Hideko Maehata’s family ran a tofu business. She already excelled in breaststroke swimming in elementary school, learned from swimming in the Kinokawa River. Against the customs of the time she was allowed to pursue academics as well as a swimming career. She entered Sugiyama Girls’ School and the school provided full support, building a new pool. In 1931 both her parents died within a period of six months from strokes. After winning “only” the silver medal in Los Angeles, just 1/10th second behind Australian Claire Dennis, she was criticized by the Tokyo mayor, as at the time Tokyo was bidding to host the Olympic Games. Instead of retiring from competition Maehata underwent a strenuous training program leading to a world record of 3:00.4, set in September 1933. In 1936 she eventually won the gold medal in Berlin, beating local favorite and European Champion Martha Genenger, and becoming Japan’s first female Olympic champion. The radio broadcast of her victory is still legendary although it was past midnight local time in Japan. During World War II, her gold medal was destroyed during an air raid. At home, she won the Japan Swimming Championships in the 200 m breaststroke seven consecutive times, from 1930-36.
In 1937 Maehata married a professor of medicine but continued to promote swimming while living in Gifu. She met Martha Genenger 41 years after their competition in Berlin and went swimming with her. Like her parents, Maehata sustained a stroke in 1983 but returned to the pool for rehabilitation. At the age of 80 years Maehata died of acute kidney failure. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1979 and was also highly decorated in Japan, for instance she was awarded the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon. She also was an enthusiastic player of the Japanese game of Mah-jong.