Swimming Pretty

The Untold Story of Women in Water

From vaudeville to the Olympic arena, a groundbreaking history of how women found synchronicity―and power―in water.

“If you’re not strong enough to swim fast, you’re probably not strong enough to swim ‘pretty,’” said a young Esther Williams to theater impresario Billy Rose. Since the nineteenth century, tensions between beauty and strength, aesthetics and athleticism have both impeded and propelled the careers of female swimmers—none more so than synchronized swimmers, for whom Williams is often considered godmother. In this revelatory history, Vicki Valosik traces a century of aquatic performance, from vaudeville to the Olympic arena, and brings to life the colorful cast of characters whose “pretty swimming” not only laid the groundwork for an altogether new sport but forever changed women’s relationships with water. Williams, who became a Hollywood sensation for her splashy “aquamusicals,” was just one in a long, bedazzled line of swimmers who began their careers as athletes but found greater opportunity, and often social acceptance, in the world of show business. Early starlets like Lurline the Water Queen performed “scientific” swimming, a set of moves previously only practiced by men—including Benjamin Franklin—that focused on form and exhibited mastery in the water. Demonstrating their fancy feats in aquariums and water tanks rolled onto music hall stages, these women stunned Victorian audiences with their physical dexterity and defied society’s rigid expectations of what was proper and possible for their sex. Far more than bathing beauties, they ushered in sensible swimwear and influenced lifesaving and physical education programs, helping to drop national drowning rates and paving the way for new generations of female athletes. When a Chicago physical educator matched their aquatic movements to music in the 1920s, young girls flocked to take part in “synchronized swimming.” But despite overwhelming love from audiences, and the Olympic ambitions of its practitioners, “synchro” was long perceived as little more than entertaining pageantry and its athletes would face a battle against the current to earn a spot at the highest echelons of sport. Now, on the fortieth anniversary of synchronized swimming’s elevation to Olympic status, Swimming Pretty honors its incredible history of grit, glamour, and sheer athleticism.

Forthcoming from W.W. Norton, in June 2024.
Available now for pre-order  wherever you buy books!

"An incisive marriage of sports and cultural history, this is well worth diving into." Publisher's Weekly

What reviewers have to say:

"An incisive marriage of sports and cultural history, this is well worth diving into."

Publisher's Weekly
Read full review here.

"An amazing story about the evolution of swimming, how synchronized swimming became a kaleidoscope of political and social change, and how artistic swimming became recognized as an incredibly athletic, beautiful, and world-renowned sport. I loved this fascinating book."

Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer

“I have long been a fan of movie star synchronized swimmer Esther Williams but never knew she was just one of many pathbreaking pretty swimmers who date as far back as the 19th century.... Chock full of history and personal stories, this is a fascinating, eye-opening book.”

—Ann Hood, author of Fly Girl

Swimming Pretty is a fascinating exploration of the history and enduring appeal of synchronised swimming, from trailblazing Victorian Water Queens to Submarine Girls, Aqua Follies and modern-day Olympic champions, all showed skill, bravery, power and poise."

—Caitlin Davies, author of Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames

“With firsthand knowledge, diligent research, and colorful prose, Valosik provides an engaging, energetic history."

— Kirkus Starred Review
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Swimming Pretty is so much more than a history of a sport—it’s also an engrossing account of how society has controlled and contained women's bodies and ambitions throughout history. In deft prose filled with bizarre, often startling details, Valosik reveals the trailblazing athletes and entertainers who, in soggy corsets and petticoats, encouraged generations of women to find empowerment in the water.” 

— M.G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie

“Swimming Pretty plunges into the colorful, entertaining, inspiring and sometimes enraging history of strong women who fought for athletic joy and the right to compete—cloaking their power in traditional femininity to do so. It will leave you breathless (and googling synchro videos).” 

—Danielle Dreilinger, author of The Secret History of Home Economics

"A virtually unknown story very well told and full of life."

Rosalind Milesaward-winning author of 24 books, including history, criticism and social commentary