Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water (Hardcover)

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Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water (Hardcover)

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A groundbreaking history of how women found synchronicity—and power—in water.


If you’re not strong enough to swim fast, you’re probably not strong enough to swim ‘pretty,’” said a young Esther Williams to theater impresario Billy Rose. Since the nineteenth century, tensions between beauty and strength, aesthetics and athleticism have both impeded and propelled the careers of female swimmers—none more so than synchronized swimmers, for whom Williams is often considered godmother.


In this riveting history—the first of its kind— Vicki Valosik traces a century of aquatic performance, from vaudeville to the Olympic arena. Williams, who became a Holly-wood sensation for her splashy “aquamusicals,” was just one in a long, bedazzled line of swimmers who began their careers as athletes but found greater opportunity, and often social acceptance, in the world of show business. Together, they not only laid the groundwork for synchronized swimming, but forever changed women’s relationships with water. Early starlets like Agnes Beckwith, Lurline the Water Queen, and Annette Kellerman performed “scientific” or “ornamental” swimming, a set of moves previously only practiced by men— including Benjamin Franklin—that focused on form and demonstrated physical mastery in the water. Performing in aquariums and water tanks rolled onto music hall stages, they stunned Victorian audiences with their grace and dexterity. In the process, they defied society’s rigid expectations of what was proper and possible for women—and even ushered in new, sensible swimwear.


Far more than just bathing beauties, these women and others who followed influenced lifesaving and physical education programs, helping to drop national drowning rates and paving the way for new generations of female athletes. When Katherine Curtis, a University of Chicago physical educator, decided to match their aquatic movements to music in the 1920s, young girls flocked to pools to take part in “synchronized swimming.” But despite overwhelming love from audiences, and the Olympic ambitions of its practitioners, synchronized swimming was long perceived as little more than entertaining pageantry. It would prove to be a battle against the current as athletes fought for a spot at the highest echelons of sport.


Now, on the fortieth anniversary of synchronized swimming ’s elevation to Olympic status, Swimming Pretty finally honors the history of grit, glamor, and sheer athleticism of an utterly unique sport.



Vicki Valosik is a masters synchronized swimmer whose writing has appeared in publications such as the Atlantic, Smithsonian magazine, and Slate. She is an editorial director and teaches writing at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Product Details ISBN: 9781324093046
ISBN-10: 1324093048
Publisher: Liveright
Publication Date: June 25th, 2024
Pages: 432
Language: English
An amazing story about the evolution of swimming, how synchronized swimming became a kaleidoscope of political and social change, and how artistic swimming became recognized as an incredibly athletic, beautiful, and world-renowned sport. I loved this fascinating book.
— Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer

Swimming Pretty is so much more than a history of a sport—it’s also an engrossing account of how society has controlled and contained women’s bodies and ambitions throughout history. In deft prose filled with bizarre, often startling details, Valosik reveals the trailblazing athletes and entertainers who, in soggy corsets and petticoats, encouraged generations of women to find empowerment in the water.

— M. G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie

I have long been a fan of movie star synchronized swimmer Esther Williams but never knew she was just one of many pathbreaking pretty swimmers who date as far back as the nineteenth century. . . . Chock-full of history and personal stories, this is a fascinating, eye-opening book.
— Ann Hood, author of Fly Girl

Swimming Pretty plunges into the colorful, entertaining, inspiring, and sometimes enraging history of strong women who fought for athletic joy and the right to compete—cloaking their power in traditional femininity to do so. It will leave you breathless (and googling synchro videos).

— Danielle Dreilinger, author of The Secret History of Home Economics