110-yard and 120- yard freestyle sprints–the latter with a 1:18.2-5 time that “shattered” the earlier record by five seconds set by Adelaide Lambert of the WSA. She them broke another Lambert record in the 60-yard freestyle.11

To illustrate concept in text

Ethel Lackie, 1925

In early March 1925, Lackie at the IAC pool in Chicago lowered her mark on the 100-yard to 1:03 1-5.  Later in the month, the Chicago Tribune ran a wire photo of Lackie along with three New York top swimmers—Agnes Geraghty, Martha Norelius, Gertrude Ederle—remarking in the caption about “more than a score of world records” that the girls made in Florida in the previous month.12

Lackie, like many of the amateur athletes in the city were considered celebrities, and she along with other members of the IAC swim squad participated in sports carnivals and benefits. In early July, 1925, she, along with Johnny Weissmuller, Stubby Kruger, Sybil Bauer, and Caroline Smith (who had recently joined the IAC), participated in a “Sports Nite” at the Chicago Beach Hotel, on Lake Michigan in the Hyde Park community. The same group also performed at the Sovereign Hotel swimming pool, with exhibitions and water stunts.13

Lackie in January 1926 at the IAC pool lowered her own record in the 100 yards to 1:02 4-5. She was getting close to breaking the one minute “barrier” for her signature event. At the national AAU championships held in St. Augustine, Lackie retained her 100-yard freestyle title. At the same meet she set a new American record for the 75-yard event. Later events in February and March in Florida saw her breaking records in 100-yard and 50-yard sprints, and some rarer events. Lackie, who had been lowering the 100-yard mark all winter, lowered her mark from 1:01 to :60 9-10, at a meet in Philadelphia on March 9, 1926. She was flirting with breaking the minute mark, and the Tri-Color ran a feature on the prospects of Lackie doing just that in the near future. It is a credit to Lackie’s achievement that 60 seconds was not broken until eight years later, when Willy Den Ouden did it in 1934.14

In August, again in Philadelphia, Lackie set a new American mark in the 100-meter freestyle in the annual AAU National outdoor meet. Sybil Bauer did not represent the IAC at the nationals, leaving Lackie the sole representative from the IAC and Chicago. The 1926 nationals was a triumph for the WSA, whose swimmers won titles in nine of the ten events, with only Lackie representing Chicago and the IAC. Lackie was now thoroughly established as the premier sprint freestyle champion in the United States and the brightest light for Chicago female swimming and diving.15

By early 1927, however, Lackie’s career went into a surprising decline. In February, in Buffalo, New York, she was defeated by the WSA’s Martha Norelius in her prized 100-yard event in a slow race. During the winter, she swam in Chicago and broke no new American or world records. Her teammate at the IAC, Sybil Bauer, had died from cancer in at the end of January, leaving her the only prestige name at IAC, which seemed to have been losing interest in women’s swimming. In the final Central AAU totals for the winter season, a new club, the Illinois Woman’s Athletic Club (IWAC) won with a commanding 46 points, followed by the Milwaukee A.C.’s 19 points, leaving the IAC with only ten points, all earned by Lackie.16

In February 1928, Lackie left the IAC, as the great pioneer club advancing women’s swimming in Chicago ended its program, breaking up of what was left of its women’s swim team. She joined the powerful IWAC swim team. With Lackie on the club team, at the national indoor meet in Buffalo the same month, the IWAC was able to make a stronger presence than the previous year, but still taking second to perennial power WSA. Lackie contributed points to the IWAC easy repeat win at the Central AAU indoor team champion in April. The year 1928 was an Olympic one, and Lackie was one of four competitors that the IWAC sent to the Olympic trials–Jane Fauntz in diving and 200 meter breast, Ethel Lackie and Mary Lou Quinn in the 100-meter free, and Caroline Smith in diving. In the trials, only Jane Fauntz did well enough, being selected for 200 meter. Lackie embarrassingly took last in the 100-meter freestyle, no longer a factor on the world stage of women’s swimming let alone a national one.17

On the first day of 1929, Lackie announced her retirement from swimming. The Chicago Tribune  story on her career credited her with still holding six world swimming records during her rich career in record breaking—50 yards and 100 yards records for the 60 foot pool; 50 yards, 100 yards, and 100 meters for the 75 foot pool; and 50 yards for the straightaway (meaning outdoors). Her final swim was at the IAC annual interscholastic meet on January 3, when she along with Johnny Weismuller did their last swims, which were purely exhibitions, as the future Hall of Fame swimmers waved to the adoring crowd during their “races.”18

Lackie did not end her involvement in swimming with her retirement from competition, expressing the wish to go professional, because swimming for “glory only” was “beginning to [lose] some of its thrill.” Unlike with Weismuller who amassed a fortune in Hollywood playing Tarzan, Lackie had few opportunities to make money in the rare professional swimming events available to her. In some interviews she expressed a wish to finish her degree at University of Chicago. She also said she wanted to teach swimming in a club or a school, and that she had qualified for a city playground education certificate.19

Lackie never completed her work for her college degree, probably because she had too much college work ahead of her. She first entered the University of Chicago in August of 1924, the summer after her high school graduation and her Olympic success. She only finished the fall quarter before dropping out, and the following year reenrolled again only to drop out after a couple of months. She may have merely intended to reenroll in 1929, but it did not happen. Lackie continued to keep her toes wet in the amateur swimming world, only not as a competitor. For example, at the Middle States Swimming Championships held at the IWAC pool in December 1929, Lackie served on an all-women panel of judges, along with two other former Olympians, Caroline Smith and Ethelda Bleibtrey. The same three were still serving as judges at IWAC meets in 1931.20

Sometime in the early 1930s Lackie moved to Santa Monica, California, and married a top rower, Bill Watson. She also brought her parents to Santa Monica, where her father, Lester Lackie, began a boat building business. In the 1936 Santa Monica telephone directory, Ethel was listed as a swimming teacher. The following year, she was listed in the telephone directory as swimming instructor for the Jonathan Club of Santa Monica.   By the late 1940s, Ethel was no longer instructing, and her husband’s occupation was listed as life guard. In 1969, the International Hall of Fame elected Lackie to its Honor Swimmer category in its Hall of Fame. Ten years later, on December 15, 1979, Lackie died, in Newbury Park, California, where she lived for decades with her husband Bill Watkins. At the time of her election to the Hall of Fame, her name was essentially forgotten among the general population–Lackie’s fame only recalled by the Hall of Fame officials and a small cohort of swimming history cognoscenti.21

Notes

1. Thirteenth Census of the United States 1910–Population, Bureau of the Census, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, Ward 7;  Enumeration District: 0451, Sheet 10A (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982); Fourteenth Census of the United States 1920–Population, Bureau of the Census, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, Ward 8, Enumeration District  477, Sheet 3B (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992); William Bachrach, in collaboration with Clarence A. Bush,” “Ethel’s Name is Lackie but She Don’t Lack Much,” Outline of Swimming; An Encyclopedia of the Sport (Chicago: J. B. Bradwell, 1924), 47-51.

2.  The Correlator 1921 (Chicago: University High School, 1921), pp. 43, 198; The Correlator 1922 (Chicago: University High School, 1922), pp. 39, 172; The Correlator 1924 (Chicago: University High School, 1924), p. 57; “Sybil Bauer Wins River Marathon,” Tri-Color, September 1921, pp. 32-34.

3.  “Helen Wainwright Wins Girls’ River Marathon,” Tri-Color, August 1922, p. 32. “Al White Captures A.A.U. Diving Title,” Chicago Tribune, 14 August 1922.

4. “Weismuller in Another Victory at Beach Here,” Chicago Tribune, 4 September 1922;   “Weismuller Ties World Record in Fifty Yard Swim,” Chicago Tribune, 5 September 1922;  “Sinai Swimmers Defeat Kokomo,” Chicago Tribune, 7 January 1923.

5.  Bachrach, “Ethel’s Name is Lackie.”

6.  Harry MacNamara, “Ethel Lackie First in 100-Yard Swim,” Tri-Color, August 1923, p. 35.  “Stubby Kruger Wins National Swim Penthalon,” Chicago Tribune. August 1923; “Gertrude Ederle Swims to Title in 50 yd. Sprint,” Chicago Tribune, 27 August 1923; “Ethel Lackie, Maker of six World Swim Marks, to Quit,” Chicago Tribune, 2 January 1929.

7.  Wallace Abbey, “Club Athletes, Girls and Preps set Tank Marks,” Chicago Tribune, 7 December 1923.

8.  “I.A.C. Tankers Set Six Records at Loyola Pool,”  Chicago Tribune, 19 January 1924; “Records Sink as I.A.C. Natators Cop A.A.U. Races,” Chicago Tribune, 8 February 1924; “Sybil Bauer Wins Trip to Olympics,”Chicago Tribune, 9 June 1924.

9.  “Swim Records Fall Before Yankee Stars, Chicago Tribune,  20 July 1924; “Yank Swimmers Win in Olympic by Huge Margin,” Chicago Tribune, 21 July 1924.

10.  “Ethel Lakie Wins National Swim Title,” Chicago Tribune, 11 August 1924; “L.A.C. Will Fight Ban on Ethel Lackie by Eastern A.A.U.,”  Chicago Tribune, 26 August 1924; A.A.U. “Raises Ban on Ethel Lakie and Five Other Mermaids,” Chicago Tribune, 29 August 1924; “Ethel Lackie Sets World Swim Mark in Bay Shore Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 31 August 1924.

11.  Ray McCarthy, “Ethel Lackie Wins National Hundred in Florida,” Tri-Color, January 1925, pp. 16-19; “’Unknown’ Beats Ethel Lackie in Girls’ Swim,” Chicago Tribune, 11 February 1925; “Ethel Lackie Wins 100 Yard Swimming Title,” Chicago Tribune, 13 February 1925; Mermaids Clip Four Records in Florida, Chicago Tribune, 25 February 1925. “Ethel, Gertrude and Martha Set Three Marks at Miami,” Chicago Tribune, 26 February 1925.

12.  Howard Martin, “Prep Swimmers Clip 5 Marks as Lane Wins Title,” Chicago Tribune, 6 March 1925. “They’ve Made Old Man Neptune Dizzy” , Chicago Tribune, 22 March 1925.

13.  “Chicago Beach Hotel Out-O-Doors Dance Pavilion” [advertisement], Chicago Tribune, 2 July 1925; “2 More Stars to Help Camp Water Carnival,” Chicago Tribune, 4 July 1925.

14.  “Three I.A.C. Swimmers Clip World Marks,“ Chicago Tribune, 8 January 1926; “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. “Ethel Lackie Smashes 40 Yard Free Style Mark,” Chicago Tribune,  2 March 1926. “Miss Lackie Clips 50 and 100 Yard World Swim Marks,” Chicago Tribune, 9 March 1926; Clarence A. Bush, “Will She Swim a Century in a Minute?,” Tri-Color, May 1925, pp. 30-31.“Ethel Lackie (USA) 1969  Honor Swimmer,” International Swimming Hall of Face, 2015 [http://www.ishof.org/ethel-lackie-(usa).html], accessed 12 August 2017.

15.  “Ethel Lackie Sets New Record at Philadelphia,” Chicago Tribune, 5 August 1926; “New York Girls Win A.A.U. Swim Title,” Chicago Tribune, 8 August 1926.

16.  “Miss Lambert Breaks World Swim Record,” Chicago Tribune, 3 February 1927; Walter Eckersall, “I.W.A.C. Wins Indoor Swim Championship,” Chicago Tribune, 2 April 1927.

17.  “Ethel Lackie to Join I.W.A.C. Swimming Team,” Chicago Tribune, 4 February 1928; “New York Girls Set World Mark in Swim Relay,” Chicago Tribune; “I.W.A.C. Team Wins Central Swim Title,” Chicago Tribune, 21 April 1928; “I.W.A.C. Adds New Members to Swimming Teams,” Chicago Tribune, 8 June 1928; “Four I.W.A.C. Swimmers Qualify for the Olympic Trials,” Chicago Tribune,  16 June 1928; “Coast Girl Clips World’s Swim Mark,” Chicago Tribune,  2 July 1928.

18.  “Ethel Lackie, “Maker of Six World Swim Marks, To Quit,” Chicago Tribune,  January 2, 1929;  “I.A.C. Cheers Last Race of Swim Champs,” Chicago Tribune, 4 January 1929.

19.  “Swimming Champion Forsakes Applause to Finish College,” The Bee [Danville, VA], 18 January 1929; “Tank Star Goes Pro,” Brownsville Herald, 26 January 1929.

20.  Email letter from Eileen A. Ielmini, Assistant University Archivist, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, 1 August 2017; “Swimmers Lower 300 Yard Relay Record,” Chicago Tribune, 14 December 1929; “Violet Bayer Swims, Dives to I.W.A.C. Titles,” Chicago Tribune, 4 February 1931.

21.  Ethel Lackie,” SR/Olympic Sports [https://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/athletes/la/ethel-lackie-1.html], accessed 31 July 2017; Santa Monica, California, City Directory, 1936. p. 282;   Los Angeles A-L, California, City Directory, 1937, p. 1132. Santa Monica, California, City Directory, 1947, p. 716; “Ethel Lackie (USA) 1969 Honor Swimmer, International Swimming Hall of Fame [http://www.ishof.org/ethel-lackie-(usa).html], accessed 31 July 2017.

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