Greta Andersen, From London To Long Beach

Greta Andersen, From London To Long Beach

One of the greatest swimmers of all time, Greta Andersen, burst on the world’s stage when she won the gold medal at the 1948 London Olympics. Confident, personable and talented, she made quite a scene on the pool deck, on television and across channels.

She continued her unprecedented and unsurpassed career for another 20 years as the only person in history to win both an individual gold medal at the Olympics and set an English Channel record.

Dial forward 64 years with the 2012 London Olympic Games coming up this August and Greta remains one of the most vivacious, gracious, entertaining swimmers around. She laughs, she teaches, she engages children, parents and her peers with her boundless energy.

Soon to turn 85 years old, she continues to work 8 hours a day, teaching children how to swim. And she continues to do it all with a smile, creating an ambiance of joy.

After moving from her native Denmark to Long Beach, California, she did manual labor to make ends meet, sewing zippers on pants. But then she turned back to the water and developed her second aquatic career in marathon swimming. Her swims in the 1950s and 60s were well-documented in newspapers and magazines, but listening to her recollection in person is priceless. “I swam in the Molokai Channel, from Molokai to Oahu, in a shark cage. My sponsors did not want to take a chance. But after getting seasick in the turbulence caused by the cage, I swam outside the cage only to be surrounded by sharks. But then the dolphins came around…and I thought everything would be OK,” recalled Greta who most definitely had no intention of getting out.

I kept on swimming, but the sharks were all around me, circling underneath. They were always circling. Circling, circling,” she laughed with a glisten in her eye by someone who obviously relishes adventure. “I could see the sharks in the clear water. I was in the water for a long time, many hours, but then my crew finally pulled me out. There were no questions asked. They just got me out of there. I had a lot of sponsors in those days – Hilton Hotels, Roman Meal Bread – so we were disappointed. But that is our sport – there are always risks.”

But solo swims were only part of her resume. From being a sprinter in the pool to racing the best men of her era across the world, she never backed down from challenges or competitors. She trained hour every day, swimming without goggles, off Long Beach, and relentlessly swam through sharks, jellyfish, the cold and waves.

The races in the English Channel were incredible (see videos below). We had helicopters covering the races. There was so much coverage and so many boats. With the traffic in the Channel, there was a lot happening. We didn’t have all the technology like today. We just swam hard. But I was in shape. I used to hire lifeguards to paddle for me during my training. Down by Belmont Plaza [in Long Beach], I used to go for daily 10-mile swims. Every day, training hard.”

Greta was renowned for her high tempo stroke-per-minute pace and strong kick with great body position. You can see her in a cap overtaking the world’s top men in the 1958 42K (26-mile) marathon swim in Guaymas, Mexico:

Greta set English Channel records – in both directions – from France to England in 11 hours and 1 minute, and from England to France in 13 hours and 10 minutes within the decade after her 1948 London Olympic victory. She kept up a strong pace and a strong kick during her 1958 victory in Billy Butlin’s professional English Channel International Race which she won in 11 hours:

She also was the first person to swim the Santa Catalina Channel both ways (see photo above). “No one else had done a double-crossing before, so it was something to do. In those days, we didn’t know about the effects of the tides on a swimmer. I remember swimming for 4 straight hours over the same rock off of Catalina. Four hours and I was swimming hard over the same rock. Instead of 26 hours, I should have down a 22-hour swim,” laughed Greta as she recalled her historic swim in the Pacific. “If I had known what I was getting into, I wouldn’t have done it.”

After a strong first leg of 10 hours and 49 minutes, she eventually finished in 26 hours and 53 minutes. Her determination and sheer exhaustion upon her completion are quite dramatic, see below:

From London to Long Beach, she has certainly lived a remarkable life.

Upper photo of Greta Andersen finishing her historic Catalina Channel double-crossing swim by the Long Beach Press Telegram.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones