A Short History of Black Swimming: The 70’s: Enith Brigitha

By Christian Berger
Updated: May 5, 2011

Enith Brigitha

Enith Brigitha

MONTREAL, CANADA — No doubt the best Black swimmer of the 70’s was Enith Brigitha of Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. She was the first Black female swimmer.

And she was the first Black female swimmer to win two Olympic medals (in 1976), both bronze, one for the 100m and one for the 200m freestyle.

In 1970, she was swimming 1:05.0 for the 100-meter free, already a good regional time. In 1971, she moved to Holland, made the national team, and finished the year with 1:00.5, about the 10th best female time that year. So, even then, she was world-class.

Her breakout year was 1972. She qualified for the Olympic Games, won a medal on the relay, and was an individual Olympic finalist. That year, her freestyle times were 59.37, 2:09.8, and 4:40.0 for the 100m, 200m, and 400m, respectively. During that same year, she found out that she was also competitive in the backstroke (1:06.5 for 100m and 2:23.7 for 200m), a stroke she had tried out on a whim.

In 1973, she won the bronze at the inaugural world championships. This was also the year that East Germany really advanced, possibly eclipsing her achievements. In 1974, she improved to 57.68 for the 100m free, 2:03.73 for the 200m free, 1:05.0 for the 100m back, 2:20.27 for the 200m back, and 2:26.52 for the individual medley (im), all world-class times. In 1975, she improved, yet again, with 57.53 for the 100m and 2:03.34 for the 200m free, a remarkable 4:19.40 for the 400m free, and 1:06.5 for the 100m back. Again, she placed well at the Second World Championships.

1976 was the Olympic year, the year in which she won her individual medals. Although she may have been over-extending herself, she had times of 27.72 for the 50m, 56.61 for the 100m (Olympic bronze), 2:01.25 for the 200m (Olympic bronze), and 4:21.93 for the 400m free; 2:24.97 individual medley (im); and 1:04.98 for the 100m back. In addition, she had world-best short-course (50m pool) times of 2:00.98, then 1:58.83 for the 200m free. In those days, short-course times were called world-best. Today, they are simply called world-records.

Still swimming in 1977, she was recording times of 56.7 (100m), 2:03.22 (200m), 4:15.06 (400m), and 8:55.4 (800m), all for the freestyle; 1:04.85 (100m back), 1:02.96 (100m fly), and 2:25 (200m fly). She set two more ‘SC (short course) world-best’ times: 55.30 (100m free) and 1:57.86 (200m free). Her final swimming year was 1978, in which she recorded 1:04.32 (100m back), 2:26.77(200m back), 57.67 (100m free), and 2:02.57 (200m free).

A little tidbit. In 1978 Enith had a conflict with her swim federation.

Apparently, there was a dispute about her swimsuit. Since she preferred wearing a suit not officially worn by the team, she ended up getting in Dutch with the Dutch federation.

Enith was a woman of many sides. Outside the pool she was a talented dancer. And in the pool, she seemed to be good in all strokes and all distances. What a career!