Photograph of 1948 U.S. Olympic Women's Swim Team courtesy of K. N. Heinz/U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee Archives.
The world of women’s competitive swimming had only just begun two-in-a-half decades prior to when former Olympian Penny (Pence) Taylor began her swim journey. Back then, swim suits were made out of cotton, goggles hadn’t been invented yet and lane lines did not prevent waves from other lanes sloshing against a group of racing swimmers – and Taylor has had the amazing opportunity of seeing the sport start in its infancy to where it is today.
“We practiced in blue cotton suits with skirts that wrapped all the way around. When we raced, we wore nylon but it was not the least bit fitted. It was just like a bag. I always had to tie the straps up with a shoestring to make sure they didn’t fall off,” Taylor said.
These cotton suits are a distant memory; Taylor is one of the few Olympians that both experienced the original swimwear and is still alive to tell the incredible story about its existence. She commented about the invention of latex swimsuits for the women’s teams during her 35-year-stint as a swim coach.
“I remember in the 70s, I was with an American team that went overseas and the Germans had this new suit. This was the first time we had seen latex. The suit was very form fitting. There was no skirt at all. Our girls that were on the trip came back and wanted to wear that suit in competition. But according the rulebook at that time, women swimmer athletes had to wear a skirt. So their mothers would sew a little piece of cloth across the front, and that became the skirt. That was the first of the new suits that we have today,” Taylor said.
She then shared her entire life story about her swimming career, her coaching achievements, the amazing opportunities she has had traveling the world, and how much the sport has changed over the years. Now, at 92 years old, her wisdom and knowledge puts the sport we know today into perspective.
As a young girl, Taylor and her family journeyed from St. Louis to Indianapolis to a cottage near a lake every summer, which was where she learned to swim side stroke from her mother. Soon after, World War II hit and put a strain on her family’s finances, making it too difficult to travel. Taylor, aching to continue swimming, signed up to learn the basics of swimming so that she and a few other girls from her school could help give kids from a nearby orphanage swim lessons.
After that, a spark lit up inside of her. Taylor knew that swimming was to become a huge part of her life. The following winter, she went to the YWCA to further her skills in the water.
At age 13, someone suggested to Taylor that she enter a swim meet. “So I did, and it was breaststroke and I won. That was basically the beginning of my swimming career,” she said.
In high school, Taylor joined the Jewish Community Center because they were the only team that had an indoor swimming pool. She wanted to continue swimming in college, so she attended Purdue University. Unfortunately, though, intercollegiate swimming had not been created yet.
Taylor stated, “I went specifically to Purdue because the coach there, Coach Dick Papenguth, would coach women from all over the country. While attending Purdue, I [along with many other women] swam for Lafayette Country Club. That’s how we went to nationals. It was a wonderful experience because he gave all of his time to us.”
During Taylor’s freshman year, she and the other women swimmers from Lafayette competed at the National Women’s AAU Championships. (Before the inception of USA Swimming, the Amateur Athletic Union was the athletic organization that represented the top athletes in the United States.)
“And low and behold, I won, which is kind of surprising. The summer of 1948, our team went to the Olympic Trials in Detroit. That’s where I made the team, along with another teammate [Jeanne Wilson-Vaughn] who was a senior at Purdue,” she said.
Shortly after making the cut, Taylor and her teammate were sent to New York with the rest of the women’s Olympic team. Sadly, due to the inequality between men and women during that time period, the women’s team received very little support ahead of the 1948 Games.
“When we got to New York, they gave us outfits. A skirt, jacket, blouse and some weird plastic swimsuit. And that was the extent of the outfitting in those days. We were staying at a nice hotel there, but we never saw a swimming pool while we were in New York. We had no training whatsoever there. It turned out that the men’s team flew to London, but the women’s team had to take a boat,” she said.
Taylor continued, “We were on a boat for seven days going to London. I was seasick the entire time. There was no chance for adequate training on the boat. A couple times when we were in London we were able to swim at a pool to train. The night before the Olympics, I was taken to a doctor for an infection on my back. So I was not really in racing shape by the time I got to my event.”
Taylor swam the 200 breaststroke at the Games, but her race did not go as well as planned due to the many extenuating circumstances. However, the opening ceremonies were definitely a highlight. She even got to see the royal family in person.
“The opening ceremonies in London were such a thrill for me. We marched in and it was full of people. The cheering, and bands playing and everything were a great part of the event. The runner came in with the torch. Then, King George announced the Games as being open. And that was the beginning of the Games,” Taylor said.
She commented on the training athletes have today to prepare for the Olympics versus when she swam on the Olympic team.
“We take so much better of our athletes today than we did in 1948. In 1948, we were just kind of just left on our own. Today, everything is planned out. The athletes have a chance to train, and outfitting is much better,” she said.
Penny also described the many changes the sport has gone through the past several decades. She even mentioned how the strokes have developed and improved over time.
“I don’t think athletes today really appreciate the conditions that they have that have evolved over the years,” she said.
“We had to contend with waves from the other swimmers. When I was swimming, the markers between the lanes were little bobbers like every four or five feet. Today we have very fancy lane markers that totally stop all of the waves that are made by people swimming. The starting blocks are totally different. The whole start system is different. We stood up there with our arms behind our backs, and then threw our arms forward and tried to land flat in the pool. Now today, they are using a track start to get more distance. They are entering in one spot and then coming up streamlined…it’s just amazing what’s happened,” Taylor said.
She added, “It was difficult because you just swam in the pool with no goggles. Your eyes were just watering. And then you had to go home and do homework. And that was really, really hard to do. That’s one of the many things [the invention of goggles] that has happened in swimming that makes it so much better for today’s athletes.”
As a former Olympic breaststroke swimmer, Taylor described how she and other swimmers were previously required to swim breaststroke until 1952 when changes were made to the stroke. The original breaststroke was swum with butterfly arms and a breaststroke kick.
“David Berkoff invented the dolphin kick,” Taylor said. While the technique had been around since before Berkoff was born, he was the one popularized it on a national level. “He started doing it in backstroke off the walls. When he first started, he would go a whole length of dolphin kick and would beat everyone else. So they finally made a rule that you could only go 15 meters with dolphin kick before you had to come up. They thought of putting the butterfly arms and dolphin kick together to make a fourth stroke. Breaststroke then went back to the original breaststroke with the underwater recovery.”
Even with the many facets that limited women’s swimming at that time, Taylor still accomplished scores of amazing feats after the Olympics. As a member of the U.S. Team for the first Pan American Games in 1951, she claimed a gold medal in the 3×100-meter medley relay and a bronze medal in the 200m breaststroke. She was a six-time U.S. National Champion and American record holder in the 100-, 200- and 250m breaststroke events over five years. And in 1951, she was also one of the 10 finalists of the popular A.A.U. Sullivan Award for the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.
Taylor then began coaching upon graduating from Purdue. She wanted to share her passion and knowledge for swimming with the next generation and help them improve over time.
“The ’48 Olympics opened a lot of doors for me. When I graduated in ’52, I immediately got married because that is what you did in those days. My husband was in the air force for a couple of years. As soon as he got out, I had two children a few years apart as expected, and then we moved to a town where they had just built a swimming pool. I decided that they should have a team there. I put up a sign asking for people who wanted to be on the team. I had a few kids join and so I started coaching them. That was the beginning of my coaching career in 1955. Those swimmers did quite well, and so people began to realize that I might know what I was talking about,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, Taylor coached a YMCA swim team called FRY (Ferguson-Ritenour YMCA). Her team won the first Women’s YMCA Championship that was held as well as many others along the way. She helped grow the team and coached FRY for 10 years.
Taylor then created and coached a team for the Parkway School District for 23 years. The team had incredible success and grew exponentially.
“At my time there, we won regional championships and had swimmers go to Nationals. I coached one Olympian and several others that made the Trials. They added three more pools. So by the time I finished, we had four pools for our team,” she said.
Taylor shared her experiences about coaching, especially during a time when men were primarily in leadership positions instead of women.
“When I first started coaching, it was not something women did. I would go to national meets, and I would be the only woman on deck. The rest of them were all men. And it’s gradually getting better to where women are getting more head coach positions. But I made my own head coach position,” Taylor said.
She described her team aspirations while coaching the Parkway Swim Club.
“Our goal was always to try to win something. Whether it was to try to win regionals or nationals or go to the Olympics…I coached Tom Jager. He held the world record for 10 years in the 50 free,” Taylor said proudly. “As a coach, importing knowledge to other young people is really more important than all the medals they may have won.”
Following her incredible coaching journey, Taylor then worked as USA National Team Manager and Chef de Mission for 20 years. She had the amazing opportunity of traveling to different countries where the world championships were going to be held.
“I met with the organizing committee, found the hotel, arranged for the transportation for the teams, let each sport know what was going on, found out how many rooms they needed, when they were coming, when they were leaving… I really enjoyed it and did a good job in that position,” Taylor said.
When asked how swimming has inspired her over her lifetime, she replied, “Swimming has been my life. If I look back, everything good that has happened to me, has happened because of swimming. There’s no other way to put it. All the travel I did, all the people I met…traveling with a team, and getting to know the kids. All of that. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
First in-story photo of Taylor, shown second from the right, and U.S. swim teammates after arriving to England (Southampton dock) via boat ahead of the 1948 Olympics. Photo courtesy of K. N. Heinz/U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee Archives
Second in-story photo of Pence and Glenn H. McCarthy holding 1951 Pan American Games medal. Photo courtesy of The Shamrock Photographic Service/U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee Archives.