The Persistence Of Ralph Willard

Courtesy of KAATSU Global, Huntington Beach, California.

Ralph Willard was persistent to say the least.

In the early morning on Island Park in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, a group of swimmers competed in a 42.9 km race that was one of eight marathon swims that were sanctioned by the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation in 1970. The group competing in America’s Marathon Swim included a number of renowned swimmers: Dennis Matuch, Tom Hetzel, Johan Schans, Abdel Latif Abou-Heif, Horacio Iglesias, Stella Taylor, Marwan Shedid, and Mohamed Hussein Gamei.

Willard stood out – being shorter, smaller and rounder – among the 20- and 30-something year olds who were fighting trim, tall and powerful looking.

The swimmers came from 21 countries including Argentina, Holland, Mexico, United Arab Republic, England, Canada, Syria, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Sudan, Spain, New Zealand and the U.S.A. First place received US$2,000 (or US$13,632 in 2020 dollars). The first woman to finish received a US$100 bonus (US$681 in 2020 dollars) in the memorial swim that was dedicated to its founder, the late Captain Roger W. Wheeler.

Swimmers came from 21 countries including Argentina, Holland, Mexico, United Arab Republic, England, Canada, Syria, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Sudan, Spain, New Zealand and the U.S.A. First place received US$2,000 or US$$13,632 in 2020 dollars. The first woman to cross the finish line received a US$100 bonus or US$681 in 2020 dollars.

The 56-year-old Willard embodied the passion and persistence that reigns supreme among contemporary marathon swimmers, but racing in the 1970s was in a different era:

* the swimmers stayed in an old college dorm before the race
* they bunked up to 11 swimmers in a room without blankets
* they subsided on oatmeal for breakfast, rice for lunch, and spaghetti for dinner
* standard house paint was used to print numbers on their backs before the race
* many ate canned peaches before and during their swims
* no drafting or pack swimming

Willard enjoyed his time among his younger competitors who were more worried about the conditions, food, and their competitive rivals. But Willard was not the only American who was not planning to be on the podium at the end of the race; he would be joined at the back of the pack by Benson Huggard and Reginald Huffstetler, Geoffrey Lake, and Maurice Zatonsky.

For the America’s Marathon Swim that was started by Governor Frank Licht, the first 24 km was along the eastern side of Rhode Island, down the Sakonnet River. This would be the relatively easy part of the race. With the exception of Iglesias and Schans who broke out fast, the rest of the field faced the tidal forces that hit them in the transition from the Sakonnet River to the Atlantic Ocean. Many got sick and vomited, a few experienced hallucinations, but all felt what Iglesias had eloquently expressed, “[Marathon swimming] is like a kind of drug, this swimming. It hurts, but you don’t want to stop. Maybe it is pride. If the others stay, you stay.”

As others finished the 42.9 km race in Newport Harbor, Willard was still stuck in Sakonnet River fighting the conditions in the first 22 km of the course.

His effort were described by Dan Levin of Sports Illustrated Magazine, “And far behind, Ralph Willard, 56 and pot-bellied, was still in the water. He had been last from the start, and after an hour many thought he was through. After seven hours he was so far back that his boat crew begged him to get out. One of his crew even claimed to be having a heart attack. Finally, they motored off and left him. However, his son, who was also his trainer, leaped overboard and swam with him for an hour until a houseboat came along. A few hours and they wanted out, too, but Ralph Willard kept swimming. Marine radios throughout the area buzzed with the story. “He hasn’t been fed for six hours,” was one widespread report—an exaggeration. Finally, the race committee ordered him out. He wouldn’t budge. He stayed in the water for 12 hours, until the race officially ended. He had swum 22 kilometers.”

Top Six Results:
1. Horacio Iglesias (Argentina) 10 hours 21 minutes 20 seconds, US$2000
2. Johan Schans (Holland) 10 hours 44 minutes, US$1000
3. Marwan Shedid (Egypt) 11 hours 25 minutes 25 seconds, US$800
4. Abdel Latif Abou-Heif (Egypt) 11 hours 51 minutes 56 seconds, US$600
5. Dennis Matuch (USA) 11 hours 53 minutes 11 seconds, US$400
6. Mohamed Hussein Gamei (Egypt) 11 hours 57 minutes 56 seconds, US$200

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