5-year-old Kathy and 7-year-old Russell “Bubba” Tongay shot to fame in the 1950s as the “Aquatots.” The brother-sister duo performed swimming and diving feats around the world.
Their father, Russell Tongay, had an obsession with forcing his children to become super swimmers and started training them almost from birth. Russell had been a spring swimmer in his youth and had hoped to become a famous swimmer like Johnny Weissmuller. He never made it, though, and as a father, he decided he wanted to see them become what he never could.
As newborns, Kathy and Russell were squirted with water to acclimate them and taught them to swim before they walked. As practice, Kathy and Bubba would be dunked in the shower from just 6-months-old and as they got older, the shower was replaced with a swimming pool.
It was reported that by 10-months-old, Kathy could swim 20 feet and by 17-months-old, the two were swimming a quarter of a mile each day. In 1950, Russell staged a performance in the Mississippi River wherein he followed his two children, then aged two and five, in a boat as they swam up the river. Kathy swam five miles while Bubba swam the entire length of the river.
Following this feat, Russell saw a career opportunity and started to promote his children as an entertainment act called the “Aquatots.” During promotion by Russell, he would brag that his children’s diet consisted only of baby food. When a reporter suggested that the duo looked too thin, Russell replied: “I keep them lean because they swim better.”1 During one performance, he tied Bubba’s hands and feet and forced him to jump off a diving board. The grueling routine put tremendous amounts of strain on Kathy and Bubba’s bodies and as a result, they had abnormally deep chests, hollow bellies and sinewy legs.
In 1951, they traveled to England. However, their so-called act was considered more abusive than entertainment and a storm of protests broke when Russell announced that Kathy and Bubba were going to attempt to swim the 21 miles of the English Channel. The England to France passage had been completed just four times but never by a child. As a result, both the British and French government refused permission for the swim. The decision left Russell furious. A London newspaper had offered $20,000 prize money to whoever could cross it and it was probably this large reward which had lured Russell in.
Following their trip to England, the backlash just led to more publicity back in the United States. The children went on to star in “Skirts Ahoy!” alongside Esther Williams. By all appearances, it appeared as though Kathy and Bubba truly were set for stardom but soon, tragedy would strike.
In May of 1953, 5-year-old Kathy was being forced to complete a one-and-a-half layout dive from a 33 foot diving board at the Macfadden-Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach. She failed the jump and ended up belly flopping into the water from the height of a four-storey building.
Afterwards, she complained that she had hurt her back and that she wanted to go home. Instead, Russell took Kathy to a different swimming pool at the nearby Treasure Isle Resort. The lifeguard here recollected how Kathy was extremely bruised and looked seriously unwell. Nevertheless, Russell fed her some baby food and forced her back into the water. Kathy was heard crying: “Please, daddy, don’t make me swim no more.”2
Shortly afterwards, Kathy threw up, went into convulsions and by nightfall, she was dead.
The autopsy determined she had died of a ruptured intestine, internal bleeding and infection, presumably caused when falling from the diving board. It was noted that she was extremely bruised, perhaps indicating she had been beaten. Later on, Kathy’s mother, Betty, confessed that she had “swatted” Kathy that morning: “It wasn’t much of a whipping, just the kind any parents give when their children don’t mind.” Russell said he hadn’t beaten his daughter and that the bruising was simply from the high dive.
Russell was arrested and charged with second-degree murder while an investigation was pending. The investigation shed some light into the Tongay family background. As it turned out, Kathy and Bubba had another sibling, Rusty, that had drowned in the bath in 1951. He was just 18 months old. There were reports that a head injury had caused him to drown and many locals speculated Russell had hit him across the head when he re-surfaced during a grueling training session. In fact, Betty said that Russell had slapped Rusty on the head while trying to teach him to float. Betty later recanted this story and said Rusty had fallen down the stairs. Nevertheless, no charges were filed following an inquest.3
Russell Tongay was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years. He was stripped of his parental rights and his wife divorced him. He was released in March of 1961 after serving less than six years of his sentence. He was released on good behaviour after apparently being a model prisoner. His first years, however, were more tumultuous: he escaped twice, made two suicide attempts and had numerous altercations with other inmates and prison guards.4 Following his release, Russell married a woman in San Francisco who got an annulment after Russell ran away with her life’s savings. He then moved back to South Florida where he lived his life in obscurity.
Bubba Tongay, the only Tongay child to make it into adulthood, went on to become a member of Miami Beach Patrol. He worked here for 34 years before retirement.