On Course – Eventually – To The Olympic Marathon Swim

Courtesy of WOWSA, Catalina Channel, California.

When Commander C. Gerald Forsberg, OBE served as President of the British Long Distance Swimming Association and hosted the Windermere International Championships in England, he described how a small group of open water swimming enthusiasts met in Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, England “with the expressed intention of forming [an organization] to foster and encourage the sport. From this tiny spark, [the British Long Distance Swimming Association was formed and] a small flame emerged at the inaugural meeting held at Leeds in 1956, when the suggestion of an International Championship was first put forward.

Ten years of hard work and the formation of many other championships ranged throughout Great Britain, finally culminated in the first International Championship in 1966, and subsequent championships have been held every fourth year, making in effect the long distance swimmers Olympiad. During this time, the British Long Distance Swimming Association has twice made approaches to the International Olympic Committee through the Amateur Swimming Association, urging that a Marathon Swim be included in the Games programme.

Two years after Commander Forsberg described the situation and the efforts of people like Margaret Smith, Val Parsons and Roger Parsons, his American colleagues continued to lobby the IOC and FINA decision-makers to consider adding a marathon swim to the Olympic Games.

They used the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games as a platform and opportunity.

A week after the closing ceremonies of the 1984 LA Olympics, tbe Catalina Channel Swimming Federation organized another international event that drew the attention of the open water community and international decision-makers including eventually led to the inclusion of the 10 km marathon swim in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The open water swimming community had long dreamed and talked about including a marathon swim into the Olympic Games,” recalled Steven Munatones. “But it tooks years – actually, decades – of discussions, multitude of events, innumerable meetings and dinners, and the relentless passion of a number of dedicated, selfless people all working towards one singular goal.”

One of those seminal events that stimulated discussions of Olympic possibilities was the 41.03 km crossing of the Catalina Channel in Southern California. Munatones said, “Instead of taking the shortest possible course between Santa Catalina Island and the Southern California mainland that would lead to swimmers finishing a number of located along the rocky cliffs, Penny Dean, Richard Yeo, John York, Dottie York, Ray Falk, Chuck Slocombe, John Olguin, Chuck Lidell, Ken Downs, John Hill, Ken Jewett, Dr. Arthur Aratow, Dr. Dennis Coffee, Pam Nickle, Martin LaRoque, Tom Coulter, Erick Erickson, Art McDevitt, Katy Colleen O’Hara, Doug Bombard, Audrey Bombard, Carla Watson, Parry Watson and Dale Petranech organized the event to finish on Cabrillo Beach where IOC and FINA delegates and representatives could watch the swimmers finish.”

Penny Dean and Dale Petranech represented United States Swimming; Val Parsons represented the British Long Distance Swimming Association; Pavel Pazdirek represented the Czechoslovak Swimming Union; A.F. Shafshak represented the Long Distance Swimming Federation of Egypt.

The event had garnered attention from many notable officials in the United States:

President Ronald Reagan, “Very best wishes for a most exciting and enjoyable competition.”

Vice President George Bush, “Best wishes for a successful event.”

California Senator Pete Wilson, “As you undertake the challenge of this competition that demonstrates your courage and the athletic skills you have worked so hard to attain, each of you can take pride in your sportsmanship knowing that the competition you will wage is but a small measure of the victory you have gained in life. May each competitor enjoy the thrill and satisfaction of sports participation as avidly as those spectators who will cheer you on. Best wishes to all the athletes and United States Swimming and the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation for sponsoring these two post-Olympic events.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana: “The courage with which you have faced the intensive training necessary to embark upon this athletic endeavor is the very trait that will carry you to even greater accomplishments. I salute your undaunted spirit and congratulate each of you – athletes, participants, and support crews – for embarking on this step toward making marathon swimming a part of future Olympic Summer Games. Your determination, discipline, and dedication are deserving of the highest esteem. You are proving that athletic excellence knows no boundaries. I await your triumphant arrival on the mainland.”

Huntington Beach Mayor Jack Kelly, “Your events are for only the heartiest of contestants. I extend my best wishes to the participants. They are to be commended for their physical endurance and their commitment for the continued quality of competitive aquatic sports.”

Other events including the 26 km Windermere International Championships in 1982 had provided momentum for the First International Open Ocean Swim.

The First International Open Ocean Swim was a two-race event. There was a 16.09 km coastal race held between the piers of Huntington Beach and Seal Beach on August 18th, and a longer 41.03 km channel swim across the Catalina Channel on August 20th that started at the Isthmus Beach on Catalina Island and finished at Cabrillo Beach on the Southern California mainland.

Catalina Channel Crossing Results:
1. John York (23, USA) 8 hours 54 minutes 1 seconds
2. Rick Heltzel (27, USA) 9 hours 4 minutes 12 seconds
3. Mohamed Ibrahim Elwakeel (16, Egypt) 9 hours 23 minutes 6 seconds
4. Carol Lee Heltzel (29, USA) 9 hours 28 minutes 28 seconds- first woman
5. Alison Streeter (19, England) 9 hours 33 minutes 0 seconds – second woman
6. Lamia Nabil Zaki (23, Egypt) 9 hours 52 minutes 30 seconds – third woman
7. David Morgan (20, England) 11 hours 23 minutes 0 seconds

The USA team had Penny Dean, Siga Albrecht, and Syndi Goldenson as the escort boat coaches who had guide their swimmers along this special course that not only started at an unusual time (7:30 am), but was also 9 km longer than the traditional Catalina Channel crossing.

The 1984 event was the first race across the Catalina Channel since the Wrigley Ocean Marathon in 1927.

York won the 41.09 km race in 8 hours 54 minutes under challenging conditions, finishing on Cabrillo Beach, a few miles further than the traditional landing point near the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes on the San Pedro Peninsula.

The two Egyptian channel swimmers – 16-year-old Mohamed Ibrahim Elwakeel and 23-year-old Lamia Nabil Zaki – were pushed into double duty. They not only competed in the cross-channel race, but they also raced in the 16.09 km coastal swim two days before.

The event was run professionally, but on a shoestring budget that helped created a camaraderie among all the participants because they knew key FINA and IOC members would be at the finish on the mainland. During the night between the two races, the swimmers stayed at the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Catalina Island while the volunteers, officials and administrators staying overnight in tents on the island. “One of the highlights of the pre-race activities was a buffalo chip throwing contest for distance won by England’s David Morgan,” recalled Dean.

The race started at the Isthmus on Catalina Island immediately prior to dawn by the sheriff discharging his magnum pistol into the air. “The weather and ocean conditions were ideal,” said Dale Petranech, the USA Swimming representative and team manager. “There were a few watch-outs for “SeaWeed” cautions (i.e., shark sightings) because we didn’t want to panic the swimmers.

I also recalled the Egyptian coach would blow his whistle to encourage his swimmer every time he took a breath. The rest of the entourage found this very annoying, but it stopped after American John York passed the Egyptian swimmer. The whistling stopped, but from what we could see, any support (e.g., feeding) was also stopped for the rest of the race.”

In addition to the solo swimmers, an international relay was set up to allow all the swimmers to compete in the Catalina Channel race. The winning relay was the USA Swimming national team against an international team of swimmers. The American Team comprised of Jay Wilkerson, Jim McConica, Martha Jahn, Karen Burton, Chad Hundeby and Erika Reetz won in record time. The International Relay with Tom Hilgen (USA), Ossama Momtaz (Egypt), Nancy North (USA), Marien Farid (Egypt), Dr. Jaroslav Novak (Czechoslovakia) and Ayman Mohammed Saad (Egypt) finished in 8 hours 14 minutes.

Prior to the cross-channel race on Monday, the 16.09 km race from the Huntington Beach Pier to the Seal Beach Pier won by Tom Fristoe in 3 hours 9 minutes, followed by Tom Hilgen, Nancy North and Dr. Jaroslav Novak.

Dean recalls, “The person in charge of getting all the boats and navigation was Ken Jewitt. The person who did publicity and communication was Katy O’Hara did the publicity and was responsible for communications. Dottie York was in charge of the paddlers. We had to get all these people to Catalina Island.

We swam during the day to make it easier and finished at Cabrillo Beach, making it a 25.5-mile crossing. This made the times even more impressive.”

The Windermere International Championships and First International Open Ocean Swim help continue the tide towards inclusion of a marathon swim in the Olympic Games. In the 1980s, the-then FINA President Robert Helmick authorized a special commission to study open water swimming and determine its place in the FINA Family of Aquatic Sports. Later in 1988, FINA President Mustafa Lafaoui established a Technical Open Water Swimming Committee to formalize Open Water Swimming Rules, conduct World Championships in the 5 km, 10 km and 25 km distances and to help support efforts to add a marathon swimming event in to Olympic Games. These efforts – eventually – came to fruition in October 2005 with the formal addition of the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

There was a lot that happened – with countless hours of unselfish dedication by so many people and many events sanctioned by FINA – between those first ideas tossed around in Huddersfield, the subsequent IOC lobbying by the ASA, and the ultimate acceptance of a 10 km marathon swim in the Olympics. Perseverance, a hallmark of marathon swimmers, was certainly embodied by all of those who were part of this decades-long efforts,” summed up Munatones.

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