Friday, October 10, 2014

Famous Friday: Owen Porter Churchill, Olympic Gold, Tahitian Islands, and Swim Fins

Owen Porter Churchill is my second cousin, twice removed, through my paternal grandmother Letta Estella Porter's line. The son of a wealthy Los Angeles businessman Owen Humphreys Churchill (1841-1916), his mother Francis (Porter) Churchill gave him a boat because she considered it safer than his interest in flying. Her strategy worked well and after graduating from Stanford University in 1919, Owen began his lifelong love for the sea and sailing.

At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, his 8-meter boat, the Angelita, easily took the gold medal, outsailing the Canadian boat, the Santa Maria, in all four races. (You can find the entire Official Report of the 1932 Olympics here [large pdf but full of all kinds of great information including photos of the crew and the races].


However he was disappointed in his 1936 Olympic bid, so he went to Tahiti and rented an island for two years (!) where he noticed that local swimmers were attaching small tar-stiffened mats to their feet enabling them to move through the water faster.

After returning to the United States he adapted their idea, using rubber. His design was awarded a patent in 1940. Here's some more history of his invention. (And the Smithsonian included Owen Churchill in their exhibit "Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers".)

Photo: Smithsonian Institution

Found moldering away in a Santa Cruz boat yard in 1981, rescued and restored thanks to Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, the Angelita was the official flagship of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. At her helm was the 88-year-old Owen Churchill with the two other surviving members of the crew at his side.

He died in Los Angeles in 1985.

© 2014 Copyright, Christine Manczuk, All Rights Reserved.

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