Monday, April 13, 2009

Born To Be A Swimmer - The Duke of Des Moines River

Marvin "Duke" Nelson was a 1979 inductee in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and a 1982 inductee in the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.

Besides his notable marathon swimming accomplishments, Duke lived a colorful life.

He swam constantly in the Des Moines River near his hometown of Fort Dodge, Iowa - in cold water and cold weather, specializing in swimming 24 km (15 miles) in frigid, choppy lake waters (see photo below).

He did this to acclimate to cold water because he failed at his first cold-water marathon swim in 1928. In 1930, he won his first world championship title defeating a field of 173 at the Canadian National Exhibition Marathon Swim in Toronto in 7 hours 44 minutes, winning US$10,000 and won again in 1934. He also won the 24 km (15-mile) Lake Michigan swim in Chicago twice, finishing a half-mile ahead of the pack in 1934.

Like modern-day Michael Phelps, Duke was renowned as a tremendous eater. After the 1933 Canadian National Exhibition race, it was written that "[Duke's] performance was remarkable when it is considered that nervousness before the race upset his stomach so much that in the morning (of the race) he could only nibble away four bowls of porridge, six poached eggs, 14 slices of bread, 3 oranges, a quart of chocolate, a quart of milk and a pound-and-a-half of steak. Little marvy needs a tonic."

Incredibly considering America was in the midst of its Great Depression, Duke’s five professional victories earned him US$30,000, often won in front of tens of thousands of spectators.

Confident in his abilities, Duke bet the world that he complete the first double-crossing of the English Channel and raised US$25,000 against 50-to-1 odds that he could accomplish his goal. But he never was able to achieve his goal due to the outbreak of World War II.

In his swimming prime, his swimming coach Harry Benson said, "Duke had the biggest chest expansion of any human you've ever seen." Besides long workouts of 4-5 hours, unheard of at the time, Duke reportedly paddled up to 32 km (20 miles) a day during the summers. Ripley's Believe It or Not once claimed that Duke could balance a glass of water on his expanded chest while standing.

After he joined the US Navy as a swimming instructor, he was facetiously described as being "so big, [the Navy] was thinking of strapping a cannon to his back and turning him loose to chase down submarines."

Once Duke started his cold-water acclimatization program, there was no holding him back which was easy given the cold winters in Iowa. He continued going into the Des Moines River even after the winter's ice got to 6 inches thick. "We all stand around on the ice, freezing to death," said his coach Benson. "And ol' Duke, he just had his swimming suit on, and he'd swim underneath the ice and laugh at us. Believe me, it took a while to get used to." Even in the coldest days of the Iowa winter, Duke only wore short sleeves. "I never saw him wear a jacket after that in his life," said Benson.

According to the Des Moines Register, Duke's sister said Duke was offered a Hollywood screen test to audition for the role of Tarzan, but the famous role was eventually won by Johnny Weissmuller. "But he wasn't even interested in auditioning. Swimming, that was the only thing he really knew. I guess he was just born to be a swimmer."

Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association


Al Nelson said...

Marvin "Duke" Nelson was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa. He lived there most of his life - especially during his swimming years. He later moved to Chicago.
He is buried here in Fort Dodge - his hometown.
He NEVER lived in Des Moines.

Thank you,
Al Nelson

Steven Munatones said...

Thank you very much. Information corrected.

Steven Munatones said...

Note: the original article said that he swam in the Des Moines River - it did not state he lived in Des Moines. Can you confirm that the Des Moines River flows in or near Fort Dodge?