Catching Up With Esther Williams

Diane Sawyer spent a day with an idol, the still kicking Esther Williams.

Nov. 20, 2007 — -- In the 1940s and '50s, Esther Williams was one of the biggest movie stars in the world and a pioneering athlete.

She virtually invented the sport of synchronized swimming, which takes immense stamina, muscle and control. And she was a real inspiration to a lot of little girls who wanted to be daring. "Good Morning America's" Diane Sawyer was one of those little girls.

Sawyer visited Esther Williams recently and found a beautiful 86-year-old living in Beverly Hills, and still swimming.

While watching one of her movies, "Bathing Beauty," a box-office blockbuster in 1944, Williams quipped, "I hear that music and I'm back in the pool."

She revealed the secret to mascara that never ran and hair that stayed perfect.

"It's Vaseline," she said. "They would see me in the morning and they would say, 'Here she comes!' Dipping their hand in wet Vaseline. Whap!"

Olympic Dreams to Silver Screen

When she was a young girl, Williams swam competitively and hoped to go to the Olympics in 1940, but they were canceled because of World War II.

So instead, she brought Olympic nerve to the movies, doing it all -- swimming, singing, even directing scenes herself when one director fell asleep.

"And then I'd go wake him up. I'd say, 'It's all right, sweetheart, we got the shot,'" she said. "And he'd say, 'What'd I miss?' And I said, 'You'll see the movie.'"

But her job could be also dangerous. In the 1952 film "Million Dollar Mermaid," she was wearing a metal crown and cracked her vertebrae when she hit the water. That accident put her in a body cast. In another scene, a clamshell she was in got stuck, trapping her inside.

"I said, 'It's not time for me to go,'" she recalled. "I worked it and I opened that clamshell and I swam out."

And back then, when the movie studios kept actors on a salary and did not share movie profits, she became one of the first stars to earn money from endorsements, for bathing suits, of course.

Back in the Swim

During filming of the 1953 movie "Dangerous When Wet," she and her leading man Fernando Llamas fell in love. He became her third husband.

Llamas asked her to quit making movies and she did, ending an era. She was content to stay at home teaching their children and grandchildren to swim. Llamas died in 1982, and in 1984 Williams reemerged. One of her lifelong dreams had come true -- synchronized swimming was finally an official Olympic event.

She said when that happened it was "like being momma of a sport. And I loved it. I loved to watch them."

She did have one piece of advice for the young swimmers -- smile!

"And I would say, 'You're happy, you're in the pool!'" Williams said.

Williams told Sawyer she recently suffered from a stroke.

"I had a stroke. I opened my eyes and I could see, but I couldn't remember anything from the past," she said.

But she fought back and got better. "Usually you don't survive, but I have," Williams said. "I have had a miracle."

Or as her mother used to say, 'Work as if there's no prayer, pray as if there's no work.'

Though the world may have changed, what Esther Williams taught the little girls who loved her about staying strong and staying beautiful is here forever.

"We're a couple of troopers, aren't we?" she said to Sawyer as the two swam together in Williams' pool. "We both stayed so pretty. Isn't that the best part?"