I remember the first time I was beaten in a race by a woman. At that moment, the realities of our new world dawned on me. “Male superiority” was down the tubes, and there it would stay.
Over the years, good fortune has allowed me to meet some remarkable female swimmers. Let me tell you about a few of them.
No one is better than Lynne Cox in cold water. She has written a couple of very entertaining books on the subject. At 14 she swam from Catalina Island to Long Beach, then the English Channel. In August 1987 Lynne was the first person to swim from Alaska to Russia in the Bering Strait’s Diomede Islands. She did it the hard way, against prevailing currents in water near the freezing point, no wetsuit. In 1975 she became the first woman to swim across the Cook Strait between New Zealand’s north and south islands. Probably her most remarkable swim was in Antarctica, 1.2 miles in 28° F water. Good enough for the International Swimming Hall of Fame. “Life is one time. You’ve got to do what you’re meant to do while you’re able.”
Kevin Murphy was crowned “King of the English Channel” some time ago. That was before the advent of a woman who would earn the title of “Monarch of the English Channel.” Alison Streeter, MBE, gained that title by completing 43 crossings of that marathon-distance, turbulent, cold body of water. But what got her into the International Swimming Hall of Fame was a triple crossing, England to France, back to England, then back to France. Alison was in the water for 39 hours, swimming day and night, non-stop, a most remarkable achievement. But no record lasts forever. Sarah Thomas from Colorado, a 37-year-old breast cancer survivor, did a quadruple crossing, lasting 54 continuous hours in the Channel. After her swim she was quoted as saying that it was the “most miserable 54 hours of her life.”
Diana Nyad is almost a household name. In addition to being a supremely versatile swimmer, she has had a successful media career. For years she hosted a travel show on the NPR radio network. In 1979 she interviewed me and other finishers of the very new IRONMAN TRIATHLON as a reporter for the ABC Wide World of Sports. (“The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat!”) Her swimming specialty was very long, technical and difficult swims. 1974 was the year she set a record swimming across the Bay of Naples. In 1975 she swam around the Island of Manhattan, a technical and demanding swim that requires close attention to the changing tidal currents. But on three occasions she was frustrated in her attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida. Then in September of 2013 at the age of 64 she gave it another try, and this time she made it. And she did it without a shark cage. Hear her quote: “Endurance is not a young person’s game. (You can be) better at 60 than at 30. You have a body that is almost as strong, but a much stronger mind.” Good advice for us old codgers.
You have probably never heard of Nuala (pronounced “Noola”) Moore. The best way to describe her is to say that she is a witty, intelligent, explosive force of nature. I met Nuala in her home town of Dingle in the west of Ireland. Six of us American swimmers were touring Ireland, swimming wherever we found water, and there is a lot of it in and around Ireland. We had been invited to swim in the Irish National Championships in the River (Ugh!) Liffey, which runs through the middle of the City of Dublin. The race start was just below the Guinness Brewery. After the swim we politely and politically did our part by consuming a wee bit of Guinness. Then we went on a swimming safari around Ireland. Nuala invited us to come to Dingle for a couple of swims. Among them was a first ever swim from the Maharees Islands to the mainland. Nuala is a great hostess and a unique swimmer. In 1992 she joined a relay of Irish swimmers to swim completely around Ireland. That feat was much harder than it would first appear, because if you look at a map of Ireland, the coast is extremely irregular with many ins and outs, well over 1,000 miles. They used English Channel rules, i.e., no wetsuits. It was a first, never to be repeated. How could she top that? She did. In 2010 Nuala joined a group of crazy cold water Siberian swimmers for a relay from the Russian mainland to Alaska. (I estimate the distance to be about 80 miles.) No wetsuits. Water temperatures in the range of 40°-45° F. Comparing that with the four-kilometer swims between the Diomedes …. There is no comparison.
Fifty-seven-year-old Kristine Buckley is the only female to have completed 1,000 swims from Alcatraz. (Two men have also done it, Gary Emich and Stevie Hurwitz. All three are members of the prestigious South End Club in San Francisco. The South End Club has produced more Channel swimmers than any other club in the world.) Kristine took up swimming to rehab for a broken hip. Once she found the water she was hooked for life. She is one of a very small number of swimmers who have swum the north-south length of frigid Lake Tahoe, California. She does all of her swims without a wetsuit.
Kristine has a long list of swimming achievements, including this one: During her solo swim across the English Channel the weather turned really bad, with four-foot waves and raging force 5 winds. It was more like mountain climbing than swimming. She was halfway across and her chances were slim. Her pilot advised her to abort. She refused and kept plugging away, climbing over the waves until at length she reached the shore of France. Her ordeal took her seventeen hours of extremely difficult swimming. For her performance she was named Inspirational Swimmer of the year by the Channel Swimming Association. The newspapers reported that she was the only finisher that day.
[Note: The weather was so rough that day that a Swiss swimmer was lost at sea, his remains turning up in France a week later.]