Walter Poenisch's Swimming Hall of Fame Induction

Walter Poenisch’s Swimming Hall of Fame Induction

Courtesy of International Swimming Hall of Fame, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Faye Poenisch presented Bruce Wigo of the International Swimming Hall of Fame with the poster and a cigar that Fidel Castro left behind after visiting her husband Walter Poenisch‘s escort boat that would guide him from Cuba to Florida.

At the age of 65, his 1978 swim was an example of Speedo diplomacy with the aim of world peace.

Poenisch (1913 – 2000) was inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame with the class of 2017.

Over the course of his career, he completed open water swims in Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and in the Atlantic Ocean where he set three world records.

He was called the World’s Strongest Endurance Swimmer as he towed a 30-ton paddlewheel boat while swimming with his hands and feet shackled. But his most publicized swim was a swim from Cuba to The Little Duck Key in Florida at the age of 65 in 1978.

His well-publicized swim covered 128.8 miles (207.2 km) in 34 hours 15 minutes. He was escorted by Captain Bendt Lynge, observer and authenticator J. Marvin Mims, President of the International Federation of Ocean Swimmers and Divers, Glenn Drummond, escort boat owner, and his wife Fayette Poenisch.

His long distance swimming world records included the following:

1972: longest ocean swim of 90.75 miles (146 km) in the Atlantic Ocean
1976: longest ocean swim of 122.5 miles (197.1 km) from the Florida Keys to the tip of the Florida peninsula
1978: longest ocean swim of 128.8 miles (207.2 km) across the Straits of Florida from Cuba to Florida

Poenisch followed the rules of the International Federation of Ocean Swimmers and Divers where he was allowed to swim with fins and a snorkel inside a shark cage and was allowed to get out of the water onto his escort boat for no longer than five minutes at a time in order to feed or address any safety issues that his escort crew observed.

Poenisch of Grove City, Ohio was one of 17 honorees to be inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Lost in time and in the avalanche of publicity surrounding attempts by others to swim from Cuba to the USA over the past 40 years is the remarkable story of Walter Poenisch and his ‘Swim for Peace.’” says ISHOF President & CEO Bruce Wigo.

Walter was honored by the ISHOF as a Pioneer. I want to commend the selection committee and its Chairman, Camillo Cametti of Verona, Italy, for recognizing Walter who was one of the first to use his swimming talents to promote a greater cause.

The Pioneer category was created to honor great achievements that have been overlooked by the fog of time or special circumstances that interfered with their careers, such as accidents, war or politics.

According to Wigo, Poenisch started a letter-writing campaign to governments that had contact with Havana. With optimism and confidence in his cause, Walter immediately began serious training. But the required permissions were not forthcoming. For years he continued to write letters, make calls and worked with Rene Mujica of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C.

In 1976 the Guinness Book of World Records certified his Swim for Peace, a 122.5-mile swim from Key West to the tip of the Florida peninsula, setting the record for the world’s longest ocean swim. He later received permission from the Cuban government to apply for a visa, which was finally granted in March 1978.

His Cuba swim was planned to begin on July 11th 1978, his 65th birthday. Cuban leader Fidel Castro was on hand to celebrate Poenisch’s birthday and wish him success on his Swim for Peace. Before entering the water, Castro proposed a toast honoring his efforts and his dream of peace between their two nations.

Wigo writes, “Walter was the first person to attempt to swim from Cuba to the USA. Rules were drawn up by an authenticating organization, The International Federation of Ocean Swimmers and Divers. These rules, announced before the swim, permitted him to use a shark cage, fins to protect his feet from the cage, and a snorkel. He was also permitted to get out of the water up to four times for a period of no longer than five minutes to administer emergency medicine treatment, receive critical nourishment or for any reason that directly threatened the life of the swimmer. Walter followed these rules to the tee and 34 hours after leaving Cuba, Walter completed his dream, culminating on the shores of Little Duck Key, Florida.

Throughout his career, his swims were often reported in the media. An article from June 1972, with the headline ‘Sharks Delay Ocean Swim‘, gives a hint of his exploits: “A seven-foot, brown-finned hammerhead shark swept between two escort boats straight for the chicken wire cage enclosing 58-year-old Walter Poenisch, a one-time cookie baker turned ocean swimmer from Grove City, Ohio. Shouts of “Shark! Shark!” filled the air over the placid Atlantic Ocean waters 20 miles off Miami, and Poenisch scrambled out of his cage and aboard a towboat, where he claimed a world record for long distance ocean swimming.

‘Ninety miles is the record now,’ he gasped. Whether there ever has been a record for ocean swims isn’t certain, although the tanned and husky Poenisch said the old record was about 60 miles, after he had ended his journey up the Florida Straits Wednesday. Poenisch had planned to swim 200 miles, from just off Cuba’s shores to Fort Lauderdale.

For more information, visit For more information on his open water exploits, visit here.

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Steven Munatones