Early American History Of National Open Water Championship Events

Courtesy of WOWSA, Chain Bridge, Potomac River, Washington, D.C.

The first American national open water swimming championships was reportedly held in 1925.

The race was from Chain Bridge to Georgetown in the Potomac River near Washington D.C., although local races such as the La Jolla Rough Water Swim in California had started earlier in 1916.

The Chain Bridge crosses the Potomac River at Little Falls in Washington, D.C.

In August 1925, then-American President Calvin Coolidge sponsored the national open water swimming championship in the Potomac River over a 3-mile course. It was an annual event, called the President’s Cup, hosted by the Washington Canoe Club.

According to Tim Johnson, author of the book History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming, the American governing body AAU designated the event from Chain Bridge to Georgetown as a national championship event where up to 10 swimmers competed from each club, but only the first three finishers scored points. Because each swimmer was escorted by a canoe, the Washington Canoe Club served as the host team. The winning team kept the President’s Cup for a year and returned the following year to defend its title in the years before the Great Depression.

But the history of national open water swimming championships in the United States goes back further than 1925 according to Johnson. “[The swimmers] were constantly racing and [they were] calling [the events either] championships or All-American something beginning in the 1880’s. The New York Athletic Club hosted events either in the Harlem River starting in the 1880’s or at Travers Island from floating docks.

I’m sure the New York Athletic Club has the last trophy called the President’s Cup in their display cabinets.

There were also local races that weren’t as publicized in Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston [starting] from the 1880’s which is included in the History of Open-Water Marathon Swimming.”

The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) records show a list national records accepted in 1902 for the following events:

* 110 Yards Straightaway Across Tidal Salt Water (1:17 by Charles Ruberl)
* 440 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 3 Turns (6:18 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 550 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 4 Turns (8:21 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 650 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 5 Turns (10:04 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 770 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 6 Turns (11:51 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 990 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 8 Turns (15:45 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 1100 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 9 Turns (17:32 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 1210 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 10 Turns (19:19 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 1430 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 12 Turns (22:58 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 1540 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 13 Turns (24:49 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 1650 Yards Across Tidal Salt Water 14 Turns (26:34 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)
* 1 Mile Across Tidal Salt Water 15 Turns (28:14 by E. Carroll Schaeffer)

Schaeffer, whose nickname was Midget, was the first great American college swimmer who took his talents to the open water where he set numerous records. And, like other talented swimmers of that era, he did not limit his athletic exploits to merely competitive swimming. He held the American record for swimming underwater (232 ft. 11 in), was a diving champion, an accomplished water polo player.

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