In July 1948, lifeguards Frederick Rohlfing, Don Watson, James Garvey, James Quinlivan and Robert Reinhold set off from St. Louis to participate in the 22-mile Mississippi River marathon Alton, Illinois. Reinhold and Quinlivan had previously swum the distance along the same course in 1945, setting the record in 5 hours 35 minutes.
The young men had good reason to be excited about the possibilities. “Our incentive to break the record was due to the Mississippi River and the Missouri Rivers being above flood stage. The water was flowing at a record speed of 6-8 miles per hour,” recalled International Marathon swimming Hall of Fame inductee Don Watson. Watson had previously completed the marathon swim in 7 hours 6 minutes in 1946 (eating chicken sandwiches and graham crackers)with Quinlivan and Rohlfing. He had also completed the swim in 1947 together with Donald Keller and 17-year-old Ron Johnson.
“The river was over a mile wide, but the water flow did not appear to be excessive at the start. About 10 miles into the swim where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi River, the situation quickly changed. The Missouri was flowing into the Mississippi at a dangerously high rate of 8 miles per hour along with lots of trees and logs moving down the river.”
Four of the lifeguards made the decision to call the swim and climbed into the two escort boats directly the young men down the river. But Watson continued on, fueled by cheese and bologna sandwiches. “I made the decision to continue the swim, but concentrated on avoiding the debris with the help of Ron Johnson and my fellow swimmers on the escort boats,” explained Watson. “Ron completed the swim in 1947 and was in charge of the escort boats in 1948.
Towards the end, due to the fast water current, high water level and debris, I could not locate a place to exit the water along the shoreline. A police rescue boat was in the vicinity and pulled me out of the water.”
The 21-year-old Watson, covered in mineral oil as protection against the chill, completed the 22-mile in 3 hours 56 minutes, well under the existing record.
Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
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