Duke Was Well Ahead Of His Time

Duke Was Well Ahead Of His Time

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Ice swimming, cold water acclimatization, rough water training, cross training, massive calorie input, year-round distance training.

All these things are taken for granted by contemporary open water swimmers, but these concepts were singlehandedly discovered and utilized by a lone swimmer far, far away from the world’s oceans and channels.

Marvin ‘Duke’ Nelson, a 1979 inductee in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and a 1982 inductee in the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame, was well ahead of his time.

In addition to his notable marathon swimming accomplishments, Duke lived an extraordinarily colorful life. He was a personable character who enjoyed the limelight, but he also put in the hard training miles when no one was watching.

>He swam constantly in the Des Moines River near his hometown of Fort Dodge, Iowa in cold water and cold weather, specializing in swimming 24 km (15 miles) in frigid, choppy lake waters (see photo below).

Duke did this to acclimate to cold water because he failed at his first cold water marathon swim in 1928. By 1930, he had acclimated and won his first world championship title defeating a field of 173 at the Canadian National Exhibition Marathon Swim in Toronto in 7 hours 44 minutes where he earned US$10,000. He won the race again in 1934 in the height of the Great Depression when the cash winnings were truly prized. He also won the 24 km (15-mile) Lake Michigan swim in Chicago twice, finishing a half-mile ahead of the pack in 1934.

Like Olympic champion Michael Phelps, Duke was also renowned as a tremendously hearty eater. After the 1933 Canadian National Exhibition race, it was written that “[Duke’s] performance was remarkable when it is considered that nervousness before the race upset his stomach so much that in the morning (of the race) he could only nibble away four bowls of porridge, six poached eggs, 14 slices of bread, 3 oranges, a quart of chocolate, a quart of milk and a pound-and-a-half of steak. Little Marvy needs a tonic.”

Considering America was in the midst of its Great Depression, Duke’s five professional victories during the 1930s earned him a total of US$30,000, often won in front of tens of thousands of spectators.

After Duke started his cold-water acclimatization program, there was no holding him back which was easy enough given the cold winters in Iowa. He continued going into the Des Moines River even after the winter’s ice got to 6 inches thick. “We all stand around on the ice, freezing to death,” said his coach Benson. “And ol’ Duke, he just had his swimming suit on, and he’d swim underneath the ice and laugh at us. Believe me, it took a while to get used to.” Even in the coldest days of the Iowa winter, Duke only wore short sleeves. “I never saw him wear a jacket after that in his life,” said Benson.

In his swimming prime, his swimming coach Harry Benson said, “Duke had the biggest chest expansion of any human you’ve ever seen.” Besides long workouts of 4-5 hours, unheard of at the time, Duke also did cross training, reportedly paddling up to 32 km (20 miles) a day during the summers. Ripley’s Believe It or Not once claimed that Duke could balance a glass of water on his expanded chest while standing.

Confident in his abilities, Duke bet the world that he would complete the first double-crossing of the English Channel and raised US$25,000 against 50-to-1 odds that he could accomplish his goal. But he never was able to achieve his goal due to the outbreak of World War II.

After he joined the United States Navy as a swimming instructor, he was facetiously described as being “so big, [the Navy] was thinking of strapping a cannon to his back and turning him loose to chase down submarines.”

According to the Des Moines Register, Duke’s sister said Duke was offered a Hollywood screen test to audition for the role of Tarzan, but the role was eventually won by Johnny Weissmuller. “But he wasn’t even interested in auditioning. Swimming, that was the only thing he really knew. I guess he was just born to be a swimmer.”

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones