Learning To Swim
Williams was born in a tiny house in southwestern Los Angeles, California, on August 8, 1922. She was the youngest of Louis Stanton Williams and Bula Myrtle Gilpin Williams's five children, and the only one of the bunch to have been born in California. The family had moved there after their oldest child, Stanton, became an actor at the age of six. The boy used to sneak into the theater in Salt Lake City, where the family lived, to watch rehearsals, and one day Broadway actress Marjorie Rambeau spotted him and recruited him. When Stanton died suddenly at the age of sixteen, the family was devastated, especially the eight-year-old Williams, who had been particularly close to him. In her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams recalls deciding
at this time that she had to take Stanton's place as the family's hopes for being successful in those difficult Depression years.
It was only a few months later that Williams learned to swim. When her mother found out that the city was planning to build a park near their home, she convinced them to add a pool to the design. Her mother volunteered Williams to inaugurate the pool, even though Williams didn't know how to swim at the time. Williams's older sister Maureen took her to the beach and taught her. Even though Williams just barely completed her thirty-yard swim across the pool, she was greeted by cheers from the crowd that had come for the inauguration. Williams, already in love with the water and the accolades, was now hooked on swimming. She took a job at the pool so she could afford to swim there, and over her lunch breaks, the lifeguards taught her how to swim fast and well, with proper racing strokes, including men-only strokes like the butterfly.
In 1937, Williams was recruited to swim for the Los Angeles Athletic Club. This was a breeding ground for champions, and swimming on their teams was an honor for a young athlete. With the LAAC, Williams won two medals, in the 100 meter freestyle and the 400 meter relay, on her first day of competition at the 1939 national championships. On the second day, she was the first swimmer on the LAAC's 300 meter medley relay team. Most girls swam the breast stroke as their opening, but swimming the much more challenging butterfly was also allowed: so few people could do the stroke at that time that it was not worthwhile to make it a separate event. Williams beat the national record for that lap by an unheard of nine seconds.
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