When Marathon Swimmers Swim With Great White Sharks
Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.
With protests currently happening from coast to coast throughout America, I recall the year 1968 when the Vietnam War was raging on as well as violent protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy while Americans debated issues ranging from the Tet Offensive to the Civil Rights Act in the background of highly visible protests on the awards podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics in the midst of a fierce U.S. presidential battle.
But swimmers still swam on. As with the pandemic and global lockdowns of 2020 – 2021, open water swimmers continued to swim on during the tumultuous summer of 1968.
One race was particularly memorable.
On August 24th, a 14.1-mile World Professional Marathon Swimming Association race was held from Sand Hill Cove State Beach in Narragansett Bay to New Harbor on Block Island in the state of Rhode Island.
The final results were remarkable: there was a tie not only for first place, but also for second place. The official results are below.
1. Abdel-Latif Abou-Heif (Egypt, 40) 8 hours 11 minutes
1. Horacio Iglesias (Argentina, 26) 8 hours 11 minutes
2. Antonio Scamardella (Italy) 10 hours 28 minutes
2. Regent Lacoursiere (Canada) 10 hours 28 minutes
DNF included Tom Bucy (USA) 2 hours, Linda McGill (Australia) 10 hours, Bill Lafferty (USA) 4 hours 40 minutes, Harold M. Weymouth (USA) 6 hours 45 minutes, and George Park (Canada).
17 swimmers reportedly started, but only four swimmers – among the best in history including three International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmers – finished in one of the few documented cases where Great White Sharks – including a large shark that was swimming around Régent Lacoursière between 1.5 – 3 km from the finish in New Harbor on Block Island. The shark encounter was photographed by Jean-Guy Racicot who was a escort crew member and a photographer for Lacoursière who was popularly known among his fellow competitors as “Johnny”.
George Park recalls, “‘The world’s greatest marathon!’ is the way they advertised this 14.1-mile race because all the top marathon swimmers in the world were there. The race started from the beach. As we came out of the harbour through a gap in the breakwall, [American] Billy Barton was on my left and Régent on the right, I noticed something dark in the water just below us. I asked Billy, “Is that a shark?” Billy said, “It’s a shark”.
We picked up our pace and the three of us moved to the front of the pack very quickly. Billy moved away from me to the left and Johnny moved to the right and I swam straight ahead. The shark followed me. After about twenty minutes, the boat that was with me put up a sign it said, “Don’t panic there is a shark 200 yards behind you.” Then they wrote, “Don’t stop or change your pace”. Then they said, “The coast guard is tracking it and if it attacks…“.
There was a similar shark encounter with a Great White Shark when Penny Palfrey swam over a large great white shortly after leaving Santa Barbara Island. “I know there is marine life out there. I have seen two Great White Sharks in my life. The first time I saw a great white shark during my swims was very early on in my successful 64 km 17 hour 53 minute crossing from Santa Barbara Island to Point Vicente on the California coast, which is the same finished place as where the Catalina Channel swimmers finish.
One passed right under me. It was so big. It was majestic. I was in awe of this huge, graceful creature beneath. It me looked like a small airplane. But you have to remain focused.”
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