Sirena Del Río Paraguay, María Digna Escurra de Ortellado

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

María Digna Escurra de Ortellado is a two-time member of the 24-hour Club. Nicknamed Sirena del río Paraguay (Paraguay River Mermaid), she established a remarkable legacy in her native Paraguay.

I jumped into Concepción at 8:20 am on a Saturday and arrived in Itá Enramada 4 days later, after swimming 80 hours 45 minutes,” recalled Digna Escurra. “During the swim, I was accompanied by boats, boats, navy ships, a doctor and 2 [pace] swimmers during the day and 2 [pace swimmers] during the night. I remember that I weighed 65 kilograms and they wanted me to go up 15 kg because they thought that I would lose many kilos – during the swim – but only went up to 72 kg and with the same weight, same pulsations and same blood pressure at the finish.

I arrived in Itá Enramada feeling well and could even continue swimming, but my future husband at the time – Hilarario Ortellado – was afraid that something would happen to me, since I was trying to beat the record of an German swimmer who swam 80 hours – 45 minutes less than I swam – but had fallen into a coma and died 3 days later. That is why I went out, but I stopped without any physical problems. During the journey, I did not touch anything and ate everything including milanesas and even soyo watery

Her journey to swimming over 3 straight days started early. “When I was three years old, I was already swimming. For me to learn to swim and to walk were simultaneous.” In her hometown of San Lorenzo, she swam every day with her grandfather in the afternoon to nearby streams.

Her first marathon swim was from Villa Hayes to Asunción in her native Paraguay that replicated earlier swim by sisters Maria Elena and Victoria Bisso.

After being named Athlete of the Year in 1951, 1952 and 1953 when she competed for Club Atlético Ciudad Nueva, Digna Escurra did her first two major marathon swims in 1954: 27 kilometers (16.7 miles) in 5 hours 57 minutes and 179 kilometers (111 miles) from Asunción to Formosa in 38 hours 20 minutes, coached by Armando Burifaldi who previously held the record.

Then she prepared meticulously for the major swim of her career, a 197.6-mile (318 km) downstream swim from Concepción to Puerto Pilcomayo in Paraguay River that flows through the countries Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay. Covered in castor oil and lanolin, she completed the 3-day non-stop swim in 80 hours 45 minutes that was entirely broadcast by La Radio Comuneros and cemented her legacy in her homeland.

While the first two days and nights did not present insurmountable problems, her third night on the river was a difficult challenge when she felt colder. “My coach gave me hot stew. I would tell him, it was not hot, but he would tell me it was boiling.”

One of the unusual experiences she faced was when she was bitten by a piranha during a training swim.

Before she died in 2013 at the age of 84, she gave the interview above where she described the longest swim of her colorful career and remarkable life.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones