With the credible rumors that major international races will be held in the English Channel in 2009, it calls to mind the professional English Channel races that were held in the 1950's.
The first race was held in 1950 and was limited to 20 participants from around the world, sponsored by the London Daily Mail. A 41-year-old Egyptian by the name of El-Rheim won the first race in a then-record of 10 hours and 50 minutes over an international field.
In 1951, another Egyptian, 34-year-old Hamad, won the race in 12 hours 12 minutes by just one minute over Frenchman Roger de Morvan who had also placed second in 1950. In addition to France, England and Egypt, swimmers also came from Canada, Argentina, Sweden, Peru, Greece, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Between 1953 and 1959, the pro races across the Channel were sponsored by Billy Butlin of Butlin's Holiday Camps.
The 1953 race was plagued by inclement weather and poor conditions and had no finishers. The 1954 race saw Portugal's Periera win in 12 hours 25 minutes over Egypt's Hamad in 12 hours 49 minutes. The 1955 race was won by Egypt's formidable Abdel-Latif Abo-Heif in 11 hours 44 minutes over America's Tom Park in 12 hours 2 minutes. In 1956, Park came back and shared the winning prize with Ireland's Jack McClelland for swimming the furthest, but the swim was called off after 11 hours due to poor weather and water conditions.
Greta Anderson, an Olympic gold and silver medalist in pool swimming, battled the world's best men in many pro marathon swims around the world, and became the only person to win two English Channel races. She won in 1957 and 1958. During the 1957 race, the conditions were terrible and only two swimmers finished with Greta finishing in 13 hours 53 minutes over England's Ken Wray in 16 hours.
In 1958, the men and women were formally separated into two different races...but that did not stop Greta from winning overall in 11 hours 1 minute over Pakistan's Brojan Das in 14 hours 52 minutes, England's Ronald Tarr (15:12), France's Raphael Morand (16:22) and Mexico's Ramon Ocana (17:05).
The 1959 race was won by Argentina's Alfredo Camerero in 11 hours 43 minutes over Herman Willemse (12:49) and other top swimmers including Greta (15:25) who could not complete a three-peat.
No races have been held since so the open water swimming community is very much looking forward to August 2009. Photo (by Pei Qingsheng) on left shows current English Channel record holder Petar Stoychev.
Photo of Greta Anderson finishing her historic Catalina Channel swim by the Long Beach Press Telegram. Data from the English Channel races from Conrad Wennerberg's authoritative book Wind, Waves and Sunburn: A Brief History of Marathon Swimming.
Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association