Pamphlet, photos and information courtesy of Joanna Langfield about her grandmother Ida Elionsky and great uncle Henry Elion.

My grandmother, Ida Elionsky, together with her brother Uncle Henry – Harry was his real name – was the first woman to swim around Manhattan, back in 1916. In that era, girls were not supposed to do this [sort of extreme athletic endeavor]. She was ashamed, even embarrassed,” remarked Joanna Langfield about Ida.

In September 1916, the brother-and-sister duo swam around Manhattan in 11 hours 35 minutes – with their hands and feet bound for 3 miles.

[Their story, Girl And Buster Swim Around Manhattan Island, is posted here.]

[Ida], my grandmother, had a father and two brothers, but her mother passed away when she was really young. As a result, she did all the girl’s stuff in the home like cooking and cleaning. This was expected of her in those times. She never really spoke much about her swimming accomplishments,” explained Langfield.

Henry had just an incredible body, 235 pounds. He believed everyone could swim.

He had written about this potential by everyone to swim [see excerpt below]. My grandmother was supposed to help her brother out so she went along. He wanted to prove that anyone could swim so he worked with his sister. [Ida] really loved swimming when she was thrown in the water. We have photos of Uncle Henry rowing a boat while his sister was in the water with her hands and feet tied, swimming” [see above].

Henry Elion wrote this short book (Man Can Swim Indefinitely) that includes information about his younger sister Ida Elionsky, who was born in 1903, and their swims in New York over 100 years ago.

Man Can Swim Indefinitely
Swimming is Not a Matter of Strength, Energy, Vitality, Muscular or Lung Development
A Book For Beginner, Teacher and Swimmer
An International Swimming Lesson

[Author’s note: The word “man” used throughout the book means the generic team – “male and female”)

A Great Discovery for Posterity

Swimming is a way of life. It is governed by a divine Principle the same as any other science, and it is understood and practiced throughout its rules and laws. I have discovered that obedience to these laws and rules of God or Nature or whatever you may wish to call the “powers that be,” enables

Man to Swim Indefinitely

– and –

as strange as it may seem, swimming is not a matter of strength and vitality, muscular energy, deeper lung capacity or development. Physique, sex and age have nothing to do with it.

These laws and rules are simple, and in a degree can be understood and practiced by small children.

The more correctly one learns to swim, the easier, more harmonious, and effortless the swimming becomes.

When a small child can out-swim a powerful man it should prove to the observer that there is something apart from the age old beliefs of power as being the governing factor in the science of swimming. Impossibilities never occur. The man with the comparative enormous strength, who does not understand the rule and practice of swimming, cannot compete with the small child who does.

Swimming many miles with hands and feet shackled, laced and tied in a regulation straightjacket with legs bound in iron chain or securely bound in a big gunny sack – swimming miles with a man tied on your back – towing a boat load of people for miles while handcuffed and shackled – in fact all the swimming accomplishments of the author are certainly not herculean feats of strength. They simply prove his knowledge of the simple rules and laws that forever operate with no definite limits, for the service and safety of all mankind.

Any swimming accomplishment that can be demonstrated in the water is of no importance or consequence unless it is something that anybody can do. It should be readily understood and made available to all. No one is born with any special qualifications or ability. It all has to be acquired through education and practice. It all has to be acquired through education and practice. No one has a monopoly on any of the laws and rules of swimming. They are available to everyone who cares to learn them.

Two of my swimming pupils were taught to swim with their hands and feet bound. One a young boy of nine years old, named Julius C. Allen and a young girl eight years old named Jane Lubehansky, who, to prove my point, gave an exhibition of this kind of handicap swimming at a Water Sports Show held in the Olympic Pool at Ocean Beach Park, New London, Connecticut.

The New York papers were loud in the praise of one of Buster’s first proteges. His sister Ida, who, under his tutelage, performed a few handicap swimming stunts for the movies. Two of the most meritorious were, when at the age of 16, she swam through the waters of Hell Gate with her hands and feet bound [on November 14 1914]. And at the age of 17 she swam 3 miles down the Hudson River with Buster tied on her back, as illustrated in the photograph. Her weight being 135 pounds, while Buster’s was twice that amount. This exhibition is a fine example of the author’s contentions.

Of course, not everyone would care to do an intricate swimming stunt. But these swimming exhibitions have an important significance, and that is to show how simple and available, the ordinary free style of swimming should be to all.

These statements have a momentous import, for they completely revolutionize the age-old theories and ideas: That swimming is a matter of strength and endurance, developed muscles, great air capacity – that vitality and energy measured the ability of man’s swimming accomplishments – That one needs so much strength to swim a hundred yards, and so much more to swim a half mile, and if he had a lot of strength he could swim a couple of miles without stopping for rest.

But this is not so. For man does not need anywhere near the strength he possesses, even to swim many miles. Let me call this to your attention: When a man swims with arms securely bound in a straightjacket he loses completely the use of his hands and arms to aid him in swimming. They must be discounted entirely. With the legs bound together with iron chains, no leg kick at all is possible. A back thrash with both legs provide the only possible action. If in this condition a man can swim several miles, where then does the power come from that is believed so necessary for swimming, and how can it be used under such restrictions?

Thus the idea that the arms, hands and legs are the implements for this kind of swimming is found to be obviously erroneous. Likewise in long distance and handicap swimming the key to the situation is not found in strength and power, not in the generally accepted sense of their use. The whole problem must be approached from an altogether different angle, and the age-old theory of muscular development must be abandoned.

Breathing is an essential part of swimming. Yet it cannot be said that it takes power, in a normal person, to breathe. In involuntary breathing, the whole operation takes place automatically. The whole process of inhalations and exhalations takes place without any conscious thought whatsoever. Even in voluntary breathing it can hardly be said that it requires any power. This important action of involuntary breathing is rather symbolic of the way man ought to swim. All the ways of swimming should be governed by the laws of perpetual resuscitation, renewedly revitalized, and replenished with no conscious effort. A rhythmic harmonious counter-balance, with which one can keep up an almost continuous round of inexhaustible action.

This leads up to my contention that man can swim indefinitely. Webster gives as one of his definitions of the world ‘indefinitely’: “Without known or prescribed limits; as, to continue indefinitely” and the world ‘prescribed’ as “to lay down authoritatively as a guide, direction, or rule of action.”

Through my swimming experience the conviction has been growing clearer and clearer that there are no prescribed limits to the distance or time a man can swim, that no one can authoritatively prescribe where man’s ability ends. Whenever anyone has tried to do this he has based his opinion on physique, muscular development, strength, energy, training, condition, etc., whereas they cannot be judged by these standards. The deciding factors are wholly apart from them.

Of course I do not mean that a man can swim indefinitely in ice cold water, in hot water or under water. Nothing like this. Neither do I maintain that one can swim in the face of accident, that it is impossible to be choked or strangled to death, in the water. Neither do I contend that anyone’s head is harder than the bow of a boat or the blade of a boat’s propeller. A person who can swim two miles an hour can never make any headway against a four mile-an-hour current going in the opposite direction.

No impossible feat do I claim for swimming. I mean barring any untoward condition, accident, etc. no one can tell how far man, under natural, normal conditions really can swim.

I am not including ‘speed swimming’ which is the antithesis of all other types of swimming. Speed swimming is a combination of strength and skill. This is where all the muscle, vitality, endurance, and physical development, vim, vigor and practice is combined with the greatest knowledge obtainable on how to get the most possible propulsion with the least possible resistance. Hence championships in speed are decided by the one who can put the most of his earthly all in it for a limited distance. Championships are sometimes won by a fraction of a second, so it is easily understandable that a speed swimmer in a speed event would never lose the race because he had some strength left and didn’t use it. SO if a man races for a hundred yards, 220 or 440 yards and he puts his earthly all into that distance, he hasn’t much left at its completion.

Speed swimming and long distance swimming can be compared to running and walking. The American public has been educated to do everything with speed: Someone says “The last one to reach the raft is a rotten egg,” and everyone is off in a mad dash. Even when no one eggs the boys on they wind up in a race anyway, for someone always wants to get there first, and the others say to themselves, “Well, I’m not going to be last.”

Speed should dominate movement in the water no more than on land. When a group takes a two or three mile hike no one thinks of dashing out madly for a few hundred yards. We walk a large part of the time; only on special occasions do we run. We should run no more in the water than we do on land. When the occasion demands or when we are so inclined we have the right and privilege of running anytime we want to, on land or sea. What I am talking about is the out-of-proportion amount of running that is done in the water.

About 90 percent of swimming is “running,” and ten percent “walking” while the exact reverse should be so, and this for the serious and vital reason that speed is about the greatest energy long distance and handicap swimming has. The muscular, energetic pitch that necessarily has to be developed in this kind of swimming ends most disastrously for a large number of speed swimmers when the demand is put to them in increase their distance ten or twenty times. How can anyone continue to keep up the enormous expenditures of energy that is used in speed swimming? Watch swimmers closely after a hard race. Some almost collapse, some group for something to lean on while they pant for breath, trying to resuscitate themselves while they gain their equilibrium. If they had any more strength left they would have used it up in the race, either to beat the one ahead of him or to reduce his time for the distance. For this is the nature of this kind of swimming. It is nice to learn to swim swiftly, but in complete subordination to indefinite swimming.


An idea of the importance of what I am talking about “speed versus all around swimming” is indicated in the following article appearing in the New York Times Sunday, March 29, 1942: “Henry Ortland, United States Naval Academy swimming coach, told a meeting of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America that the youths of this country must be taught to ‘swim like the Japs.’

“Speaking at Harvard, where the coaches were assembled for the nineteenth annual National Collegiate Athletic Association swimming meet, Ortland said ‘Japanese endurance swimmers were responsible for the reconstruction of the Singapore causeway which enabled them to take the city.’

“The fall of Singapore and Hong Kong,” Ortland said, ‘was due in no small measure to the swimming ability of the Japanese troops who were able to effect landings by swimming ashore with full equipment.’

“He revealed that the Navy has changed its methods of swimming instruction from stressing speed and form to endurance and the ability to float for long periods in order that more lives can be saved in the event of emergencies at sea…

“In urging that methods of swimming instruction be changed to meet the needs of war, Henry Ortland, Navy mentor, reminded the gathering of coaches that the breast-stroke was of great value in saving energy while swimming. Ortland disclosed that after a recent battle off Java, one man kept himself afloat for twenty-eight hours before being rescued.”

This is the opening gun in a battle for a much need correction. This broadside delivered against “stressing speed and form” to “endurance and the ability to float for long periods in order that more lives can be saved -” is well taken. These statements would imply that there is considerably more of importance to learn about swimming for one’s safety than can be learned through speed swimming. And you can just bet on that.

“In urging that methods of swimming instruction be changed to meet the needs of war,” Henry Ortland is voicing a fact that has been much in need of the nation’s attention. It seems too bad that it had to take a World War to bring out this important fact. This of course will challenge the old school right down to its very foundations.

This cannonading signals the opening campaign to uncover and utilize the vast field of possibilities that is open to everyone. Much can be said about the accomplishing of these achievements. One does not need any particular stroke to swim long distances. It isn’t a case of what stroke, but how well you know its use, with control of the other features that fit in with the situation. Neither does one need to float on his back to be able to swim many miles. Long distance swimmers can swim many hours without turning over on their back once. The trick is to learn to rest in action, while you are swimming. It is erroneously believed that long distance swimmers float for long periods and a good, plain side stroke can be swam even easier than the breast stroke, for in it one doesn’t even need to hold his head up.

It is the understanding and demonstration of the laws and rules of this kind of swimming that is the essential thing, and not speed swimming. In long distance swimming you develop the ability to swim in an inexhaustible manner. You can swim for fun and recreation and at the same time you are learning something that can be of inestimable value in an emergency.

Develop the easy way of swimming. Learn to walk in the water the same as on land and you will discover that you can walk a considerably longer distance than you can run at break-neck speed. And, when you really learn literally to walk in the water you will find it is easier to swim long distances than to walk the same distance on land!

An idea of successful long distance or indefinite swimming can be compared favorably with the action of a battery and generator in an automobile. One’s swimming ability should be replenished and revitalized just as the generator generates electricity and replaces continually the amount drawn off from the battery. The more and faster it is drawn off the more and faster electricity is replaced by the generator, providing of course, that there is not too much of a drain put on it. When we have a good battery and generator and the expenditures are well under the ability to generate, think of what an awful long time this could be made to operate. In a like manner, in swimming, keep the expenditures of energy well under your ability to replenish and resuscitate them and you will find that you can swim for an indefinite period.

…Overdraw on the battery so that it is discharging instead of charging and it is only a question of time before it runs out.

Swimming being governed by rules and laws, a single lesson, by a teacher who understands them, should be of inestimable value to a swimmer who has passed the beginner’s stage. To really grasp some of the ideas that control swimming, should enable a swimmer to greatly enlarge his swimming ability, to know just what goals you are striving for, cannot help being of immense value to its possessor.

Buster taught swimming during World War I, in the United States Navy Training Station at Pelham Bay, New York. He was considered authoritative and competent back in 1918 and he has been teaching ever since. To teach swimming successfully, it takes more than is seen on the surface. It was after a swim from the Battery, New York to within a quarter of a mile of Sandy Hook, New Jersey about a twenty-five mile swim back in July of 1913 when I was a pretty good swimmer, that I was asked to do some teaching. I explained a swimming stroke to a beginner who on trying it immediately sank, after apparently doing just as I had described it. Then I started scratching my head trying to figure out where the trouble was. How could they sink when they did it the way I showed them? Then I discovered the great difference a slight angle of the wrist made. A slight angle in the wrong direction can make one lose all support or make him swim backward instead of forward. Here started, in the effort to help others, the years of scientific analysis by close self comparison and study of the physical and mental needs of the swimmer.

Here is where I discovered that empirical knowledge is worse than useless. Teaching from observation alone is impossible. One must have recourse to the actual knowledge of the sense of swimming, in order to be able to impart it. That this swimming sense is something that has to be felt and lived in order to be understood.

Swimming is a science and I keep on learning something new about it every time I take a swim today. Don’t be afraid that you will learn too much about it. Learning swimming is like learning mathematics, when you get through the public school, there is still some left to learn in high school. Then when you get through high school there is still plenty to learn at the college preparatory school. They say when you get through college then you have just reached the point where you are going to really learn something. No one person knows the all of swimming.

The actual knowledge of swimming is simple. The teacher’s object is to make these rules and accomplishments available to the beginner. In a most wonderful manner, not only swimming, but all the steps leading up to it, right from the very earliest start, are beautifully pre=arranged by nature, making it possible for everyone to acquire them by learning one little simple phase at a time. The steps to this achievement can be divided and sub-divided until they are made small enough for anyone to try.

What most beginners are seriously concerned about is being made to do something they are afraid to do. Adults as well as children would like to learn to swim, but when they see someone dive in the water, to do something too hard for them, especially when they have been seriously contemplating learning to swim themselves, they feel a wave of helplessness come over them. This is quite natural, for it is impossible to do these things without learning to do them the same as the one who is performing them. The something they saw the swimmer do is not something the swimmer grasped in one gulp. The swimming act represents the accumulative accomplishments of the swimmer. A whole series of efforts made this possible, and the beginner has to learn them individually, the same as everyone else, before they also can demonstrate their accumulative knowledge.

The real teacher should know all these different parts and how they can be acquired by the beginner, without scaring the pupil in the least. It is a very common occurrence for beginners to fear to take their feet off the bottom, or even lie down in the water. Strange as it may seem, one of the very first things to teach a beginner is to quit, to stand up, to get back on his feet the instant he wants to. After this is easily accomplished, the beginner has taken a great step forward, for now he can stop, at any moment when he wants to and this destroys his fear that he will be carried helplessly on – unable to do what he wants to – left to the mercy of the elements.

Now when beginners learn that they themselves control the situation, that they themselves possess the dominion and power of control over the situation, they learn to dissolve their fear, and start a sense of self-reliance, and dependable confidence that is symbolic of all the achievements in learning to swim. So each phase of swimming is taken up, the situation understand, the knowledge and practice established, and then the swimmer gains the control and dominion over that phase of swimming, hence adding knowledge to knowledge, and confidence to confidence which can also aid its possessor in other walks of life.

A Most Wonderful Things About the ONly Way to Teach and Learn to Swim

People are afraid to think of what they are scared of. Therefore they do not want to contemplate their fears by being brought face to face with them in learning to swim. Feeling that if they were to do so it would tend to terrorize rather than help them. A wonderful thing about the whole affair is that one does not need to be brought face to face with his fears at all, but can avoid them entirely. One does not need to let go of his constant poise and courage for an instant , but rather develops a growing sense of confidence and security, that just isn’t afraid of anything.

The swimming teacher’s work is to see that the beginners start off with a feeling of confidence. Confidence about anything pertaining to swimming. Then from this sense of confidence continual enlargements and additions are made. And as they add “precept upon precept; line upon line,” the whole course of learning to swim is just adding one confidence after another to the beginner’s storehouse. Thus they learn to associate confidence with every phase of the swimming conditions. They are really building up a series of confidences that they can maintain through the whole process of learning to swim.

Fear never taught anyone to swim, but we learn to swim in spite of it. Fear and ignorance are the would-be qualities that oppose our efforts. The actual knowledge of swimming knows no fear. Perhaps you have heard it said, “If I only knew how to swim I wouldn’t be afraid of anything.” As ‘confidence’ and ‘knowledge’ both know no fear it is the teacher’s job to assist the beginner in the exercises, that bring in confidence and this knowledge. When these two qualities meet and are united together, the victory is won over just that phase of swimming.

Some people that are very much frightened do not gain their confidence until after their knowledge. Confidence without knowledge or ability of course is very dangerous. For with a false sense of security one might be let to try some things over their head that may end disastrously. We must insist on the proper guidance and protection at all times. Wisdom and intelligence are always in order. After all man can drown. The author has had a number of close calls learning how to do these stunts. I always have a boat handy in case things go wrong, whether through bad judgment or otherwise.

This sense of swimming is a way of life; something you live.

One of the most important parts of teaching is the FEELING that goes into it. This highly indispensable part of teaching cannot be known by an observer for they cannot be seen but only felt by the swimmer when he swims. I could give a hundred logical reasons why such a teacher cannot teach, but space will not permit.

The joy and hope of successful swimming accomplishments, the confidence and faith that it establishes, the encouragement and security, the dominion and victory experienced by the swimmer, are all unknown, having been denied to this kind of a teacher. In spite of all the various amusing lam excuses these people give why they cannot swim, they point to other people’s successes and claim that is their own.

This is a wonderful thing this swimming sense, or sense of swimming. It contains all confidence and ability, it includes all knowledge and courage. It possesses all intelligent action and security. Self reliant and harmonious, it knows that it is the reality of accomplishment with its fruition, joy and supremacy. It contains within itself everything that everybody must gain in order to learn to swim. This swimming sense is what destroys that which opposes itself. The real instructor teaches from and by this sense. Working from its intelligence and logic. Illuminating the steps with what this sense has already established. By example he just lights up the path to its accomplishment for his pupils.

When man learns to do most any particular accomplishment, and has gotten it down pretty fine he can continue to do it with hardly any conscious thought about it. While he is doing the many and often difficult parts correctly, he can remove his thought almost completely from what he is doing, and think of something altogether different. Some people call this, “Doing it automatically” that is without any conscious effort, others call it “Working instinctively,” or, by the operation of the subconscious mind. In swimming I call it a “swimming sense’ or a “sense of swimming.” Whether done consciously or otherwise. This is the mental ability or fruitage or actually knowing how, gained from the ability to learn the sense of swimming. This is what we must have and gain in order to learn or teach, working from it and back to it.

It is downright chicanery from anyone to claim that he can teach this sense simply because he argues and debates, makes a number of pungent descriptions, or lives and associates with those that have gained this living reality. No more than associating with a Mischa Elman or an Albert Einstein makes you a musician or a scientist.

I hope that I have been making it plain what swimming is not as well as what it is.

Perhaps you didn’t know that there are very few real swimming instructors. Buster has spent these years teaching and analysing the singular individual parts that go to make up swimming, teaching the young and those advanced in years, for everyone can learn. Those who pass this way must learn their way through, whether they start at age three or seventy. The series of accomplishments all tend to build up one’s confidence and courage, which serve to overcome and dissolve all the fear. This is the reason the instructor NEVER frightens his pupils, because it only would tend to make the whole situation that more difficult to overcome. He continually buttresses his pupils’ efforts with everything that instills with a self reliant trustworthiness, and fear is the would-be enemy of all this, that a beginner would try to do. One must let reason and intelligence govern his feelings and actions, and fight off the misgivings and uncertainties of fear. The actual knowledge of swimming demonstrated annihilates age-old superstitions and fear.

Buster isn’t a chauffeur out of a job, or a college boy who is teaching swimming for a few seasons to help pay his way through college, who then forgets all about it. But, a professional instructor who through many years of teaching summer and winter (in Florida) has definitely proven his own ability to swim, and who will be glad to prove to you or any member of your family that he can teach anyone to swim.

Let Buster teach you how to make friends with the water. It is the cleanest of sports, a dandy recreation, and can be most useful to yourself and others. Let Buster show you have really simple it is to learn to swim.

A Few of Elion’s Swimming Accomplishments

* Swam from the Battery, New York City, to Swimeburne Island and return shackled hand and foot, covering a distance of 30 miles in 10 hours and 20 minutes.
* Shackled hand and foot and towing 7 men in a boat, swam in mid-water from Brooklyn Bridge to Bay Ridge, a distance of 7 miles in 3 hours and 40 minutes.
* From the Battery to Fort Wadsworth in the Narrows, swam with hands and feet free, bound with a 200 lb. man on his bank. Distance of 10 miles. Time, 4 hours 50 minutes.
* From Breakers to Gus’ Baths at Palm Beach, Florida, swam, shackled hand and foot, towing 9 men in a sea dory and with 2 men strapped on his back. Time 2 hours 50 minutes.
* Swam from the Battery to Coney Island, shackled hand and foot. Distance 13 miles. Time 6 hours and 30 minutes.
* Swam from Bay Ridge and the Battery, bound on a chair with 100 feet of rope.
* Swam through Hell Gate in mid-winter, with 2 men bound to his back, hands and feet shackled.
* Swam Hell Gate, in regulation straight jacket, legs bound by 15 feet of iron chain. Then again in mid-winter, tied in a sack and bound with 40 feet of rope.
* Swam from the Battery, New York to 65th Street, May Ridge, 6 miles, bound in a regulation straight jacket. Legs bound with 15 feet of iron chain.
* Among a number of swims with arms and legs free was a three-tide swim from the Battery, New York to within 200 yards of Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
* Swam 65 miles starting at 179th Street, Hudson River, swam to Swimeburne Island, from there to 189th Street, Hudson River and from there to the Battery. This was his longest salt water ocean swim.
* One of Buster’s first local swims was from Ocean, Beach, New London, Connecticut to Fisher’s Island, New York.
* Another local swim from Norwich, Connecticut down the Thames River, to the Public Landing in New London.

Copyright © 2008-2017 by World Open Water Swimming Association