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 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 considered godmother. In this deeply researched history, Vicki Valosik traces a century of aquatic performance for the first time, from Victorian variety theater and carnival shows to the 1984 elevation of synchronized swimming to Olympic status. Writing in eloquent prose, Valosik shows how early starlets like Lurline the Water Queen and Annette Kellerman boldly challenged restrictive codes set for women in water; more than just bathing beauties, they influenced lifesaving and physical-education programs, dropped national drowning rates, and paved the way for new generations of female swimming athletes. Brimming with reverence and mesmerizing detail, Swimming Pretty finally foregrounds an essential American sport.


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

What reviewers have to say:

"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 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