It's been nearly 60 years since Aileen Riggin, then a 65-pound 14-year-old, got her first look at the ship that would take her to the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. World War I had ended a year and a half earlier, and the Princess Matoika, a troop transport that had managed to steer clear of German torpedoes, was being loaded with supplies for the American Expeditionary Forces still in Europe. Its passenger list consisted entirely of members of the U.S. Olympic team. "Our hearts sank a little when we saw the old tub," says Aileen, "but we really didn't care. We were all excited to finally be going, and nothing else mattered very much."
Mrs. Howard Soule (nee Aileen Riggin), 73, sits in her Honolulu condominium, fingering old photographs and recalling sepia-tinted memories from a time when life was simpler and anything seemed possible, especially to a teen-age girl. "The morning after we sailed, we went up on deck and were absolutely amazed at what we saw," she says. "The ship had been transformed into one large gymnasium. The decks had been covered with cork to make a track for the runners to practice; there was a boxing ring, trap-shooting equipment for the pistol and rifle teams and a swimming pool. It was just a square wooden box in which a canvas tank was suspended and filled with sea water. It was only a few feet deep and just about long enough for a six-foot man to extend himself. A belt attached to two sides of the tank could be fastened around a swimmer's waist so that he or she could swim in a stationary position."
Because Aileen's events were platform and springboard diving, she found there was little she could do to stay in condition aboard ship except to work out in the tank and do calisthenics. This did not daunt her. After all she'd been through, she felt grateful just to be on the Princess Matoika.
It was only with reluctance that the U.S. Olympic Committee had agreed to allow women on the team for the first time in 1920, and at that, of the 400-member team only 15 were female. "In my day, women didn't compete in any very strenuous sports," Mrs. Soule says. "It was considered harmful to one's health and created an unfeminine picture." But when Aileen and two other youngsters—Helen Wainwright and Helen Meany, who were 14 and 15, respectively—qualified for the swimming and diving team, the USOC declared that while it might bend its principles to let adult females participate, there was no way it would allow children in the Olympics.
The USOC said it would select the highest-scoring adult women to take the youngsters' places. "The two Helens and I were so depressed," Mrs. Soule says. "We felt that we had fairly won and that we should represent our country. We also wanted the wonderful trip to Europe." Finally, after the team manager and several other women appealed to the committee, it very grudgingly allowed the girls to go.
Thirteen days after departing New York, the Princess Matoika sailed up the Schelde River to Antwerp. The U.S. swimmers, anxious to see the stadium where they would be competing, went out to the site early the next morning. "I'd never seen anything like it," says Mrs. Soule. "It was outdoors and had probably been used for rowing races. There was what appeared to be a clubhouse at one end. It was rumored that the pool had been part of the city moat, and I didn't doubt it. The water was black, and the whole setup was most uninviting."
Though it was a cold, windy, overcast day, it was the first chance the swimmers and divers had had to really practice in nearly two weeks. The first girl to dive into the pool let out a bloodcurdling shriek. "The water was the coldest we'd ever encountered," Mrs. Soule says. "The swimmers tried to swim their laps, but some of them became so chilled they had to be helped out of the water. We were completely miserable."
Because the water was so cold and dark, some of the divers became disoriented. When entering the pool after performing a somersault, Aileen wasn't always certain which way was up. "If the sun was shining I could see that it was lighter above," she says, "but when it rained or was overcast, as it was most of the time, I couldn't see which way to go and on several occasions I became frightened when I felt I was lost and running out of air."
When the swimming team wasn't working out, it went sightseeing through the countryside. Belgium a year and a half after the war was a grim and depressing place. "I don't know how we happened to be allowed to walk around the battlefields," Mrs. Soule says. "They hadn't been cleared yet and some parts were just as they had been in 1918, at the time of the armistice. We picked up shells and German helmets and other equipment that was lying around. There were many trenches and pillboxes filled with mud and oil-slicked water, with debris floating on top. I picked up a German boot but dropped it very quickly when I discovered that it still had the remains of a foot inside."
At the opening ceremonies, King Albert of Belgium welcomed athletes from 29 countries to the Games of the VIIth Olympiad. Aileen's first event was platform diving, a competition that included four swan dives—a running and a standing dive were each executed from heights of five and eight meters. Although it seemed a ridiculously simple program, Aileen soon discovered it wasn't all that easy to complete four perfect swan dives. The English and Scandinavian women excelled in the event, and Aileen ended up in fifth place, the best finish for an American.