Yvetta Hlaváčová Honored By The International Marathon Swimming Hall Of Fame
After competing for 9 years on the FINA World Cup professional marathon swimming circuit, Hlaváčová crossed the 33.5 km English Channel in 2005 in 8 hours 42 minutes at the age of 30 with escort pilot Reg Brickell. But the next year, she came back and broke the legendary record of Penny Dean with a 7 hour 25 minute crossing with escort pilot Michael Oram. Her swim remains to this day the only female in the Top 10 English Channel crossings in history.
Hlaváčová gave the interview in her native Czech language, but below are her answers in English:
Ned Denison: You travelled all over the world from 1993-2007 on the elite racing circuit. What were your favorite events?
Yvetta Tulip Hlaváčová: I liked to swim anywhere with an easygoing atmosphere and nice natural environment in clear seas and clean lakes with colder waters. I have never been able to race in warm water. I don’t know why, but it just didn’t work for me. Besides, I can’t really race, believe it or not. I wasn’t predatory enough and, because of my height, I couldn’t swim properly in the scrum. I needed space around me. I didn’t like thrashing about in a group of swimmers and it seemed unfair to breathe down someone’s neck, so the lead group usually got away from me. My favorite events were in Switzerland and Slovenia, and I also loved Egypt in the springtime.
Ned Denison: Who were your toughest competitors?
Yvetta Tulip Hlaváčová: The Germans and Russians had always been good and tough. It amazed me what they were capable of. I’ve never been able to win like that, at any cost.
Ned Denison: What was your motivation in going for the English Channel?
Yvetta Tulip Hlaváčová: To have a chance to swim alone and at ease. That was the place where I could show what was in me. Race only with myself and not compete with others. It was just me and the sea. I’ve always had a feeling that the winner was the one who hit harder, the one who could take advantage of the waning energies of other swimmers in the scrum. It didn’t seem fair to me, but, unfortunately, that’s what long distance swimming is about. The English Channel is different, everyone swims across for themselves.
Ned Denison: You swam a fast time in 2005 and then went back in 2006 – did you know that with better conditions you had a chance for the record?
Yvetta Tulip Hlaváčová: In 2005, I was just getting to know The Channel and everything it entails. For example, I was not happy with the choice of the pilot for my escort boat. I got a recommendation, which I took, as I had no experience. The pilot sent me to the sea in bad conditions. Yet, on the same day, Christof Wandratsch swam the world record. But he started about 2 hours later. We discussed this with my pilot, and he admitted that my early start had been misjudged. I wanted the world record, but it turned out to be only an absolute Czech record.
In 2006, I chose a pilot myself. I knew already what to expect from The Channel and I prepared accordingly. I changed my tactics as well. I swam the world record based on the mean time of my double crossing of The Channel.
Ned Denison: After setting the female record of 7 hours 25 minutes breaking the 28-year record of Penny Lee Dean…you went back in 2007. Did you have a plan to break your own record?
Yvetta Tulip Hlaváčová: Absolutely. That day when I swam the world record, I felt terribly sick. I also divided my strength to pursue a double crossing and back. I was seasick and I could not eat or drink anything. I really suffered terribly. So, I wanted to have another chance.
But, in 2007, when I went for the third attempt, I made a huge mistake. I had paid for the first starting position and I did not use it. I took advice from a member of my team. My pilot, Michael Oram, was very angry with me. It was sunny, the sea was calm, it was the weather of dreams, and I refused to start.
In the end, I was the last to start on the day and in the worst of weather conditions. Confirmed by Michael, my chances were very slim. He let me stew in it. He did not allow me to drive to the starting point on the beach, even though I didn’t want to get on the boat due to seasickness. He didn’t give me a choice. I had to get on the boat, swim from it to the beach, and wait there for long minutes before I could set off.
I went into the water hungry, frozen and tired of the endless waiting. I remember how much Michael scolded me. In fact, he didn’t want me to get into the water and start the swim at all. In the end, he took pity on me, but it cost us both a lot of energy. He was right and he meant well, but what was done, was done. I couldn’t explain such a letdown from one of my team members. If only I had realized how perfect the weather conditions were.
I put my trust in the wrong person. But as I was already there, I wanted to give it a try, because I knew I wouldn’t be coming back to The Channel. For 6 hours and 45 minutes, it seemed like I was on the way to the world record. The absolute world record. I went for it and gave it everything. But close to the shore I was caught by the infamous Channel currents and I lost all the lead time by swimming virtually on the spot. A stretch I swam in 25 minutes in 2006 took me an hour this time. It was very frustrating. In the end, I finished with the third fastest time in the world. I describe this experience in detail in my first book “Rebelka” (Rebellious).
Ned Denison: Tell us about your two long river swims and the special charities involved.
Yvetta Tulip Hlaváčová: As I said already, I prefer competing with my own self, not with others.
I wanted an interesting race for spectators. A project that would be different from all other projects. So, I came up with this: I put together a team of enthusiastic people and sponsors. We planned everything according to my ideas and we carried it out to the last point. Hundreds of people accompanied me along the route and others waited for me at the finishing line. I wanted to promote swimming through these events and experience an atmosphere similar to what cyclists experience. I wanted to swim for joy and for a good cause. It was my dream project, which I repeated the following year because it got such a great response. But this [second] time, I swam up-river, against the current. In both instances, I was filling the front pages of daily newspapers and magazines, there were even reports on television. Who knows, I might yet organize a long distance river swim for amateur enthusiasts with proceeds going to a good cause.
Ned Denison: Tell us about your life today.
Yvetta Tulip Hlaváčová: At the end of my swimming career in 2008, I met the love of my life and we moved to Spain, where we started a family. The sea is my destiny and I can finally enjoy it by admiring it from the shore. We are raising two sons and I decided to go with unschooling. I became a full-time mother and a housewife, and I really enjoy it. I’m living the most beautiful stage of my life and family life fulfills me.
In September 2020, my second book, “Odsouzená talentem” (Condemned by Talent) was published. In it, I write about sports from a different viewpoint. In retrospect, I realized I had been trapped and I’d lost so much in my life. Experiencing the English Channel helped me a lot to realize it. I would like to have both my books translated into English, but we’ll see if I can find the right team.
Top 10 English Channel Crossings in History:
1. 6 hours 55 minutes by Trent Grimsey, Australia in September 2012
2. 6 hours 57 minutes by Petar Stoychev, Bulgaria in August 2007
3. 7 hours 3 minutes by Christof Wandratsch, Germany in August 2005
4. 7 hours 5 minutes by Yuri Kudinov, Russia in August 2007
5. 7 hours 16 minutes by Rostislav Vítek , Czech Republic in August 2009
6. 7 hours 17 minutes by Chad Hundeby, USA in September 1994
7. 7 hours 20 minutes by Christof Wandratsch, Germany in August 2003
8. 7 hours 21 minutes by Petar Stoychev, Bulgaria in August 2006
9. 7 hours 22 minutes by David Meca, Spain in August 2005
10. 7 hours 25 minutes by Yvetta Hlaváčová, Czech Republic in August 2006
For more information, visit her website here.
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