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An aquatic prodigy on Kootenay Lake

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

In 1923, Frances West (also known as Florence), the six-year-old daughter of Edbert West, manager of the Ogilvie elevator in Taber, Alberta, spent the summer in Nelson with her mother Addie.

Frances took her first swimming lesson from J.B.B. Smith at Lakeside Park. She showed promise, to say the least. Within weeks, she swam without help across Kootenay Lake, about three quarters of a mile. The Vancouver Sun of Aug. 27 called her an “aquatic prodigy.”

There was some skepticism as to whether she actually pulled it off, though, so Smith asked her to repeat the performance under the watchful eye of Nelson police chief Thomas Long with a boat and trailing rope following behind.

Not only did Florence successfully cross the lake, she arrived on the other side “so fresh that she suggested she swim back again.”

The Calgary Herald also ran a story on Sept. 7 with Florence’s picture, seen below.

While the Calgary and Vancouver papers thought this was a big deal, I couldn’t find any coverage of it in the Nelson Daily News, although one of the key issues is missing. The one story I did find, dated Aug. 25, was about the Women’s Institute condemning such stunts. A resolution introduced by Annie Garland Foster called for children under 10 to be barred from competitive swimming.

It had no effect. The Labour Day swimming contests went ahead with kids under ten, and Florence/Frances was again a star. According to the Daily News of Sept. 4:

Six-year-old girl swimmer captures first prize in three contests
One of the finest days the children of Nelson have yet had … was staged at Lakeside park all day yesterday, when an extensive program of interesting water sports was run off.
The events produced both keen competition and some remarkable swimming. Little six-year-old Frances West, who recently provided a surprise by swimming across Kootenay lake several times, loomed large in the swimming races yesterday, capturing no less than three first prizes.

In the competition limited to first year swimmers, Frances won the girls six-and-under 25 yards and the girls eight-and-under 25 yards, and in the open event, she again won the girls eight-and-under 25 yards. In the swimming-across-the-lake competition, Frances won the girls eight-and-under category in 14 minutes.

There were several categories for swimming across the lake, including girls 10 and under, won by Helen McGregor in 12:30, boys and girls 16 and under, girls 14 and under, boys and girls 12 and under, and men and women. The top time belonged to Robert St. Denis, in the boys 16 and under, who finished in nine minutes.

Did her early aptitude for swimming foretell an Olympic career for Frances? It did not.

On Sept. 18, 1937, she married Robert Thayer Berg at Mount Vernon, Wash. At the time, both were living at Wenatchee and Frances was a social worker. I don’t know much about the rest of her life, except that she died on March 29, 2000, age 83, at either Deschutes, Oregon or Oviedo, Florida, depending on conflicting sources.

She seems to have been married several times. As of 1950, she was Frances Berg. As of 1956, Frances Konnis. As of 1976, back to Frances Berg. As of 1990, Frances Hanson. When she died, she was Frances Theamtad. Her husband’s name was Fred. I don’t know if she had any children.

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