The sport of open water swimming is unique in the world of athletics and extreme sports.
While men are often the most dominant figures in any given sport, open water swimming has long been influenced by women from pioneers like Annette Kellerman and Ida Elionsky [shown on left] in the early 20th century to swimmers like Lynne Cox and Shelley Taylor-Smith in more contemporary times.
In modern times, the top earners in the sport are largely women and range from competitors like Keri-Anne Payne, Natalie du Toit, Ana Marcela Cunha and Poliana Okimoto to adventurers like Diana Nyad and marathon swimmers like Chloë McCardel.
While the opportunities for contemporary women (and men) in open water swimming is only limited by one’s creativity, imagination and dedication, it was not always the case…especially over 100 years ago.
“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 who was born in 1903.
Over 100 years ago in September 1916, the brother-and-sister Elionsky duo swam around Manhattan in 11 hours 35 minutes – with their hands and feet bound at least 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.
“”But she was also extremely interested in reading. She would read a dictionary and enjoyed learning from her encyclopedias. We still have her Webster International Dictionary that stands almost as tall as my hand. She would always go look up every word she did not know, but she never went to school.
Henry had just an incredible body, 235 pounds. He believed everyone could swim; he had written about this potential by everyone to swim. 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.
They did the swim around Manhattan and did other swims in New York and Connecticut. They were well-known at the time – both as swimmers and entertainers.”
While Ida did not talk much about her swimming achievements, she definitely did not want to talk about her age. “We do not really know how old she was,” said Langfield. “At the time, it was not important to keep birth records and she did not really know her age. In fact, she scribbled out her birthdate on her passport and articles [see above]. She has a thing about her age. June 6th 1903 is what we assume to be her birthdate. So when she did her swim around Manhattan with Uncle Henry on September 24th 2016, she was, possibly, 13 years old. It was mind-boggling what she did at her age and during that era. They did other swims, but Uncle Henry was the showman, he was friends with Buster Crabbe. They made movies about their swimming.”
But Langfield did learn bits and pieces about the most famous swim of her grandmother and uncle.
“They face rain and tides around Manhattan; it was not great conditions. Uncle Henry called the media to make a big production of the swim. His theory was that anyone could swim. [Completing the swim around Manhattan] was simply an issue of one’s mindset and training.”
Ida, then a young tween, went along and swam well around Manhattan to support her brother. But swimming remained a major part of her life. “She was later in a car accident. The only place that she felt good, some of it was mental, was in the water. She would say, ‘I have to get in the water.’
We grew up in New London, Connecticut and she would swim out in the Thames River to a lighthouse. The lighthouse keepers would chat with this lone swimmer and then she would swim back.”
She passed away in 1983, living and swimming a life well-lived with a legacy that helped lay the foundation for a century of continued excellence of women in the open water.
Additional articles on a true pioneer who was only a young teenager when she was doing a variety of open water swims, occasionally bound by hand and foot, including swimming around Manhattan Island, about 100 years ago:
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