Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Isabel Letham

In 1915 the Los Angeles Record described Isabel Letham as 'a Sydney Sea Gull' and the world's greatest stunt swimmer who 'became proficient at aqua-planing while dodging sharks in Sydney harbor'. Isabel Letham achieved this international profile after being chosen by Duke Kahanamoku from the crowd watching him at Manly Beach, trying the new Hawaiian-style board surfing.

Beautiful and feisty, a career in Hollywood beckoned and Isabel’s father supported her unsuccessful attempts to get into the movies. She moved to San Francisco and in 1923 friends persuaded the University of California at Berkley to appoint her as their assistant swimming teacher. Her reputation for innovative scientific methods and success with social and competitive swimmers led to her appointment as Director of Swimming for the City of San Francisco. She started a club system as used in Australia and, in 1926, organised the first women’s swimming competition, in San Francisco, an invitational event attended by local and national champions. The press at the time said that she was 'instrumental in starting several of the present day champs on their careers'.
Isabel was also keen to teach Australian lifesaving methods in California, but her application to join Manly surf lifesaving club was refused, prompting the local headline: 'Sex ban on girl life-saver, so Australia loses advertisement'. The San Francisco Daily News reported that 'Although she has saved many lives she is not eligible for membership in a surf live-saving club on account of her sex. In refusing Miss Letham the privileges of membership … the Manly Surf Club … is losing an excellent opportunity of broadcasting Australian life-saving methods'.
Isabel Letham returned permanently to Sydney in 1929 and taught many people on the northern beaches to swim. She influenced even more with her articles in the Manly Daily and through the Freshwater Water Ballet School, which she founded in the 1940s to bring American techniques in synchronized swimming to Australia.

When she died in 1995, Isabel Letham’s request that her ashes be scattered beyond the surf-break was honoured by friends gathered on their surf boards to remember her sporting prowess, her management skill and her international influence. via photos various sources

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