What Was The Most Impactful Open Water Swim In World History?

What Was The Most Impactful Open Water Swim In World History?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.


The Greatest Englishman, a movie about Captain Matthew Webb

Mao Zedong’s 1966 swim in the Yangtze River

Lewis Pugh’s swim across the North Pole

WOWSA, Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park, China.

Of all the swims in the world – races, solo swims, adventures – which has most significantly impacted the world of open water swimming. That is, what has been the biggest and most influential open water swim or event or organization in history?

It is an interesting thought experiment that can have many different answers depending on one’s interests and perspectives,” muses Steven Munatones. “Below are a few of the most well-known swims in modern history that Ned Denison tossed around for comparative purposes.”

1810: Lord Byron swam 6.4 km from Europe to Asia across the Hellespont Strait in 1 hour 10 minutes

1875: 27-year-old Captain Matthew Webb swam breaststroke for 21 hours 45 minute to complete the first crossing of the English Channel

1896: 18-year-old Alfréd Hajós won the 100m and 1.2 km open water swims at the 1896 Athens Olympic Games in the 10°C waters of the Bay of Zea, Aegean Sea

1898: Alick Wickham from the Solomon Islands demonstrated freestyle in Sydney, Australia that led to the crawl and six-beat kick becoming popularized

1915: 18-year-old Robert Dowling completed the first 45.9 km circumnavigation swim around Manhattan Island in 13 hours 45 minutes

1926: 19-year-old Gertrude Ederle broke the world record and become the first woman to cross the English Channel in 14 hours 40 minutes

1927: 18-year-old George Young won the Wrigley Ocean Marathon to complete the first crossing of the Catalina Channel in 15 hours 44 minutes

1927: International Professional Swimmers Association established in New York City

1927: Channel Swimming Association was established

1928: 28-year-old Mercedes Gleitze became the first person to swim the 12.8 km Strait of Gibraltar in 12 hours 50 minutes

1930: Professional 1930 Canadian National Exhibition race attracted 272 swimmers

1935: 42-year-old Pedro Candiotti swam 452 km downstream in Rio de la Plata in Argentina) in 84 hours

1950: 41-year-old Hassan Abdel Rehim beat 19 swimmers in the inaugural Daily Mail Race across the English Channel, winning in a record 10 hours 50 minutes, that became an annual race during the 1950’s

1954: 16-year-old Marilyn Bell became the first person to cross Lake Ontario, finishing 51.5 km in 20 hours 59 minutes

1955: 30-year-old Jacques Amyot became the first person to cross lac St-Jean in Québec, Canada, winning Traversée du lac-Saint-Jean in 13 hours

1961: 43-year-old Antonio Abertondo swam 67 km in the first two-way crossing of the English Channel in 43 hours 10 minutes

1966: 72-year-old Mao Zedong crossed the Yangtze River in Wuhan, China reportedly swimming nearly 15 km in 65 minutes

1974: 16-year-old Lynne Cox became the first person to set both the English Channel (9 hours 36 minutes) and Catalina Channel (8 hours 48 minutes) records

1975: Susan Backlinie appeared in the fictional thriller movie Jaws

1978: Penny Dean became the second – and last – person to concurrently hold both the English Channel (7 hours 40 minutes) and Catalina Channel (7 hours 15 minutes) records

1981: 27-year-old Jon Erikson completed the first three-way crossing of the English Channel in 38 hours 27 minutes

1987: 30-year-old Lynne Cox crossed the Bering Strait from Alaska’s Little Diomede to the Soviet Union’s Big Diomede

1991: 30-year-old Shelley Taylor-Smith was ranked #1 among both men and women in the world professional marathon swimming circuit – the first and only time a woman has finished first

1994: 42-year-old Guy Delage completed an unescorted 55-day transoceanic solo stage swim across the Atlantic Ocean with the help of a kickboard from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa to Barbados in the Caribbean Sea

2000: International Winter Swimming Association Winter Swimming World Championships were first held in Finland, Helsinki

2002: 45-year-old Lynne Cox swam 2.25 km from a ship in Neko Harbor in 0°C Antarctica waters in 25 minutes

2007: 53-year-old Martin Strel completed a 66-day 5,268 km stage swim in the Amazon River

2007: 38-year-old Lewis Pugh swam 1 km across the Geographic North Pole in an an open patch of sea in -1.6°C water in 18 minutes 50 seconds

2008: Olympic 10K Marathon Swim was held in Beijing, China

2010: 41-year-old Lewis Pugh swam 1 kmat 5,200m altitude on Mount Everest in 22 minutes 51 seconds

2012: Stephen Redmond became the first person to complete the Oceans Seven with a 12 hour 45 minute crossing of the Tsugaru Channel in Japan

2013: 64-year-old Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida in 52 hours 54 minutes

2015: International Ice Swimming Association World Championship were first held in Murmansk, Russia in 0.8°C (33.4°F) water and -6°C air temperatures

2019: 37-year-old cancer survivor Sarah Thomas completed the first four-way crossing of the English Channel in 54 hours 10 minutes

While there are many, many other open water swims of note, both courageous and unprecedented solo swims, professional marathon swimming races and inaugural events, I cannot imagine anything was more impactful or more significant to the global sport of open water swimming than the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park,” said Munatones. “When I think of its global impact, this globally televised event inspired more people and more events than any other . The number of 10 km races before 2008 was relatively small; the number of formal or competitive 10 km races nowadays is nearly 1,000 – perhaps larger.

With the introduction at the Olympic Games, the 10 km distance became the standard for marathon swims, at least from the public perspective. With the television broadcast and ensuing media interest, the global emergence of open water swimming took off like no other time in history. No other swim in history was covered more internationally than the 2008 Olympic marathon swim – broadcast live. The course was brilliant: it utilized the existing rowing course at the Beijing Olympics and therefore added no additional major costs because the spectator stands and television assets were already in place.

The race also gave a huge boost to the careers of many swimmers:

* Maarten van der Weijden was the first cancer survivor to win a gold medal
* Natalie du Toit was the first amputee to qualify for an Olympic final
* Larisa Ilchenko became the icon of Russian prowess in open water swimming
* Keri-Anne Payne began a quadrennial of unprecedented endorsements for her silver medal performance
* Ana Marcela Cunha and Poliana Okimoto became the symbols of Brazilian interest and success in the open water

Suddenly all kinds of competitive marathon swimmers were being sponsored and supported. There was nothing like it – collectively and across the board, sponsors, swimmers, event organizers, book publishers, reporters, film documentary producers, coaches came together in an unprecedented scope to promote and take part in its growing appeal.

While the exploits of Abdellatief Abou Heif (across Lake Michigan), Susie Maroney (Mexico to Cuba), Barry Devonport (Cook Strait), Ben Lecomte (Atlantic Ocean), and Ram Barkai (first Ice Mile) were extremely impressive, like the swimmers listed above, those were all individual exploits, well covered, but not globally influential.

The 2008 Beijing Olympic 10K kicked off thousands of local events, unprecedented sponsorship, TV coverage, documentary films, well-recognized stars in the sport, greatly influenced over 50 national governing bodies, was the impetus to dozens of national and regional championships, and tens of thousands of events around the world. There is nothing is remotely close.”

Copyright © 2008 – 2020 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones