Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Samuel Richards, Jr. was a successful and prolific American open water swimmer who peaked around 100 years ago. He challenged himself and other leading swimmers along the East Coast.

After he did not complete the 10-mile Boston Light Swim in 1907 as a member of the L Street Brownies Club, he kept on plugging away and won the 1911 event in 6 hours 15 minutes and the 1912 race in 5 hours 15 minutes when only 3 swimmers out of 42 entrants completed the race.

In 1913, he joined 10 other swimmers to swim from the Charlestown Bridge to Boston Light in an unprecedented attempt. Richards and two others completed the distance to Boston Light Swim, but only Richards attempted the return swim. After an estimated 24 miles (38.6 km), he completed the two-way crossing in 13 hours 9 minutes.

Richard also attempted to complete a P2P Swim, a 20-mile crossing of Massachusetts Bay, known as the American Channel in 1915. He did not make the swim that was only successfully crossed in 1968 (by Russell Chaffee).

Over the course of his career, Richards was the first man to swim the Boston Light Swim 14 times and set several records including the following:

* one-way 10-mile swim from Charlestown Bridge to Boston Light in 5 hours 15 minutes
* two-way 20-mile swim between Charlestown Bridge and Boston Light in 13 hours 9 minutes
* 17-mile swim from Charlestown Bridge to Graves Light in 5 hours 40 minutes
* 22-mile swim from New York Battery to Sandy Hook, New Jersey in 8 hours 11 hours
* 40-mile swim down the Delaware River in 15 hours 14 minutes
* 3-mile swim from Bass Point to Beachmont, Massachusetts in 1 hour 36 minutes

Richards reportedly stated that he preferred inexperienced pilots to escort him on his unprecedented swims. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote, “[The pilots] don’t know enough to argue with him about the proper amount of food to be eaten on a 12-mile swim, and so Sam gets all he wants.
Richards’ habit of eating during races nearly caused his downfall in that race against [Charles Dubarrow].

In the middle of the race, a man rowed over to him and offered him a mug of beer. That happened to be one time Sam didn’t care for beer. He went out like a light after drinking it. It had been doctored. But it was too late then to spoil the race.”

At the time, Durborow was considered one of the best marathon swimmers in the world and the rivals had a match race across Delaware Bay.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle added, “Sam had raced some 2,500 miles in the water to date, and hopes to do a lot more before he is through. If he wins the first prize of $10,000 at Toronto [at the Canadian National Exhibition race] he may quit his job in a Boston brush factory and spend the rest of his days canoeing, which next to eating end swimming is now his favorite sport. In 1913, at the peak of his swimming form, he weighed 225 pounds and seven years later, although in perfect health, he weighed only 150 pounds. What a man.”

During the 1914 summer, while Richards and Durborow were challenging each other to match races “to settle the question of national supremacy in distance swimming” (from the New York Times on January 25th 1914), other leading swimmers put their money behind their aquatic talents. “Miss Rose Pitonoff, also of Boston, wants to try conclusions over the Sandy Hook route with any New York swimmer, or Alfred Brown more particularly, for $500 or $1,000 a side. She also suggest that Richards, who claims the record for the course and Henry Sullivan of Lowell, who last summer attempted to swim the English Channel, be included in the defi and will be welcome. Miss Elaine Golding is considering Miss Pitonoff’s challenge and says she will probably accept it,” reported the New York Times in 1914.

These prominent swimmers of the previous century were covered in the leading newspapers of their era.

Richards’ epitaph on his memorial include the following words:

If you would learn to swim with ease,
Go into the water above your knees,
Be not afraid of fish or wave
And sometime a life you’ll surely save.

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