A Powerhouse – 1990 USA National Open Water Swim Team
Records in the English Channel do not fall with regularity like pool swimming records. Rather, records in the English Channel generally take decades to fall.
Other athletes in the Channel similarly set standards that are long-lasting.
The 1990 relay of Americans Jay Wilkerson, Chad Hundeby, Martha Jahn, Karen Burton, Dirk Bouma, and Sid Cassidy set not only the long-standing England-to-France relay record of 6 hours 52 minutes, but they also set the France-to-England relay record coming back in the second leg of their two-way crossing in 7 hours 26 minutes and remain the fastest overall and fastest 2-way relay (England-to-France-to-England) in 14 hours 18 minutes in 1990.
Penny Dean was the head coach while John York served as the assistant coach. “John and I were prepared to swim,” explains Dean about the team. “I decided as the head USA Swimming national team coach that I shouldn’t swim and John was such a good coach that I asked him to coach instead. He was fine with that.”
The team was stacked with talent, expertise and experience. Penny Dean was not only the overall solo record holder in the English Channel, but also the overall solo record holder in the Catalina Channel. York was the double-crossing record holder in the Catalina Channel who had completed numerous solo crossings across the Catalina Channel and English Channel.
Hundeby would later set the English Channel one-way crossing himself while Burton would later win a bronze medal in the 25 km FINA World Championships and win two FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix overall titles. Jahn won a silver medal in the 25 km FINA World Championships the next year in Perth.
“There’s no playing around to it,” said Wilkerson about swimming in the ocean. “You’ve got waves slapping in your face, and you’re fighting that current. You’re in another world. You beg for your second wind to come.”
There was always a second wind with this fast sextet of experienced ocean swimmer.
But this team was basically doing a warm-up swim for their main goal which was to compete in the British Long Distance Swimming Association’s 25 km Windermere International Championships. “Wilkerson, Hundeby, Jahn and Burton had qualified for the championships at the USA National Open Water Swimming Championships and they were on their way to Windermere,” recalls Cassidy who was then Wilkerson’s coach at Florida State University.
“Penny really organized a great trip. We went over to Dover as a training trip for the Windermere event. We stayed in a small place and filled up half of the rooms, eating bangers and mash. Penny’s idea was to get acclimated to the cold water that the athletes would experience in Windermere. Dirk Bouma was a friend of Karen‘s who was planning to do his solo English Channel crossing that summer. So he was ready to go and a really good swimmer. Penny asked me if I would swim about 6 months ahead of time. I was coaching Jay at Florida State University at the time in my early 30s. I was out of it but I had 6 months to train and did not want to disappoint the young swimmers.”
But there was still the challenge of the Channel. Nothing is a given, especially in the pre-GPS era.
“Chad was really fast, but he was also deathly afraid of the dark,” remembers Cassidy. “So Jay led off at 4 am with the girls – Martha and Karen – going next also swimming in the dark. Jay swam with this glow-in-the-dark necklace and the fog was so thick. The visibility was between only 10 to 120 feet. We knew it was daylight, but we still could not see the sun. But the swimmers were going fast and we had been swimming for 5 hours when I got in around 9 to 10 am. The fog was still thick when I jumped in, but then it burned off during my leg.
Suddenly, we could see France and people on the boat got really excited. I gave it my all and then Jay sprinted in to complete the crossing.
When I got out, I was dead. I could see Jay swimming into France in the water which was in the high 50’s. But I was happy with my leg. But when I got out of the water, I heard a discussion going onboard and wondered what the issue was. Penny came over to me and told me that she had both good news and bad news. ‘What’s the good news?’ I asked.
‘We are going to crush the record…’ Penny said smiling. ‘And we decided to do a double crossing and swim back…’ is the bad news.”
With the young athletes heading back, Cassidy sucked it up and put in another good leg on the crossing back to England. “We came across some really giant jellyfish; at first we thought they were big trash bags. Then we came across a giant tanker, but these were 5 great athletes who were able to put in 2 good legs each. We had a great crew and we knew the conditions could have been worse.”
As the sun was setting on the way back, the six Americans completed their two-way crossing whose time of 14 hours 18 minutes still stands 24 years later.
The team had a day of rest and then headed up to Windermere where Hundeby got sick, but Wilkerson won the men’s race and Jahn and Burton went 1-2 in the women’s 25 km.
“I still think that experience motivated Hundeby to head back 4 years later when he set the English Channel record (in 7 hours 17 minutes),” says Cassidy.
But for a training swim meant to prepare the athletes for Windermere, that two-way crossing is one for the record books.
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