Women in Water: A History of Incredible Female Swimmers

In 2013, on her fifth attempt and at age 64, endurence swimmer Diana Nyad emerged on the shores of Key West, Fla., after swimming 110 miles from Havana, Cuba in 53 hours. It was the first time a person ever accomplished the passage without a shark cage or flippers.  

Nyad had attempted the journey four times before, first in 1978, and is a walking — well, swimming — example of the importance of being resilient enough to never give up, no matter what age.

When Nyad achieved the amazing feat, MAKERS took a look back at women's swimming accomplishments — and all the obstacles they overcame to reach them. Less than a hundred years ago, a woman couldn't jump in the water publicly without wearing a wool skirt! While swimming is second nature to so many of us, not too long ago it was inconcievable that a girl should be able to swim.

So take a look back with us to view how far women in the water have come. 

NEXT: Check Out the Fiercest Woman On the Water »

Related Stories:
Amy Wambach's Glittering Career
Get to Know Mia Hamm


In 1875, English teenager Agnes Beckwith accomplishes a long distance swim in the Thames River from London Bridge to Greenwich, a distance of about 6 miles and an incredible spectacle for people at the time! In 1880, Beckwith treads water for 30 hours in the whale tank of the Royal Aquarium of Westminster to equal a previous mark set by Matthew Webb.   Photo: British Library/Robana via Getty Images

In 1877, Eliza Bennett swims across New York City’s Hudson River in August.   Photo: Getty Images

In 1905, Australian swimmer and silent film star Annette Kellerman becomes the first woman to enter a race against men in the annual race in Paris, sponsored by Paris Match. She finishes in a tie with Thomas Burgess, beating sixteen other men. Later that summer, Kellerman becomes the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. She goes on to become a sensation in America with a show billed as “The Diving Venus." The act includes swimming and diving in a glass tank at the Keith Hippodrome Theater in New York. Swimmer-turned-movie star Esther Williams will go onto portray Kellerman in the 1952 film Million Dollar Mermaid.   Photo: Getty Images

In 1905 Jennie Fletcher sets a world record for women in the 100 yard freestyle that stands for seven years.   Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In 1912, women swimmers and divers are finally allowed to compete at the Olympics at the Games in Stockholm. American women, however, do not participate as the AAU refuses to recognize any women’s sports. Women compete in three events: 100M free, 4 x 100 relay and diving. Australian Fanny Durack (pictured: right), wins the 100-meter freestyle.   Photo: Getty Images

In 1912, Charlotte "Eppy" Epstein, known as the "Mother of Women's Swimming in America" becomes president of the National Women’s Life Saving League. The purpose of the League is to increase awareness of the importance of learning to swim so that women and girls can avoid drowning. This photograph shows Mrs. Lillian Howard, an officer in the Women's National Life Saving Society/League from 1913-1914 at a women's swimming contest at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York City, July 16, 1914.   Photo: Library of Congress

In 1918, Olga Dorfner becomes the first American woman to break a swimming world record with her 200 meter freestyle and 100 yard freestyle events. In 1970, Dorfner was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

In 1919, Ethelda Bleibtrey and Charlotte Boyle, both national champion swimmers, are arrested at Manhattan Beach for “nude swimming.” As a public protest against bathing suit laws, they removed their stockings before going into the water for a workout, which was considered nudity at the time. The resulting publicity brought a change to women's bathing suits.   Photo: Getty Images

In 1920, female swimmers become the first American women to achieve full Olympic status. Ethelda Bleibtrey wins the gold medal in all three races women can compete. Here Bleibtrey is photographed with Charlotte Boyle (left).   Photo: Library of Congress

In 1920, 14-year old Aileen Riggin wins the first women's Olympic springboard diving competition.   Photo: Library of Congress

In 1922, Sybil Bauer becomes the first woman to break an existing men’s world record when she swims the 440-yard backstroke in 6:24:8, four seconds better than the men's world record, held by Stubby Kruger.   

In 1926, 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle, wearing the first two-piece bathing suit worn in public, becomes the first woman to swim the English Channel, doing so in 14 hours, 31 minutes - beating the best mark at the time by more than 2 hours.    Photo: NY Daily News via Getty Images

Just 3 weeks after Ederle's Channel crossing, another American woman, Clemington Corson of New York made the swim in 15.5 hours. Her record time also beat all the men’s times to date.   Photo: NY Daily News via Getty Images

In 1926, Charlotte Schoemmel becomes the first woman to swim around Manhattan Island.   Photo: Library of Congress

In 1932, Helene Madison becomes the first woman to swim the 100 yard freestyle in a minute. She wins three gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympic Games: the 100 and 400-meter freestyle and is on the 4 x 100-meter relay and becomes the first woman to hold all 7 world records recognized for freestyle, from 100 yards to 1500 meters.   Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

In 1944, Ann Curtis becomes the first woman to win the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award, presented annually by the Amateur Athletic Union since 1930. The Sullivan Award is named after the former AAU president and given to the athlete who, “by his or her performance, example and influence as an amateur, has done the most during the year to advance the cause of sportsmanship.”   Photo: Getty Images

In 1951, Florence Chadwick becomes the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions and is also the first to swim from England to France against the tide.   Photo: Getty Images

In 1960, Donna de Varona is the youngest member of the 1960 US Olympic swimming team at 13.   Photo: Pot, Harry / Anefo

In 1977, Canadian Cindy Nicholas completes the first two-way crossing of the English Channel by a woman and breaks the existing men’s record.

In 1988, Kristin Otto, 22, wins six gold medals for swimming at the Seoul Games, the most extensive collection of gold medals ever won by a woman in a single Olympics.   Photo: AFP/Getty Images

In 2008, America’s Natalie Coughlin becomes the first American woman and the second woman in history to win six medals at a single Olympic Games.   Photo: Getty Images

On September 2nd, 2013, 64-year-old Diana Nyad becomes the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage or swim fins. She swam from Havana to Key West.   Photo: MCT via Getty Images