Monday, March 1, 2021

As we know, the Olympic Games Tokoyo 2020 were postponed for the first time in history, for a reason other than war, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Opening Ceremony of Tokoyo 2020 is scheduled for July 23, 2021.

Greenwich laid claim to its own Olympian, Helen Meany Gravis, who gold-medaled in diving almost a century ago, at the Olympic Games Amsterdam 1928. Over the course of two Oral History Project interviews by Esther H. Smith in 1982 and 1983, the journey of Helen Meany Gravis was revealed.

Josephine Meany with Helen
The Meanys lived in a house on Steamboat Road, with its own little beach. Helen’s recollections of Greenwich are more of water than of land. “I learned to swim before I could walk,” she recalls. Across the road was the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, where young Helen also swam. Neither of these provided a true learning environment for the future Olympian, but they would suffice. She remembers winning her first meet when she was thirteen. By then, her father, recognizing her potential, had begun taking her to A.A.U. (Amateur Athletic Union) meets.

William Meany, Helen's father

Helen competed in swimming because she had no place to develop technique in diving, her true interest. She learned, however, by practicing off the dock, on top of a coalhouse, at Commodore Benedict’s home, across the inlet from their beach. Her father, more coaxing than coaching, would encourage her to take the plunge from his place in the waters below. She apparently would dive from anything he could find, high diving platforms being in short supply in the area.

Eventually, her father rigged a platform for her on the side of the yacht club. It was a makeshift float with a ten-foot board from which she could dive. Swimming in those waters was later stopped, being deemed too dangerous. Her practice sessions, as she describes them, were nothing short of perilous, with her climbing up to the board at the top, while below the float wobbled unpredictably as boats passed, coming and going out of the harbor, very near her landing mark.

“I guess if he told me to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge,” she says of her father, “I would have done it.” This is how this future Olympic gold medalist in the women’s three-meter springboard diving competition got her start.

Brothers and Sisters (minus one sister). Helen
is sixth from left.

All the Meany children were swimmers. And there were a lot of them, eleven to be exact, counting Helen, the eldest. Ms. Gravis explains that because her father liked to swim so much, it was natural for the children to become swimmers, too. She remembers “having to pick up the little ones as soon as they could walk or they’d just run right to the water and right up to practically over their heads.” She also remembers that if, in the summer, her siblings missed the boat to Island Beach, they would simply dive off the dock at Indian Harbor and swim to the island.

It was all just fun and games until, at a meet in Rye, New York, Helen Meany saw Alice Lord Landon (who later became an Olympic diver) dive from the ten-meter platform. That is when young Helen knew she wanted to be a platform diver. But the path from her childhood water exploits in Greenwich to the Olympics was not an easy one, since there were few or no diving facilities nearby. She remembers commuting from Greenwich to Manhattan Beach, on the far end of Brooklyn, to practice.

Helen Meany with Martha Norelius,
Amsterdam, 1928
Helen Meany
at Manhattan Beach

Later, as a college student at Wellesley, where there was no swimming pool, she had to decide whether to continue her studies or to make the 1924 Olympic team. After having been eliminated in the 1920 games in the first round, Helen chose to try again and left college before graduating. She placed fifth in the ten-meter platform competition in Paris, 1924, and went on to win the gold in Amsterdam in the three-meter event in 1928.

One wonders how she did it, given the amount of training and coaching that goes into competing in today’s games. “I learned most of my dives from a thirty-four-foot platform, and if you don’t hit the water just right, you can get hurt. . . . So, you just have to try it and try to correct it yourself,” she explains. And here’s the amazing thing: “I didn’t have a diving coach,” she adds.

Now there’s a champion for the record books.

Helen Meany Gravis died at her home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, July 21, 1991, at the age of eighty-six.

Helen Meany Gravis in front of the
former Meany home on Old Church Road,
photographed by Karl Gleeson for the
1982–1983 Oral History Project interview 

This blog, written by OHP volunteer Jean Moore, was derived from the Oral History Project book, “From Greenwich to the Olympics: Helen Meany Gravis.” It is available for purchase at the Greenwich Library Oral History Project office. Visit the OHP web site at

No comments:

Post a Comment