In the town where I grew up, the library was just about the midpoint between the public pool and our house. On summer breaks, I’d start my mornings early with swim practice. Exhausted and sore, my sisters and I would stop at the library on the way home and load up on VHS tapes, mostly old black-and-white or Technicolor classics. In my memory, this is where I first came across Esther Williams, who died Thursday at the age of 91. My sister tells me, though, that Williams just felt familiar because Miss Piggy had parodied her in The Great Muppet Caper—maybe her most lasting cultural legacy, via osmosis, for people of a certain age. But whenever it was first I saw her on screen, I would never have connected such marvelous, ballet-like grace with the punishing sport that left my skin constantly smelling like chlorine and my hair bleached and straw-like, the one where my coach taped up inspirational posters with slogans like “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
And yet before she was discovered by Hollywood and became an icon of the superhuman ability to keep lipstick unsmeared underwater, Williams was a top-notch competitive swimmer. She was a national champion as a teen, thwarted in her dreams of the 1940 Olympics by the WWII cancellation of the games. As her Times obituary notes, she competed in the butterfly—a stroke so demanding of your upper body that swimming it feels like it’s reshaping your shoulders for life—at a time when it was a mostly male dominion. Her first starring role was in 1942’s “Andy Hardy’s Double Life”; her last was 1961’s “The Big Show.”
According to her own estimation, Williams swam 1,250 miles for the camera. Like all good swimmers, she made it look easy to the spectator. One of the singular sensations of swimming is that, no matter how red-faced or short of breath you might be, it never feels as if you’re sweating. I was reminded of that watching YouTube clips of Williams swimming, mermaid-like, in the special pool the studio built for her, the one in which she ruptured her eardrums seven times from the pressure of staying underwater so long. Ballerinas, famously smelly and sweaty up close, don’t have an exclusive purchase on making hard work look exquisitely undifficult and even joyful.
Before she became an icon of the superhuman ability to keep lipstick unsmeared underwater, Williams was a top-notch competitive swimmer.
The obvious pleasure Williams took in her own athletic abilities is part of what made her so attractive to moviegoers. She was, perhaps, the first of a breed we’ve become increasingly familiar with in recent years: the glamour-athlete. Skier Lindsay Vonn is blond and Amazonian and dates Tiger Woods. Anna Kournikova might be better known for her billboards than her serve. The Williams sisters’ inventive on-court fashions are endlessly discussed. Maybe some of the attention paid to these women has something to do with an oddly lingering cultural expectation that serious athletes, whatever their sexuality, will be butch or disinterested in prettying themselves up. But I suspect more of it has to do with the vibe they give off, that of utter comfort in their own physicality. It is what lent Williams her sheen of elegance. It is not the lipstick and cute swimsuits that are what strike me about photographs of Williams, though they are what made her a fashion icon. Nor is it even the smile or the inverted triangle swimmer’s torso. It is, rather, a confidence in her presence in the world—or the water—that is at once both relatable and at an Olympian distance above us, the most compelling kind of glamour.
A decade since I last swam competitively, I recently bought a pack of passes to the local pool. My form is sloppy and I am out of shape. But when I slide underwater and streamline off the wall, I get to feel as elegant and joyful as Esther Williams always looked, for just a moment.
Noreen Malone is a Staff Writer at The New Republic. Follow @NoreenMalone.