Some of the greatest advice I’ve ever been given came with an Ikea bookshelf. You don’t have to follow the instructions, just make sure you’ve read them. After decades of diving straight into things, I’m proud to report: I’m learning. The first thought in planning this swim was, “I’ll just do what everyone else did,” working under the assumption that Of Course other people had completed this swim, after all it’s only a 12 mile crossing at minimum. As Christmas 2012 approached, my research had turned up only six successful crossings and over eighty-five failed attempts. What was more shocking is that only three of those attempts took place after the Strait-swimming heyday of the 1950’s. It was clear that I would not simply be hiring the same captain as the last guy.
A quick disclaimer: There is no guarantee that what I list here is comprehensive, but everything that follows, unless stated otherwise, is as found in primary source newspapers from back in the day. Citations are proudly available upon request. If there is something you know that shakes up this timeline, I want to correct it. Let me know.
The first recorded attempts on the Strait took place by three unnamed men in October 1933. And then no one followed. Not until August 1954, did Florence Chadwick show up to give it a go, and start the race to be first across. It would be almost a full year and sixteen other attempts before the first person was successful, Bert Thomas of Tacoma, WA on 8 July 1955 in eleven hours twenty-two minutes on his second attempt in two weeks.
Throughout the 1950s, the route was declared as either Victoria, BC to Port Angeles, WA, or reverse, a distance of 18.3 miles. The route was not set by the swimmers themselves. The route was also not set by amateur oceanographers using the straight-line ruler on Google Earth, with tide forecasts, Excel spreadsheets, and CAD drawings spread out across a Starbucks table. No, these routes were set by the local papers who were giving out cash prizes to the first swimmer to reach the other side, or to the closest, or to the four closest, or to anyone at all who could draw readers and sell papers. Douglas Rivette told the Montreal Gazette before his 1955 attempt, “I thought I might as well turn the hobby to a cash basis if I’m lucky.” For her swim, Marilyn Bell was given $20k by the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce just for showing up, plus a $10k (1950s dollars!) bonus if she made it. Right? I, too, want to live in that world.
Another interesting thing about Douglas Rivette: he was a “deaf-mute linotype operator” who started swimming as therapy for the polio he had at age two. Yeah. Every one of the swimmers I’ve read about in connection with this swim has a wild story. There are the recognizables of course: Florence Chadwick, Marilyn Bell, and Cliff Lumsdon. There were a few regulars: Ben Laughren (1 for 12), Amy Hiland (1 for 4), and “Bill Muir, the Saanich surveyor” (0 for 8, and that’s what the papers always call him). “Big Ben” Laughren weighed 274lb and ran a burger joint in Victoria where kids heard their first Dave Brubeck. Rev. John Donelon was a Roman Catholic priest from Toronto. Marilyn Bell is constantly referred to as a “Toronto schoolgirl” despite her impressive resume. Then there was a guy who jumped in and gave up after 40 minutes because of the cold. The spectrum of backstories is broad. Just a bunch of regular people doing crazy impressive things. Come to think of it, this is still the rule in marathon swimming.
By the end of 1957, three men and two women had made it across. And in 1957, as abruptly as it began three summers ago, the attempts ceased. One more try in 1966, this time by Robert Cossette, was abandoned after two hours thirty four minutes. Then silence. Did the papers just give up in 1958? Did they spend the whole century’s swim budget in three summers? Did the swim really just fall off the radar like that?
Seemingly out of nowhere, legendary marathon butterflier Vicki Keith, takes on the Strait in 1988 in her traditional style, and wins. Her 14 hour swim was epic, and not just because it was butterfly. Hoping to learn everything she knew about Juan de Fuca, we spoke by phone this past March. She told me she chose her route, the traditional Victoria to Port Angeles route, not because of the money (of which there was none by this time), but to follow the route Cliff Lumsdon took over thirty years earlier. A stranger to cold water by no means, the end of her swim is a glimpse into a marathon swimmer’s dedication. As she neared the US coast, she recalled what her crew later detailed: she’d take one stroke of butterfly and then stop, unconscious in the water. Moments later, her movement resumed and she’d take another stroke. Then stop again. She laughed on the phone, remembering how disorienting it was to have to ask, back on dry land afterwards, “did I make it?” She did, or course.
Another eleven years go by, and in 1999 Peter Urrea makes the next and most recent recorded attempt at the Strait. Getting in touch with Peter is a great example of how warm the open water swimming community is, but that’s another story. We also spoke in March because, although he did not complete his swim, he did last 14 hours in those cold waters. From a planning point of view, our conversation was not as helpful as I’d hoped. He hired a logging tug (the boats that pull hundreds of meters of floating logs down the Fraser and across the Salish Sea), but he advised against repeating it. He was a bit unclear on his tides, swim plan, and route. But his story! His story was just as amazing as the rest. His swim did not end because of a physical or mental breakdown. It stopped because of whales. It turns out, when you get surrounded by a pod of killer whales and can’t swim anywhere, you start getting cold fast. And when those whales start bumping you, and your captain loses confidence that the entire pod is salmon-eating whales, but may have some mammal-eaters in it…well, you get pulled out of the water. Nobody wants to be an Orca chew toy.
The directions to successfully cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca are just as clear as that Ikea bookshelf’s. I know it can be done because it has been done before. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right tools (they were all in that little baggy). But I’ll be damned if any of it sets me in the right direction. But I’ve got a general idea of what the final product should look like and learned a few of the dos-and-don’ts. Plus, I’m an engineer. Just a few exhausting hours and it will be all put together. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t collapse.
Here’s the record book to date:
1. Bert Thomas - 8 July 1955 (11 hours 10 minutes)
2. Cliff Lumsdon - 17 August 1956 (11 hours 35 minutes)
3. Amy Hiland - 18 August 1956 (10 hours 51 minutes)
4. Ben Laughren - 18 August 1956 (10 hours 17 minutes)
5. Marilyn Bell - 23 August 1956 (10 hours 38 minutes)
6. Vicki Keith - 10 August 1989 (14 hours, butterfly)
[Correction: While the above post remains unedited, as of 17 July 2013 I understand Fin Donnelly MP (Coquitlam, BC) crossed the Strait in 10 hours 15 minutes on or about 17 August 1994.]
Updated July 17th, 2013 at 07:32 PM by andrewmalinak
What does the word Masters in Masters Swimming mean to you?
Masters, in USMS parlance, merely signifies that you are an adult: age 18 or older.
Over the years, we’ve heard different reactions: “It’s only for fast swimmers.” “It’s for swimmers age 50 and above.” “It’s only for swimmers who want to compete.” “It’s only for those who have mastered the sport.” “It’s only for pool swimmers.” And my personal favorite, from a young age-grouper at our pool, “It’s for old Sharks.” As perpetually young-at-heart athletes, many of us believe age is relative, but the reactions from new, would-be, and nonmembers runs the gamut.
In the 1960s, when Dr. Ransom Arthur was promoting organized adult swimming for fitness, the word Masters was borrowed from Masters Track and Field and it stuck. Some of the age misconceptions about Masters swimming may stem from this—USA Masters Track and Field does have lower age limits of 30 and 40, depending on the type of event.
Even Masters Swimming, which started as a committee of the American Swimming Coaches Association, migrated to a committee of the Amateur Athletic Union, and later morphed into the USMS we know today, had an initial lower age limit of 25. This was dropped to 19 in 1986, and then to 18 in 2002.
Age limits aside, the M word has been a topic of discussion at USMS annual meetings. In 2007, a branding task force considered the idea of dropping it in favor of something perhaps more inviting. But with so much equity and tradition invested into U.S. Masters Swimming, it was decided after careful thought that we would maintain our heritage while repositioning our identity and promoting education and services that would encourage more adults to swim.
Masters Swimming is open to anyone age 18 and older, regardless of age and ability. Some Masters programs even have adult learn-to-swim programs for those who have never set foot in the water. Our charitable arm, the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation (usms.org/giving), provides grants to clubs who create such opportunities for adults in their communities.
Our Facebook page (facebook.com/USMastersSwimmingFanPage), is packed with links to mainstream media stories about Masters swimmers. This is an exciting development, and we urge you to pitch stories to your local media outlets—they’re always looking for good content and are usually happy to do a piece on your local program, your coach, or a teammate who has an interesting story. Be sure to send us the link when it’s published. Sharing these stories helps dispel misconceptions about the M word and helps us to encourage more adults to swim.
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:39 AM by Editor
While cleaning out a box of old files, I came across a manila folder—the darker, older kind with a metal, two-hole fastener at the upper right. Inside I found, meticulously handwritten on accounting ledger paper by my father, a complete record of my brief competitive swimming history—1973 to 1977.
What a difference a generation makes. My son just checks USA Swimming’s Deck Pass app on his iPhone if he wants to know his times. USMS members have digital options as well—we can log in to our MyUSMS accounts at usms.org, view our Swimmer Info pages, and there, like magic, are our times and more.
As staff writer Laura Jones conveys in her feature on event directors (“Take 5,” page 32), it takes dedicated volunteers to put on a good event—that has never changed. But knowing that meets of yesteryear were run with paper and pencil, and the results hand-printed or maybe typewritten, is hard to fathom. Most meet directors and volunteers I know would not want to go back to life before Hy-Tek.
In addition to helping events run more smoothly, technology can benefit us at practice. Heart-rate monitors keep you in the zone. You can wear a wristwatch that will keep track of your yardage. And I can’t be alone in my amazement that some of these devices even know what stroke you're swimming. We take a look at these and other gadgets in Swim Bag on page 38.
Open water swimming has its gadgets as well. You can affix a small GPS unit to your goggle strap and, when you get home to your computer, upload the data and see your swim: how far, how fast, what pace—even a map showing the zig-zags where you had sighting problems. (New contributor to SWIMMER, Kristin Bender, takes a look at the history of GPS in Splashback, page 48.)
As much as I love the incredible computing power, convenience, and flexibility offered by today’s technologies, I miss one thing: the starter’s pistol. Its clear and commanding report is way cooler than the sterile *bemph* we hear now.
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:43 AM by Editor
The Georgia Tech Hotel and Convention Center was the scene for the 40th Anniversary celebration that functioned as this year’s meet social at the 2010 Short Course Nation al Championships in Atlanta. Longtime USMS members gathered with brand new members to celebrate 40 years of competition and camaraderie.
The first national Masters swimming championships were held in Amarillo, Texas, in 1970, when Masters swimming was first being organized. Capt. Ransom J. Arthur, a Navy doctor who envisioned swimming as a way for adults to stay physically and mentally fit as they aged, collaborated with John Spannuth, then president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, to hold that first meet.
The meet social developed as a tradition over the years. This year, more than 300 athletes and guests were treated not only to a delicious catered meal, but also an interesting history lesson. Robert Beach with St. Petersburg Aquatics presented a slideshow highlighting some of the early days of Masters swimming. Beach, 79, one of the original members of USMS, has amassed a sizeable collection of memorabilia and was happy to share his reminiscences.
Beach is also the founder of the longest running short course Masters meet in the country, and quite possibly the world. After consulting with Ransom Arthur and Richard Rahe, another Navy doctor and early organizer of Masters Swimming in 1970, Beach organized what was originally called the Southern Short Course Championships, which later became the St. Petersburg Short Course Championships. The first meet in 1970 had 17 competitors, but these days the meet averages about 300.
Swimmers who love pool meets owe a debt of gratitude to these pioneers of Masters swimming: Arthur, Spannuth, Rahe, and others like June Krauser, Hal Onusseit, and Buster Crabbe. And their supporters—the early meet organizers, volunteers, and athletes, who showed up, swam, and worked to put down the foundation for the organization we enjoy today. Some of these athletes are still competing and were on hand to help celebrate in Atlanta, including Beach, Ted Haartz, Paul Hutinger, Jane Katz and Bumpy Jones. If you are fortunate to meet any of these members, be sure to thank them for their contributions to our great sport.
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:54 AM by Editor
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks drowning as the second leading cause of accidental death among children. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, approximately six out of 10 African-American and Hispanic/Latino children cannot swim. Children in these groups are about twice as likely to drown as Caucasian children. The rate of youth drowning deaths in ethnically diverse communities is two to three times higher than the national average.
These grim statistics have fueled swim programs nationwide – programs with the goal of making sure all kids are water-safe. An article in this issue’s Healthy Swimmer brings us up to date on USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash program, which is providing seed money for learn-to-swim programs in underserved areas of the country. Program spokesperson, Olympian Cullen Jones, completed a six-city tour this past summer to promote awareness and kick-start programs.
Programs and progress are encouraging, but a failure to examine the root causes of problems often creates more problems. The dearth of swimming skills among modern African-Americans has perpetuated a belief that blacks were always poor swimmers, despite evidence to the contrary. Kevin Dawson, assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, contributes some of his research findings in Splashback. Professor Dawson shares accounts of skilled black swimmers dating back to the late 1600s. From the Middle Ages onward, most Europeans did not swim at all. As these Europeans came in contact with Africans, they were amazed at their swimming abilities. So what happened? How did we get to today?
Some believe that slaves born in the U.S. were not taught to swim because they would use it as a means of escape. This may have been true in isolated cases, but Dawson says what happened during Reconstruction and on through the civil rights movement has had a bigger impact. “Bodies of water that were previously used for recreation by blacks were often repositories for victims of racial violence,” Dawson says. Water became closely associated with terror and violence.
When people are afraid of water, their children seldom learn to swim. Ergo, many generations of African-Americans did not learn to swim. In 1969, a now widely discredited study titled “The Negro and Learning to Swim: The Buoyancy Problem Related to Reported Biological Difference,” claimed that, due to heavier bones and muscle mass, blacks were not buoyant enough to swim well. Throw segregation into the mix, with little or no access to public pools and beaches, and the lack of pools in ethnically diverse communities, and the cycle continued.
How does this relate to Masters swimming? USMS is proud to support the USA Swimming Foundation and its efforts to eliminate childhood drowning due to unequal opportunity. The Foundation has a presence in SWIMMER, and many USMS members donate directly. USMS is a supporter of the Foundation’s annual banquet, Golden Goggles. All of us in the swimming community can work together to make sure opportunities to enjoy and be safe in water are available to everyone, regardless of race.
Updated July 1st, 2014 at 10:55 AM by Editor