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Swimming history: Belle de Jour

This is the first part of an article published in full in the May 2018 issue of Outdoor Swimmer.

In 1954, a different kind of swimsuit competition highlighted the talents of women in Atlantic City

If your only exposure to the “Jersey shore” has come via that appalling reality television show by the same name, then you’ve sadly missed out on one of America’s real gems. The Atlantic coast of the small but mighty state of New Jersey in the eastern United States is home to a wealth of delights – primary among them the series of 11 barrier islands that run the length of the state and buffer the mainland from the brunt of the ocean’s strength. One of these islands, Absecon – amword that means “little water” in the Unami language spoken by the Lenape people who originally inhabited the coastal region – is home to one of the most storied, gaudy, kitschy, and downright wonderful examples of Americana anywhere in the country: Atlantic City. 


Once affectionately dubbed the vacation capital of the nation, Atlantic City was built right on the sand at the northern end of Absecon Island. Officially founded in 1854, the city started out as a sort of health resort  for well-to-do Philadelphians. As the city grew, more tourists flocked, and amusements multiplied, ranging from casinos and music shows to vaudeville performances, fortune tellers and carnival rides. By the 1920s, the world-famous Atlantic City boardwalk was the place to see and be seen all summer long. 

Beginning in 1921, the Miss America Pageant drew even more spectators to storied Steel Pier, a stretch of boardwalk that jutted half a mile straight out into the sea and housed myriad entertainments, including that most quirky of highstakes attractions – high-diving horses. The Miss America pageant gained instant fame for including a racy swimsuit competition, in which pretty ladies from around the country flaunted their figures in the latest aquatic fashions. But 33 years after that gala of gals launched, a different kind of swimsuit competition – starring a different type of bathing beauty – would leave a lasting impact on the world of marathon swimming. 

In 1953, Atlantic City’s leadership determined it needed to pull out all the stops to celebrate the municipality’s coming centennial. Before long, the idea of hosting a marathon swim around the island surfaced, no doubt buoyed by the fact that marathon swimming was enjoying a heyday. Naturally, any great marathon swim event needs a test run, and two Atlantic City lifeguards answered the call…


To read this article in full, see the May 2018 issue of Outdoor Swimmer magazine. You can subscribe or order back issues here.