Tribute to a Legend: Remembering Greta Andersen, Champion Open Water Swimmer

Tribute to a Legend: Remembering Greta Andersen, Champion Open Water Swimmer

“You don’t think about what’s ahead. You forget about it and you just swim.”

– Greta Andersen

The legendary Greta Andersen passed away on February 6, 2023 at the age of 95.

Greta’s funeral will be at Santa Ynez Mission 1760 Mission Dr. Solvang, Calif., Mass at 11 am Wednesday Feb. 15. The burial will follow at 12 pm, Oak Hill Cemetery 2560 Baseline Ave., Solvang CA..

Greta Marie Andersen was born on May 1, 1927 in Copenhagen, Denmark. She was a legendary swimmer who achieved great success in both Europe and the United States. A gifted athlete from a young age, she began her career in swimming at the age of 16 and quickly rose to prominence, winning two European medals at her first international competition in 1947. This was followed by her crowning achievement at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, where she won a gold medal in the 100m freestyle and a silver in the 4 × 100m freestyle relay.

In 1949, Andersen set a world record in the 100 yard freestyle with a time of 58.2 seconds, which remained unbroken for seven years. Although she was unable to medal at the 1952 Olympics due to a recent knee surgery, she continued to compete at the highest level and was awarded nine individual Danish titles, several team titles, and four individual Scandinavian titles.

In 1953 she emigrated to Long Beach, California, where she met Tom Park, a record setting Catalina Channel swimmer, who convinced her she could make money as a professional marathon swimmer.

In 1956, Andersen won the first of seven Around Atlantic City World Championship Marathon swims and then the 50-mile Lake Michigan race from Chicago to Kenosha, Wisconsin, finishing 10 miles ahead of her nearest competitor to capture the US$25,000 first place prize money. The next year she entered her first Sir Billy Butlin Cross English Channel Marathon race. She won again in 1958 and after her third swim, in 1959 Sir Billy gave her the perpetual trophy.

During her career, Andersen broke 18 world marathon records. She was the first woman to complete five crossings of the English Channel – set speed records in both directions – and was the first person to complete a two-way crossing of the Santa Catalina Channel. She earned first, second, or third place in every event competing with men head-to-head and never lost to another woman. She was the largest money winner in women’s professional swimming history.

Andersen swam the English Channel five times, winning the famous Billy Butlin Cross Channel International Swims twice in 1957 and 1958 in 10 hours and 59 minutes, and winning the women’s event from 1957 to 1959. She completed a double-crossing of the English Channel.

  • 1957 13 hours 53 minutes
  • 1958 11 hours 59 minutes
  • 1959 15 hours 25 minutes
  • 1964 13 hours 40 minutes on her first leg of a two-way crossing that was aborted on the second leg after 23 hours 12 minutes
  • 1965 13 hours 49 minutes

Andersen was the first person to complete a double-crossing of the Catalina Channel in 1958 in 26 hours 53 minutes. She completed four crossings of the Catalina Channel, including the first double-crossing in 1958, an 11 hour 7 minute crossing in 1959 and a 1972 crossing at the age of 45.

In 1960, she opened the Greta Andersen Swim School in Los Alamitos, sharing her knowledge about swimming techniques and endurance sports with elite athletes as well as with beginners.

“Even though I can’t go as fast as I used to and I get tired more easily, I need to swim.” – Greta Andersen

Her achievements in the swimming world were recognized in 1964 as an Honor Swimmer in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and in 1969 when she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She is the 2015 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She is the holder of forty trophies, and 150 gold and silver medals. She won 13 world championships, set 72 amateur competitive swimming records and is a multi-time member of the 24-hour club. She won 7 Atlantic City Around the Island Swims.

Courtesy of Bruce Wigo, International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Throughout her long-distance career, Andersen consistently defeated the male competition, including several successful swims across the English Channel and the 18-mile Lake St. John in Quebec. She also made history by swimming across Lake Michigan, a distance of 50 miles, further than any other long-distance swimmer at the time.

She rarely faced failure as she always prepared herself for success through a combination of self-confidence and hard work.

She said:

I used to train 10 miles every day in Long Beach in the ocean. Without goggles. That is what we did. But it sure helped when they made goggles.”

I remember another time when Ted Erikson wanted to test my blood. He was a physicist and a fellow swimmer. He wanted to know why I swam so fast.”

Watching old videos of Greta swim, it was clear that her powerful, high-paced stroke tempo, propelled by a constant six-beat kick and streamlined body position, was one huge reason for her success.

Her determination and drive, coupled with her natural talent and athletic ability, cemented her place in the history of marathon swimming and made her one of the greatest swimmers of her generation.

Our sincere condolences to her husband Dr. Andre Veress.

Greta devoted over 30 years to teaching children how to be water-safe and confident swimmers.

“Teaching toddlers to be unafraid of water … introducing them to the fun of swimming, has been my fond ambition from the beginning.”

And she adds: “The younger they learn, the better.”

Timeline

1948 – Wins gold and silver at the Olympic Games in London
1949 – Greta is the fastest swimmer in the world holding the world record for the 100m freestyle
1952 – Two months before the Olympic Games, Greta has knee surgery and is told she’ll never swim again. 1956 – Wins the 25-mile Atlantic City World Championship. Greta goes on to win it 7 more times in a row. Lake Michigan – Chicago to Kenosha – 55 miles – beat all men and women. 2nd place finisher was 5 miles behind!
1957 – Wins first English Channel race
1958 – Wins 26-mile Professional Marathon Swim in Guaymas, Mexico
1958 – Wins second English Channel race
1959 – Third English Channel race
1964 – Inducted into the National Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame
1969 – Inducted into the National Swimming Hall of Fame

Thank you to Janet La Pietra, whose 4 children and 3 grandchildren Greta taught water safety to, for informing us of her passing.

WOWSA