Champion swimmer and Hollywood star Esther Williams, best known for her “aqua-musicals” of the 1940s, passed away Thursday in LA. She was 91.
Williams was never able to compete in the Helsinki Olympics, due to the outbreak of World War II that led to the cancelation of the 1940 and ’44 Games, but she’s often credited with the IOC adopting synchronized swimming into its program in 1984, and served as a TV analyst for its inauguration.
“The life she had goes without saying,” her spokesperson and close friend for more than 15 years, Harlan Boll, told NBC News. “She stood out among other people. She’s the godmother of synchronized swimming and is the reason it became an Olympic sport.”
Williams was invited to join the Los Angeles Athletic Club when she was just a teen, and at one point held the national record for the women’s 100m freestyle race. When the Games were canceled for the war, Williams shed her amateur status and worked with five-time Olympic champ and Tarzan star, Johnny Weissmuller, in a water show for the 1940 Worlds Fair.
She was subsequently hired by MGM in 1941 at 19 years old, and went on to star in acquatic-themed films like Bathing Beauty, Million Dollar Mermaid, and more than twenty others with stars like Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Ricardo Montalbán, and Mickey Rooney. Williams is one of only ten American women to have their careers inducted into the Smithsonian Institution.
In February, the International Swimming Hall of Fame announced the “Esther Award,” which recognizes “outstanding achievements in the film and entertainment industries that promote a positive image of swimming as a key to fun, fitness, good health, a better quality of life and an essential water safety and lifesaving skill.”