Walter Poenisch (1913 – 2000) was selected as an Honor Swimmer in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
He is one of the few marathon swimmers who have been inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, but not yet inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.
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 will be one of 17 honorees to enter the International Swimming Hall of Fame as the Class of 2017. “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 will enter the ISHOF as a Pioneer and 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.“
Poenisch is unique for a variety of reasons:
1. He entered his first competitive open water swim in 1963 to show that a 50-year-old man could be as active as younger swimmers. It was the 60-mile Jim Moran Lake Michigan Swim where he became enthralled by marathon swimming.
2. He was the first professional marathon swimmer to use a marathon swim as a platform of Speedo Diplomacy. Motivated by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Poenisch conceived of the idea of swimming the 90 miles from Cuba to the USA for world peace. “To further better relations between my country and Cuba,” he said.
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.“
3. Poenisch is the only marathon swimmer who has been inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame who is not (yet) inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.
Throughout his career, his swims were often 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.“
Lower photo shows Cuban president Fidel Castro raising a glass of pineapple juice to wish Walter Poenisch a happy 65th birthday and luck on his Swim for Peace, with Walter’s wife Faye.
In addition to Poenisch’s swim, the year 1978 was quite eventful in the global marathon swimming world. Review the year here.
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