Olympic Diving Champion
Shakespeare said, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Elizabeth “Betty” Becker was fearless, and as a result, achieved greatness. Despite being born in a post-Victorian age that hadn’t even granted women the right to vote, Betty knew what she wanted, went after it, and didn’t allow convention to stop her. She was a woman perfect for her time, because she was a woman ahead of her time.
The Olympic diving champion, who won gold (springboard) and silver (platform) in the 1924 Olympics and gold (platform) in the 1928 Olympics, was born Mar 6, 1903, in Philadelphia. At the tender age of three Betty already recognized that her impoverished family couldn’t provide her with what she wanted, so she took matters into her own hands, packed her suitcase, and forged out on her own. She was found and returned to her parents by a woman who owned a boarding house nearby, and the heartbreaking decision was made to allow her to live with the woman at the boarding house, where she remained until the age of fifteen.
Betty took up swimming on doctor’s advice at age eight after a severe case of diphtheria left her with nerve damage. By age twelve she was earning seconds and thirds in national swimming events, but her desire to dive was intensifying. At age fourteen (1917) she took bronze in the Middle Atlantic Association AAU platform diving event; at fifteen she won the title and was hooked forever.
Betty always fearlessly pursued her goals. After her successes on platform, she wanted to perfect her springboard diving. Since there was no 3-meter board for practice in Philadelphia, fifteen-year-old Betty left her family and foster mother behind and moved to Atlantic City, where she joined the Ambassador Swim Club, enabling her to work on her diving skills daily.
She was the AAU platform diving champion for five years (1918–1922), and in 1922 won her first national 3-meter springboard diving championship and added the 1 meter in 1924. She narrowly missed qualifying for the 1920 Olympics. In 1924 she traveled to Pasadena, California, to defend her national 3-meter title. She lost the gold, but there was a silver lining—she met her future husband, Clarence Pinkston, the 1920 Olympic 10-meter diving champion.
Betty was determined to make the 1924 Olympic team now for two reasons: her passion for diving and competing, and the chance to be with Clarence in Paris. The lovebirds hoped to tie the knot while in Paris (with teammate Johnny Weissmuller acting as best man) but were unable to work out the arrangements. So, instead of a wedding, they contented themselves with Clarence’s two bronze medals and Betty’s gold and silver medals instead.
After the Olympics, Clarence returned to Los Angeles, and Betty to Atlantic City. A determined Betty Becker made her way cross-country to join Clarence by doing diving exhibitions. She eventually arrived in California, and the couple were married December 23, 1924.
In April of 1926, Betty Becker Pinkston, now coached by Clarence, traveled to Tampa, Florida, where she won the 3-meter national diving championship. She just happened to be five months pregnant at the time—with twins. And on August 11, 1928, the twins’ second birthday, Betty won her second Olympic gold medal, on the 10-meter platform this time, having missed it by 1/8 of a point in 1924. Betty’s daughter claims, “Whatever Mother did, she doubled: moms, twins, and gold.”
As her children got older, Betty itched for an active return to the pool. She taught swimming at the Detroit Golf Club, creating intramural races for the children of the members. She and Clarence subsequently organized competitions with neighboring clubs, the top prize being the coveted “Pinkston Trophy”. These competitions led to the formation of the Michigan Inter-club Swimming Association. The MICSA is the oldest swim association in the United States and the prototype for similar associations across Michigan and the country.
Betty believed strongly in the therapeutic effects of water on the human body, that people, regardless of age, can and should swim, and advocated those beliefs throughout her life. She taught and affected the lives of hundreds, retiring only at an advanced age when halted by blindness.
Betty Becker Pinkston has been inducted into the Helms Hall of Fame, The Pennsylvania Swimming Hall of Fame, and the International Swimming Hall of Fame, where she and Clarence were the first married couple to receive that distinction. She passed away April 6, 1989, in Detroit, Michigan.
She is, indisputably, one of the great ones.