When the heavy winter ices of Lake Michigan finally break away at the start of each spring, a ferry sets out for Washington Island. The woods of this mysterious isle are where, long ago, the first Potawatomi canoes scraped up against the pebble shore. The sails of Icelandic fisherman were soon to follow, at a time when local sturgeon could have been mistaken for playful mermaids. Their hardy descendants live there today along winding trails, rippling waters, and the cooling breath of the lake. But if you were to venture further to an inconspicuous corner of the island, you might stumble upon a modest tombstone with an unexpected declaration: Katharine Whitney Curtis—The Originator of Synchronized Swimming.
My grandfather first told me of his influential Aunt Kate nearly 30 years after all of her adventures were over. And while her name is now almost as unknown as the location of that distant grove where she is buried, her legacy endures. We are reminded of it after each Summer Olympic Games, when “modern mermaids” from all around the world are sent to show off their mesmerizing grace and athletic skill. The foreign crowds are often surprised at the spectacle and even less aware of how it all came to be. So ever since my own discovery about Aunt Kate, I've been eager to share the fascinating life story of this enigmatic mother of synchronized swimming.
Making a Splash
The first time Katherine Curtis's name caught the public eye was on August 4, 1912, when a local newspaper affectionately described her as a “youthful Annette Kellerman,” an Australian swimmer and vaudeville star who became famous for her pioneering aquatic acts. Kate had just swam across Lake Mendota in a record-breaking three hours and 40 minutes, which was deemed a sensational feat considering both the frigid waters and the unrelenting headwinds she fought the entire length. Three local boys had failed halfway behind her as she continued to the opposite shore.
In later years throughout college and during her early teaching career, Kate experimented with different forms of “stunt swimming,” the like of which Annette Kellerman was famous for performing in a traveling water tank around the world. But Kate was more interested in what was more of a water ballet—combining a team of swimmers with both music and standardized strokes. This proved a fascinating combination to tens of thousands of spectators at the 1933-1934 Chicago World's Fair, where the Kay Curtis Modern Mermaids displayed “synchronized swimming” for the first time.
As we know it today, the sport developed in the years following the event with the publication of Kate's book on the subject and official recognition by the Amateur Athletic Union. Serving as chairman on various administrative committees, Kate led the charge in formatting all of the rules and regulations for future competition.
Out of the Pool, Into the War
But just as synchronized swimming started to gain momentum, the world's attention focused on the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the moment when Kate heard the rallying cry to fight for her nation, she immediately joined the effort. She became a recreational director in the Red Cross and was on the first ship to Casablanca for the start of the African Campaign. She followed the troops wherever World War II took them and diligently served under most major generals, including General George Patton. She called him 'George' and they got on pretty well, but both were strong-headed, and Kate would later say they had their fair share of arguments.
Kate would remain in Europe for its extensive rehabilitation, but she was always spreading the word about synchronized swimming. She would ultimately evangelize enough of a crowd that when the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki rolled around, she was there to see it presented as an up-and-coming water sport. The Swedish officials lit a torch in her honor as the sport ascended to new heights, both overseas and at home. Back in the U.S., Esther Williams was making her blockbuster movies all throughout the war and would greatly popularize the sport. When Kate finally returned to Washington Island in 1963, synchronized swimming was in full bloom.
"Those of you who wondered why I ever monkeyed around with synchronized swimming in the first place will be surprised to know it was because I figured there had to be something more artistic to swimming than a [fat] man plunging head first into a pool." − Katherine Whitney Curtis
Legacy Lives On
For the record, Kate never thought her hobby would become so popular, and would frequently attribute the credit in later conversations to “good timing.” She was quoted in an article as saying:"Those of you who wondered why I ever monkeyed around with synchronized swimming in the first place will be surprised to know it was because I figured there had to be something more artistic to swimming than a [fat] man plunging head first into a pool."
In 1979, after decades of near anonymity (and just a year before her death), she was recognized by the International Swimming Hall of Fame. They had been mercilessly bombarded with letters of recommendation from swimmers and coaches across the nation to honor her contribution to the sport.
She would ultimately lose her fight with cancer on July 6, 1980, a year in which the western world elected to boycott the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow—postponing any possibility of synchronized swimming's acceptance as an Olympic sport for another four years. In 1984, the International Olympic Committee finally made synchronized swimming an Olympic sport for women despite Kate's original hope for co-ed involvement. Although she never lived to see her beloved sport become recognized on the Olympic stage, I know as my grandfather held her hand during her final moments that her heart was reminded of a greater and more lasting recognition.
Jordan Whitney Wei is a great grand-nephew of Katharine Whitney Curtis. He's currently compiling research for and writing a biographical memoir about her.