Long-distance, open-water swimmer Florence Chadwick (1918-1995) was the first woman to swim 23 miles across the English Channel in both directions. She was known for her endurance swims in rough water.
The daughter of a San Diego policeman, Florence Chadwick was born in San Diego, California on November 9, 1918. She grew up on the beach and began competing as a swimmer at the age of six, when her uncle entered her in a race. An important win came at age ten after four years of defeat. In a two-and-a-half-mile "rough water" night swim, she finished fourth. When she was eleven, she won first place in a six-mile rough water race across the San Diego Bay Channel in her home town. For the next 19 years, she continued as a competitive swimmer. Chadwick's strengths were in distance and endurance-she never won a short-distance race in a pool. Although she tried out for the 1936 Olympic team, she failed to qualify because all of the events were swims of relatively short distance.
When she was 13, Chadwick came in second at the U.S. national championships. She later swam on her school teams in San Diego, graduating from high school in 1936. Chadwick went on to study at San Diego State College, Southwestern University of Law, and Balboa Law School. During World War II, she produced and directed aquatic shows for the U.S. military and, in 1945, she appeared with swimmer Esther Williams in the movie Bathing Beauty.
Chadwick knew she excelled at endurance swimming, especially in open water. This kind of swimming demands special talents and a perseverance far beyond that expected of shorter-distance athletes. The English Channel was considered the greatest challenge by swimmers in Chadwick's time. (Since then, it has been surpassed by the crossing of the Cook Strait from the South Island of New Zealand to the North Island). As the Encyclopedia of World Sport notes, "Channel swimming is one of sport's most taxing challenges, with very high rates of failure. The fact that less than seven percent [of those] who attempt to swim across the English Channel complete the trip is a testament to the difficulty of the task. Only the very strong succeed."
Long-distance swimming, like marathon running and other endurance sports, requires athletes to keep good form, technique, and concentration for many hours. Most marathon swimmers swim between 60 and 70 strokes a minute. Therefore, a 10-hour swim would require 42,000 strokes, and a 14-hour swim would require 58,000 strokes-an incredible feat. There are also hazards unique to open-water, long-distance ocean swimming, as Pat Besford noted in the Encyclopedia of World Sport: "Long-distance swimming requires courage … to go through a pitch black night, fog, weed, flotsam, occasional oil fuel patches, swarms of jellyfish and maritime traffic." And as Kari Lydersen pointed out in Just Sports for Women, "Open-water swimmers have to constantly change their strategy as the race goes on, evaluating their position, the weather and water conditions while also dealing with obstacles such as stingrays and kelp beds. The result of countless hours of training can be ruined by a navigational error, and competitors usually come out of the water swollen and scarred from jellyfish stings, sunburn and swimsuit chafing."Although the distance across the Channel is only about 23 miles, the actual distance a swimmer will cover can be dramatically increased by currents, tides, wind, and waves.
Chadwick was inspired to make the crossing by the example of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman ever to swim across the Channel. Ederle made the crossing in 1926 and, although people believed that women were incapable of such an endurance feat, she not only completed the swim, but beat the record set by a man, by almost two hours. Chadwick wanted to surpass Ederle and become the first woman to swim the Channel both ways-from France to England as well as from England to France.
Chadwick got a job working for the Arabian-American Oil Company, moved to Saudi Arabia with the company, and began training in the rough waters of the Persian Gulf. Dedicated to her goal, she swam before and after work, and trained for up to ten hours a day on her days off.
In June 1950, Chadwick left her job and went to France to attempt her first Channel crossing. She heard that the London paper, Daily Mail, was holding a contest to sponsor applicants who wanted to swim across the Channel, but since no one at the paper had heard of Chadwick, they rejected her application. Despite this setback, she took a practice swim in the Channel in July, making the attempt at her own expense.
On August 8, 1950, after training for two years, Chadwick set a world record for the crossing, swimming from Cape Gris-Nez, France to Dover, England in 13 hours and 20 minutes. Her time broke the 24-year-old women's record, set by Gertrude Ederle; Ederle's time was 14 hours, 39 minutes, and 24 seconds. "I feel fine," Chadwick reported after finishing the swim. "I am quite prepared to swim back." She didn't swim back right away, but returned to Dover in 1951 and spent eleven weeks there, waiting for good weather and tides. On September 11, 1951, Chadwick finally decided to swim, despite dense fog and strong headwinds. Because of challenging winds and tides, this route across the Channel from Dover, England to Sangatte, France was considered more difficult than the France-to-England route. Previous swimmers had avoided it, and no woman had ever completed it. While swimming, Chadwick had to take anti-seasickness medication, but managed to finish in record time-16 hours and 22 minutes. The mayor of Sangat te waited to congratulate her as she emerged from the water.
When Chadwick returned to the United States, she had spent all her money on financing the Channel swim. Her home town of San Diego gave her a ticker tape parade. She regained some of the money by making television and radio appearances, as well as by providing endorsements and swimming exhibitions. She also traveled across the country lecturing on the value of sports and fitness, and teaching children to swim.
On July 4, 1952, at the age of 34, Chadwick attempted to become the first woman to swim 21 miles across the Catalina Channel, from Catalina Island to Palos Verde on the California coast. The weather that day was not auspicious-the ocean was ice cold, the fog was so thick that she could hardly see the support boats that followed her, and sharks prowled around her. Several times, her support crew used rifles to drive away the sharks. While Americans watched on television, she swam for hours. Her mother and her trainer, who were in one of the support boats, encouraged her to keep going. However, after 15 hours and 55 minutes, with only a half mile to go, she felt that she couldn't go on, and asked to be taken out of the water.
Brian Cavanaugh, in A Fresh Packet of Sower's Seeds, noted that she told a reporter, "Look, I'm not excusing myself, but if I could have seen land I know I could have made it." The fog had made her unable to see her goal, and it had felt to her like she was getting nowhere. Two months later, she tried again. The fog was just as dense, but this time she made it. After 13 hours, 47 minutes, and 55 seconds, she reached the California shore, breaking a 27-year-old record by more than two hours and becoming the first woman every to complete the swim.
On September 4, 1953, Chadwick swam the English Channel from England to France again, setting a new world record for both men and women of 14 hours and 42 minutes. In the same year, she swam the Straits of Gibraltar in 5 hours and 6 minutes-setting a new record for both men and women. She also crossed the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia both ways, and crossed the Turkish Dardanelles-all within a few weeks. On October 12, 1955, Chadwick set another record for crossing the Channel from England to France. This time, she made it in 13 hours and 55 minutes. In 1960, she made her last long-distance swim.
After retiring from swimming, Chadwick worked as a stockbroker in San Diego and continued to coach young people and promote long-distance swimming. She later served as vice president of First Wall Street Corporation. She was the only female member on the San Diego "Hall of Champions" board. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1970, and was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions in 1984. In the same year, she received the Living Legacy Award. Throughout the rest of her life, she worked with youth groups and encouraged young people to pursue their own dreams of excellence. Chadwick died at the age of 76 in San Diego, California, after a lengthy illness.
Chadwick easily broke many records set by men, shattering the notion that women were unfit for long-distance swimming. Today women hold many ultra long-distance records in swimming and other sports. Currently, the only person ever to have swum the English Channel three times consecutively is a woman. Chadwick was one of the pioneers. She helped to change attitudes toward women as endurance swimmers and cleared the way for others to follow.
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