Diving Deep With Dottie Frazier

And a note on the future of Sports Stories

Hello Sports Stories Readers,

Before we get to this week’s subject, we have a short programming note. In two weeks, we will hit the one year anniversary of this project “going paid” (by which we mean accepting paid subscriptions while remaining completely free). At that point, Sports Stories is going to change . 

Adam and I have been honored and inspired by the support we’ve received from you -- not just the money, but the kind emails and words of appreciation. Sports Stories is the best and purest expression of our friendship and our work together. But the nature of our collaboration has also always been marked by our creative restlessness. 

The plan, roughly, is that we’re going to focus our energy on making physical media that folks can buy and hold in their hands. We will also be turning off paid subscriptions. That means if you are paying us $5 a month, those payments will halt. If you are an annual subscriber, we will be refunding you a prorated amount of your contribution based on when you signed up. 

We’re excited about the future of Sports Stories. We’re excited, because we like new challenges and we like trying new things -- get ready for an amazing transition here -- just like the subject of this week’s newsletter, Dottie Frazier. 

Dottie was born in Long Beach, California in 1922. She still lives there, and in her 99 years, she’s never been afraid of challenging herself or trying something new or doing something that seemed absolutely insane to outsiders. Her career as a swimmer, freediver, and scuba pioneer began early. Her father loved the water, and had her out on his boat from the beginning. She was swimming at just three years old, and diving deep down into the Pacific at six. 

Dottie loved her father, and just like him, she loved the water. She was always in it or near it. Swimming and freediving and spearfishing and sailing. In the beginning, she used homemade masks fashioned by her father. By the 1940s, she was teaching freediving around Long Beach. Then, when scuba diving caught on, she was in the front of the line to get a certification. Instructors initially tried to turn her away. Instead, she stuck around and became the first woman scuba instructor in America. 

In 2019, the writer Rich Archbold wrote a lovely story about Dottie in the Long Beach Press Telegram. He spent a lot of time with her, and did a great job portraying her personality. But what I took away from it was the sheer amount of stuff she did. Here is a representative passage: 

She was the first woman to commercially produce both drysuits and wetsuits under her own line, Penguin Suits. She was the first woman to own a dive shop, where she runs dive classes and sells her wetsuits. She also trained as the first woman hard-hat diver for two years. She was a charter member of the Long Beach Neptunes dive club. She used a spear gun to kill a wild boar which was attacking her on Catalina Island.

In a non-diving first, she was the first Girl Scout in Long Beach.

She also has been a swimsuit model, a competitive billiards player and a water and snow skier.

She knows how to fix auto transmissions and used to ride her Harley-Davidson around the region. She sold her last motorcycle, a Kawasaki, earlier this year after the DMV would no longer renew her motorcycle license. But she still drives a car, and her auto drivers license has been renewed until 2023.

What amazes me most about Dottie Frazier is the way her life seems to have balanced these cinematic achievements with modest pleasures: family, community, domesticity. She has lived in Long Beach for her whole life, and in the same little house for 80 years. She raised four sons. She told Archbold that her father lived to be 99 and that before he died, he told her that she had to reach 100 for him. She’s almost there. 

Related Reading

In addition to the reporting by Rich Archbold (he also did a story on how Dottie survived the 1933 Long Beach earthquake), I enjoyed this YouTube interview she did with Alec Pierce Scuba. 

A few years ago, Dottie published a memoir called Trailblazer: The Extraordinary Life of Diving Pioneer Dottie Frazier

Finally, the website SkinDivingHistory.com has some awesome photos of Dottie over the course of her life. 

Thanks for reading Sports Stories. We’ll see you next week.