Meet the first black athlete to win a swimming medal in the Olympics; Enith Brigitha

Enith Brigitha was born on the West Indian Island of Curacao. She first learned how to swim in the Caribbean Sea and by the time her mother and brother moved to Holland in 1970, she had become the island’s most promising swimmer.

In just 2 years of living in Holland, she met Swimming Coach Willie Storm at the Club Het Y in Amsterdam, and she got qualified for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games where she reached the final in the four events she participated in.

This was just a stepping stone in her career. At the 1973 inaugural FINA World Championships in Belgrade, she won a silver medal in the 200-meter backstroke and a bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle. The following year, at the European Championships she won five medals, including four individual medals for the 100 and 200-meter freestyle and backstroke events.

In 1975 & 1976, at the II FINA World Championships in Cali, Columbia, and Olympic Games in Montreal, she added three bronze medals to her collection, including individual pieces of hardware in the 100 and 200-meter freestyle she earned individual bronze medals in both the 100 and 200-meter freestyle, respectively.

Enith was a profound superstar during her time dominating the women swimmers. She set five short course world records and collected 21 Dutch titles in the freestyle, backstroke, medley and butterfly events. She won the Dutch 100 meter freestyle title seven years in a row, was twice named Dutch Sportswoman of the Year, and has the distinction of being the first person of African descent to win the Olympic medals in swimming.

Her only competitor then was the dazzling success of the East Germans. Out of the 11 individual medals Enith won at the Olympic Games, World and European Championships, only East German swimmers finished ahead of her in 10 of those events, the one exception being America’s Shirley Babashoff, in the 200-meter freestyle at Munich.

She also would be recognized today as the first black Olympic champion in swimming history, beating Anthony Nesty of Suriname to the top of the podium by 12 years.

After she retired from the sport of swimming, Enith married and had three daughters. She moved back to Curacao, where she opened her swimming school and taught children to swim. Once her daughters were ready to go to University, the family moved back to Holland, where they remain today. Enith says, “With the girls in Holland and with our three grandchildren, it’s not so easy to leave Holland again.”

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