Florence Chadwick is one of my heroes (I have quite a few… there are so many incredible people alive now and in the past). She was born on 09 November, 1918, in San Diego. She died there on 15 March 1995 at the age of 76 (that’s my current age). Florence was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions, setting a time record with each of the two swims. She was also the first woman to swim the Catalina Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bosporus (one way) and the Dardanelles (round trip). Wow! She attended San Diego State and studied at several law schools and a business college.
Florence entered swimming competitions from a young age. She won her first race at the age of 10. But she realized she preferred ocean events rather than swimming pools. When she was still 10 she became the youngest person to swim across the mouth of San Diego Bay! Starting at the age of 11 she competed in rough water swims, winning an annual 2.5 mile race in the ocean of La Jolla 10 times in 18 years!
She had her heart set on swimming the English Channel. In 1950 she attempted to enter a contest for that swim but was refused for lack of a significant reputation. She determined to try at her own expense. She failed in July after swimming for 14 hours. Then, in August, she succeeded. On 08 August, 1950, at the age of 31, she crossed the English Channel from France to England in 13 hours and 20 minutes, breaking the women’s record. It’s only 23 miles, but because of currents, tides, winds, and waves, the distance can end up much longer. The swim from England to France is more difficult than France to England. In 1951, after waiting 11 weeks for good weather and tides, she crossed from England to France in 16 hours and 22 minutes, setting another record.
Can you even imagine swimming that long (over 16 HOURS) in a nice pool !!… let alone in freezing water with stingrays, kelp beds, jellyfish, sharks, darkness . . . no woman had ever completed the swim from England to France until Florence Chadwick did it. And she was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. She eventually swam the Channel 4 times.
On the 4th of July in 1952, at the age of 34, Florence prepared to swim from Catalina Island to the coast of California. Millions of Americans were watching on TV. (I wasn’t one of them – we didn’t have a TV until we moved to the land northward when I was 17). No one doubted she could make it – she’d already swum the English Channel in both directions! And this would only be 21 miles from Catalina to Palos Verdes. The water was freezing cold, the fog was so thick she could hardly see the support boats that followed her, and sharks prowled around (several times her support crew used rifles to drive away the sharks). She was repeatedly stung by jellyfish.
Hour after hour she kept swimming. 5 hours. 10. 15. After about 15 hours, a thick fog had set in, and she began to doubt her ability. She told her mother she didn’t know if she could go on. Her mother and her trainer – in one of the support boats – kept encouraging her to keep swimming. They told her she was SO CLOSE! She kept swimming for about another hour, but after 15 hours and 55 minutes, she couldn’t go on. She asked to be taken out of the water. She was only two miles from the shore…. She was asked if she had muscle cramps, or if she was just too tired to go on. She said no – that if she just could have seen the shore, she’d have made it.
There are lessons to be learned from Florence’s story, including this attempt to swim from Catalina to Palos Verdes on the California coast. She had set world records and had done things NO swimmer – female OR male – had ever done. But on this day, with millions watching, she stopped just short of her goal. What did Florence Chadwick do after the failure to reach the California shore? What did she do about this experience? Well… she had resilience – she bounced back!
Two months later in that year of 1952, in September, she tried again to swim from Catalina to the California coast. She swam the distance in 13 hours, 47 minutes, and 55 seconds, breaking the world record (which held for the next 27 years!) and becoming the first woman to make that swim. A year later she once again swam the English channel from England to France, setting a new world record (for both women AND men) of just 14 hours and 42 minutes, 2 hours shorter than the previous record! In that same year – within just a few weeks! – she swam the Straits of Gibraltar in 5 hours and 6 minutes, setting a new record for both women and men. She later swam the Bosphorus – a strait near Istanbul connecting Europe and Asia – both ways – and crossed the Turkish Dardanelles (round trip)!
On 12 October, 1955, she set another record for crossing the Channel from England to France, this time in just 13 hours, 55 minutes! She made her last long-distance swim in 1960 at the age of 42. What a champion! What a woman!
There are lessons to be learned from Florence. Have you ever lost hope when you were reaching for a shore, for a goal? Do you ever become discouraged or give up when you can’t see the goal? And if you fail to reach a goal, do you give up ever trying again? One great lesson from her life is: Never give up! Keep going! And if you fail, try again! Hang in there! She was such a great example of perseverance, of courage, of HOPE!