The Human Fish

From Green Lake to Olympic gold, the agony and the glory of Seattle’s greatest athlete.

By Eric Scigliano December 27, 2008 Published in the August 2008 issue of Seattle Met

EVEN BABIES TAKE SWIMMING lessons, but Helene Madison didn’t start till she was 12. She almost didn’t enter her first race, in a city water carnival; she was scared of diving headfirst. Her coach held her feet and said, “Just fall forward.” She did, and won—and never stopped winning, at least at swimming.
The coach at Green Lake saw the potential in this tall, gangly kid from the neighborhood. He suggested she try out at the more elite Crystal Pool downtown. At 17, Helene seemed ready for the 1930 swimming nationals in Miami. Her parents, who operated a small cleaners near the lake, couldn’t afford to send her, but sponsors kicked in. She didn’t just sweep her races—she broke world records in every one. On her return she received what the P-I called the “greatest homecoming since the World War boys came back in 1919.”

Two years later, in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Madison’s long, gliding stroke, canny strategy, and will to win left more seasoned competitors choking in her wake. In her first of three gold-medal races, she finished the 100-yard freestyle in exactly one minute—nearly eight seconds ahead of the pack, and of the previous Olympic record. She’d achieved the aquatic equivalent of the four-minute mile, a mark that would stand for a decade. At 19, she was “Queen Helene,” the star (with track prodigy Babe Didrikson) of the ’32 games, AP’s “athlete of the year,” “the greatest swimmer of all time” in one reporter’s estimation, surely the greatest athlete Seattle had ever produced. She had broken records 117 times, in every course from 50 yards to a mile, and never lost a race. Escorted by P-I editor Royal Brougham, she partied with showbiz royalty at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon castle.

And then bad luck and bad choices intruded. Madison turned down a world tour to go pro in a sport without a pro circuit. She got paid for an exhibition swim at Bitter Lake, losing her amateur status and shot at the ’36 Olympics. Inevitably she went to Hollywood. Another swimming champ, Johnny Weissmuller, had just made his first Tarzan picture; if he could swim to stardom, why couldn’t she?

But the world wasn’t ready for a female Tarzan. Madison, dyed platinum, starred in a quickie Mack Sennett comedy, The Human Fish. It bombed. She flopped as a nightclub singer. A year after the Olympics she was back home selling hot dogs near Green Lake, hearing parents tell kids if they tried real hard they might be the next Helene Madison.

The real Helene Madison tried to teach swimming, but the Seattle Parks Department barred women instructors. So she studied nursing at Virginia Mason, trading Olympic limelight for selfless service. The glory days still echoed, faintly: Reporters occasionally called, and General Mills paid her $50 to endorse Wheaties.

If Johnny Weissmuller could swim to stardom, why couldn’t she?

Years later, Madison got the chance to teach swimming. When some college men she was coaching slacked off, she challenged them to a race—and blew them out of the water. But by the late 1960s she was sick and solitary and broke, living in a basement studio near Green Lake. She talked about closing her car windows, letting the engine run, and floating off on a carbon-monoxide cloud. Royal Brougham, still at the P-I, wrote about her plight and letters and gifts poured in—from Seattle, England, Australia, South America, $10,000, enough to ease her last months. This Sporting Life ended as It’s a Wonderful Life.

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