Courtesy of Captain Tim Johnson, PE, History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming.
Captain Tim Johnson, PE, author of the History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming, wrote about the first recorded swim in a newspaper article:
The public history of open water swimming begins with a swimming event that took place in London on September 17th 1791.
In a short paragraph in the London Times1, there was a report of three men swimming from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge in the afternoon, a distance of just under 2 miles.
It probably never would have been recorded had not the victor been carried on the shoulder of the crowd to a public house to celebrate and swimming suffered its first loss.
It was reported that the winning swimmer drank so much gin that he expired a half an hour after the event.
One would expect that for a swim of 2 miles, you wouldn’t find many takers if they were not already prepared for the exertion. Smaller swims would have been undertaken previously in private. It should also be noted that the victor garnered 8 guineas.2 A person or organization could have sponsored the award or it could have been a wager. Seeing as how it was held in the middle of London, it probably drew the contestants from a wide area. The fact that this event was reported in the London Times is most probably due to the death of the unnamed winner than to the fact of their swimming in the Thames.
This unnamed victor could well be the Phidippides3 of swimming, except for the fact that he died from drinking and not swimming.
The oversight of not recording the name could be attributed to the novelty of the event and that sport reporting had not matured enough to include the names of the participants and the times.
This swim and other swim stories can be found in History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming available here at Amazon. A donated will be made by Captain Johnson to help support the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.
Captain Johnson’s book covers a wide sweep of marathon swimming from the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim to early English and Austria swims, the 1896 Olympics, shark cage swims, Cuba to Florida swims, the first Chesapeake Bay swim, the first Boston Light swim, the first Alcatraz swim, the first Long Island Sound swim, the first Potomac swim, the first swim across the Baltic Sea, the first swim across Block Island Sound, the first swim to Block Island, the first swim across the Messina Straits, the first swim across the Mersey, and the first swim across Straits of Gibraltar.
1 London Times, September 19th 1791.
2 One guinea represents one pound and one shilling (1.05). In today’s US dollars, 8 guineas is about US$13.
3 Phidippides was the runner who ran 26 miles to Athens to announce victory over the Persians, dying shortly afterwards due to exhaustion having completed a 280-mile round-trip run to Sparta prior to the battle.
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