WASHINGTON — Ann Curtis was widely regarded as one of the greatest female athletes of the 1940s. A swimming phenomenon, she won 34 national Amateur Athletic Union championships, more than any woman before. She lost a chance to compete on the international stage when the 1944 Olympics were canceled because of World War II, but she came back to win two gold medals at the 1948 London Games.
Ms. Curtis, 86, died June 26 at her home in San Rafael, Calif., of complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said her daughter Carrie Cuneo.
Ms. Curtis’s Olympic victory was the culmination of a historic run in women’s sports. In 1944, she became the first woman and the first swimmer to receive the James E. Sullivan Memorial Trophy, an award given to the outstanding US amateur athlete. The same year, the Associated Press named Ms. Curtis, a San Francisco native, woman athlete of the year.
At the time, swimming starlet Esther Williams had recently appeared in her first aqua role in the musical ‘‘Bathing Beauty’’ (1944). Ms. Curtis reportedly turned down movie offers to pursue her sport, but she continued to capture national affection with her radiant smile as she ascended from the pool wearing the demure swimsuit of the era.
When the 1948 Olympics opened in London, the world had gone a dozen years without the sporting event. The Gamesgave Ms. Curtis a long-awaited chance to swim against the world’s top athletes.
As the US teams headed to London, Ms. Curtis was featured on the cover of Newsweek. In the 100-meter freestyle, she slipped as she dove into the pool and fell two-tenths of a second short of first place.
Years later, she told the San Francisco Chronicle that she felt as if she ‘‘had let down the world.’’
But she won a gold medal for her Olympic record-breaking performance in the 400 freestyle, and a second gold by carrying the US team to victory in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.
Ann Elizabeth Curtis was born March 6, 1926. Her first swimming instructors were the Ursuline nuns at the convent boarding school she attended as a girl in California.
She was practicing at a community pool in San Francisco when she caught the attention of an onlooker who recommended her to Charlie Sava, coach at the Crystal Plunge swim school in San Francisco.
Sava, who, like Ms. Curtis, is in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, trained her with a grueling regimen.
Under his supervision, she swam with her feet bound together and while pulling weights.
Sava began entering her in championships in 1943 and announced that ‘‘the world has never seen a girl swimmer’’ like Ms. Curtis.
Gordon Cuneo died in 2010 after 60 years of marriage. Ms. Curtis leaves four children.