Martha Norelius (USA)
Honor Swimmer (1967)
FOR THE RECORD: OLYMPIC GAMES: 1924 gold (400m freestyle); 1928 gold (400m freestyle; 4x100m freestyle relay); WORLD RECORDS: 29 in summer of 1927.
Martha Norelius was our first woman swimmer to win gold medals in two different Olympics, 1924 when she was 15, and 1928. During one summer, 1927, the same year Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Martha Norelius set 29 world swimming records, 13 more than Johnny Weissmuller set that summer. Her swimming career did not span the Atlantic, as did Lindbergh, but that’s about all it didn’t span in winning freestyle races from 50s to marathons.
Swedish born, U.S. raised, Martha’s coaches were her father, who swam for Sweden in the 1906 Olympic Games, and Hall of Famer L. deB. Handley, who coached the U.S. 1924 Olympic team on which Martha, his brightest star, beat hall of Famer Gertrude Ederle and won the 400 meter freestyle, a title she won again in the 1928 Games.
Martha Norelius took on all comers in a great career from 1922 to 1929, turned pro after the AAU suspended her for giving a Miami exhibition in the same pool with professionals. As a pro, she won the $10,000 ten-mile Wrigley Marathon in Toronto, where she met and married Canada’s best rower, Joe Wright, also an Olympic champion.
Martha was considered the first woman to swim with and like the men. She used Johnny Weissmuller’s high head position, arched back and a heavy 6-beat kick, hydroplaning over the water. Her father trained her to see how few strokes she could swim a length of the pool in–39 or 40 strokes a minute, then speed it up for competition. She stayed with her competition for 3/4 of a race, then went by. In the marathons, she used the same high elbow, long glide arm stroke but almost no kick. Norelius was the world’s fastest woman swimmer for 8 years and at any distance. She got more publicity than any girl swimmer before or since, perhaps because she trained in her father’s pools at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs and the Breakers in Palm Beach, where she was the darling of the social set.
Martha Norelius always wore a cap, thought she couldn’t swim without it, was left putting it on as the gun went off for a national 500, but won anyway. “She knew she had plenty of time,” says her 87-year-old father, who quit coaching in 1966 when he broke his hip falling from a handstand. Charles Norelius coached a record 63 years, retired 12 years after his famous daughter died in 1955. Norelius and his beautiful 82 year old wife come to the Swimming Hall of Fame to receive daughter Martha’s honoree award off an extended northern automobile trip in their Packard Clipper–now well into its second 100,000 miles.