In the world of professional marathon swimming, four women have stood out among their male counterparts. Greta Andersen went goggle-to-goggle with her male rivals in the 1950s and 1960s, often winning and proving herself the greatest of all. Judith van Berkel-de Njis was similar, winning over men and women at the 1964 31-mile Lake Ontario swim in Canada, the 1965 19-mile Lake Ohrid race in Macedonia, the 1965 and 1967 20-mile Maratona del Golfo Capri-Napoli in Italy, the 1965 40K (25-mile) Alexandrium race in Egypt, the 1966 20-mile Traversée internationale du Lac St-Jean in 8 hours in Canada, the 1967 10-mile Hamilton race in Canada, and the 1968 Canalswim Cape Rennes from France to Dover, England.
Shelley Taylor-Smith won the 1991 world professional marathon swimming circuit, outpointing her male rivals that was the catalyst to having separate male and female cash prizes.
These three women have been inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame with Greta and Shelley having been also honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969 and 2008 respectively.
But there is also a fourth gender-bender, a pioneering young woman, Sandra Bucha in the 1970s, who competed well against the top men of her era throughout her short-lived professional career. Sandra was a star throughout her swimming career. Ever smiling and hard working, she appeared on the cover of Swimming World Magazine as a promising age-group pool swimmer and enjoyed an outstanding three-year career as a professional marathon swimmer while studying history as an undergraduate student at Stanford University.
Between her formative years as a young swimmer and before her college career, she and her father, Colonel Paul Bucha Sr., filed a lawsuit against the Illinois High School Federation based on sex discrimination. Their lawsuit went to the Illinois Supreme Court that ultimately ruled that girls deserved equal opportunities to compete in competitive sports on the same level as high school boys. This lawsuit, which was an early precursor to Sandra’s later legal career as prosecutor, public defender and personal injury attorney, resulted in the state of Illinois offering separate competitive sports programs for girls.
While Greta’s male nemesis was Egyptian Abdul Latif Abou-Heif in the 1960s and Shelley’s was Argentinian Diego Degano in the 1990s, Sandra’s rival was her own American teammate, one of the fastest and most prolific marathon swimmers of all time, Olympic gold medalist John Kinsella.
Both distance swimmers got into marathon swimming after the 1972 Munich Olympics. While John won a gold medal in Munich to add to his 1968 Olympic silver medal, Sandra’s pool swimming career came crushingly to an end when she missed the U.S. Olympic Team by a mere 7 tenths of a second in the 100-meter freestyle.
But in an era when collegiate swimming was not the option that it currently is for women, Sandra took to the open water. Based on her successful pool swimming career where she once set an American record in the 200-meter freestyle and her 1971 national championship in the open water, Sandra set off on an unprecedented marathon swimming career. Her first swim was the 1973 10-mile Chicago Lake Front race as part of the Chicago Lakefront Festival in Lake Michigan where she placed second overall finishing only a minute behind Johann “The Flying Dutchman” Schans of the Netherlands. She won US$3,000 while setting a record for women as a college freshman.
“I decided after the Olympic Trials that I was not going to swim anymore. School comes first.” But after reading an invitation to the Chicago Lake Front race, she contacted her old coach. “I couldn’t do anything without him. He’s always been my coach.” By her sophomore year, she picked up the pace during her summer vacation.
She finished second overall again at the 1974 Chicago Lake Front pro race, winning a bonus of US$1,000 for being the first woman in 3 hours 47 minutes. Completing the 20-loop ½-mile course in 3 hours 41 minutes, she won US$2,000 in the wake of John Kinsella’s victory. She then teamed up with John at the 24-hour