Long-distance, open-water swimmer Florence Chadwick (1918-1995) was the first woman to swim 23 miles across the English Channel in both directions. She was known for her endurance swims in rough water.
The daughter of a San Diego policeman, Florence Chadwick was born in San Diego, California on November 9, 1918. She grew up on the beach and began competing as a swimmer at the age of six, when her uncle entered her in a race. An important win came at age ten after four years of defeat. In a two-and-a-half-mile "rough water" night swim, she finished fourth. When she was eleven, she won first place in a six-mile rough water race across the San Diego Bay Channel in her home town. For the next 19 years, she continued as a competitive swimmer. Chadwick's strengths were in distance and endurance-she never won a short-distance race in a pool. Although she tried out for the 1936 Olympic team, she failed to qualify because all of the events were swims of relatively short distance.
When she was 13, Chadwick came in second at the U.S. national championships. She later swam on her school teams in San Diego, graduating from high school in 1936. Chadwick went on to study at San Diego State College, Southwestern University of Law, and Balboa Law School. During World War II, she produced and directed aquatic shows for the U.S. military and, in 1945, she appeared with swimmer Esther Williams in the movie Bathing Beauty.
Chadwick knew she excelled at endurance swimming, especially in open water. This kind of swimming demands special talents and a perseverance far beyond that expected of shorter-distance athletes. The English Channel was considered the greatest challenge by swimmers in Chadwick's time. (Since then, it has been surpassed by the crossing of the Cook Strait from the South Island of New Zealand to the North Island). As the Encyclopedia of World Sport notes, "Channel swimming is one of sport's most taxing challenges, with very high rates of failure. The fact that less than seven percent [of those] who attempt to swim across the English Channel complete the trip is a testament to the difficulty of the task. Only the very strong succeed."
Long-distance swimming, like marathon running and other endurance sports, requires athletes to keep good form, technique, and concentration for many hours. Most marathon swimmers swim between 60 and 70 strokes a minute. Therefore, a 10-hour swim would require 42,000 strokes, and a 14-hour swim would require 58,000 strokes-an incredible feat. There are also hazards unique to open-water, long-distance ocean swimming, as Pat Besford noted in the Encyclopedia of World Sport: "Long-distance swimming requires courage … to go through a pitch black night, fog, weed, flotsam, occasional oil fuel patches, swarms of jellyfish and maritime traffic." And as Kari Lydersen pointed out in Just Sports for Women, "Open-water swimmers have to constantly change their strategy as the race goes on, evaluating their position, the weather and water conditions while also dealing with obstacles such as stingrays and kelp beds. The result of countless hours of training can be ruined by a navigational error, and competitors usually come out of the water swollen and scarred from jellyfish stings, sunburn and swimsuit chafing."Although the distance across the Channel is only about 23 miles, the actual distance a swimmer will cover can be dramatically increased by currents, tides, wind, and waves.
Chadwick was inspired to make the crossing by the example of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman ever to swim across the Channel. Ederle made the crossing in 1926 and, although people believed that women were incapable of such an endurance feat, she not only completed the swim, but beat the record set by a man, by almost two hours. Chadwick wanted to surpass Ederle and become the first woman to swim the Channel both ways-from France to England as well as from England to France.
Trained in the Persian Gulf
Chadwick got a job working for the Arabian-American Oil Company, moved to Saudi Arabia with the company, and began training in the rough waters of the Persian Gulf. Dedicated to her goal, she swam before and after work, and trained for up to ten hours a day on her days off.
In June 1950, Chadwick left her job and went to France to attempt her first Channel crossing. She heard that the London paper, Daily Mail, was holding a contest to sponsor applicants who wanted to swim across the Channel, but since no one at the paper had heard of Chadwick, they rejected her application. Despite this setback, she took a practice swim in the Channel in July, making the attempt at her own expense.
On August 8, 1950, after training for two years, Chadwick set a world record for the crossing, swimming from Cape Gris-Nez, France to Dover, England in 13 hours and 20 minutes. Her time broke the 24-year-old women's record, set by Gertrude Ederle; Ederle's time was 14 hours, 39 minutes, and 24 seconds. "I feel fine," Chadwick reported after finishing the swim. "I am quite prepared to swim back." She didn't swim back right away, but returned to Dover in 1951 and spent eleven weeks there, waiting for good weather and tides. On September 11, 1951, Chadwick finally decided to swim, despite dense fog and strong headwinds. Because of challenging winds and tides, this route across the Channel from Dover, England to Sangatte, France was considered more difficult than the France-to-England route. Previous swimmers had avoided it, and no woman had ever completed it. While swimming, Chadwick had to take anti-seasickness medication, but managed to finish in record time-16 hours and 22 minutes. The mayor of Sangat te waited to congratulate her as she emerged from the water.
When Chadwick returned to the United States, she had spent all her money on financing the Channel swim. Her home town of San Diego gave her a ticker tape parade. She regained some of the money by making television and radio appearances, as well as by providing endorsements and swimming exhibitions. She also traveled across the country lecturing on the value of sports and fitness, and teaching children to swim.
Crossed the Catalina Channel
On July 4, 1952, at the age of 34, Chadwick attempted to become the first woman to swim 21 miles across the Catalina Channel, from Catalina Island to Palos Verde on the California coast. The weather that day was not auspicious-the ocean was ice cold, the fog was so thick that she could hardly see the support boats that followed her, and sharks prowled around her. Several times, her support crew used rifles to drive away the sharks. While Americans watched on television, she swam for hours. Her mother and her trainer, who were in one of the support boats, encouraged her to keep going. However, after 15 hours and 55 minutes, with only a half mile to go, she felt that she couldn't go on, and asked to be taken out of the water.
Brian Cavanaugh, in A Fresh Packet of Sower's Seeds, noted that she told a reporter, "Look, I'm not excusing myself, but if I could have seen land I know I could have made it." The fog had made her unable to see her goal, and it had felt to her like she was getting nowhere. Two months later, she tried again. The fog was just as dense, but this time she made it. After 13 hours, 47 minutes, and 55 seconds, she reached the California shore, breaking a 27-year-old record by more than two hours and becoming the first woman every to complete the swim.
On September 4, 1953, Chadwick swam the English Channel from England to France again, setting a new world record for both men and women of 14 hours and 42 minutes. In the same year, she swam the Straits of Gibraltar in 5 hours and 6 minutes-setting a new record for both men and women. She also crossed the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia both ways, and crossed the Turkish Dardanelles-all within a few weeks. On October 12, 1955, Chadwick set another record for crossing the Channel from England to France. This time, she made it in 13 hours and 55 minutes. In 1960, she made her last long-distance swim.
Retired from Swimming
After retiring from swimming, Chadwick worked as a stockbroker in San Diego and continued to coach young people and promote long-distance swimming. She later served as vice president of First Wall Street Corporation. She was the only female member on the San Diego "Hall of Champions" board. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1970, and was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions in 1984. In the same year, she received the Living Legacy Award. Throughout the rest of her life, she worked with youth groups and encouraged young people to pursue their own dreams of excellence. Chadwick died at the age of 76 in San Diego, California, after a lengthy illness.
Chadwick easily broke many records set by men, shattering the notion that women were unfit for long-distance swimming. Today women hold many ultra long-distance records in swimming and other sports. Currently, the only person ever to have swum the English Channel three times consecutively is a woman. Chadwick was one of the pioneers. She helped to change attitudes toward women as endurance swimmers and cleared the way for others to follow.
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Levinson, David, and Karen Christensen. Encyclopedia of World Sport From Ancient Times to the Present, ABC-CLIO, 1996.
Markell, Robert, Nancy Brooks, and Susan Markel. For the Record: Women in Sports, World Almanac Publications, 1985.
Sparhawk, Ruth M., Mary E. Leslie, Phyllis Y. Turbow, and Zina R. Rose. American Women in Sport, 1887-1987: A 100-Year Chronology, Scarecrow Press, 1989.
Vernoff, Edward, and Rima Shore. The International Dictionary of 20th Century Biography, New American Library, 1987.
The Women's Sports Encyclopedia. edited by Robert Markell. Henry Holt, 1997.
Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America, Oryx Press, 1992.
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WIC Biography,http://www.wic.org/bio/chadwick.htm. □
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Chadwick, Florence May
Florence May Chadwick, 1918–95, American distance swimmer, b. San Diego, Calif. She began swimming at the age of six, and four years later she swam the San Diego Bay Channel, the first child to do so. On Aug. 8, 1950, she broke Gertrude Ederle's 24-year record for English Channel swims by women. Florence Chadwick covered the 20 mi (32 km) from France to England in 13 hr 20 min. She also swam (Sept., 1951) from England to France, becoming the first woman to swim the channel in both directions. In 1952 she became the first woman to swim the 21-mi (34-km) Catalina Channel off Long Beach, Calif., breaking speed records for any swimmer (13 hr 47 min). She swam the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, and the Strait of Gibraltar in 1953.
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Chadwick, Florence May
Chadwick, Florence May
(b. 9 November 1918 in San Diego, California; d. 15 March 1995 in San Diego, California), champion marathon swimmer who gained worldwide acclaim in 1950 when she swam the English Channel one hour faster than any previous woman swimmer.
Chadwick was the second child and the only daughter of Richard William Chadwick, a San Diego police detective, and Mary Lacko, the owner of a downtown restaurant. Florence Chadwick was encouraged by her uncle, Mike Lacko, to enter competitive swimming when she was six years old and growing up at 2120 Warrington Street in Point Loma on San Diego Bay. The youngster set her sights on emulating Gertrude Ederle’s 1926 record English Channel swim, and at age ten she became the first child to swim the six-mile San Diego Bay Channel. Soon afterward she won her first trophy in the city’s annual 2.5-mile rough-water night swim off Hermosa Beach, the first of dozens of Pacific Coast amateur open-water titles she captured over the next nineteen years. While growing up, Chadwick was trained by her father, who set up a gym in the family’s garage, where she sawed wood to develop both her stamina and her shoulders. In 1930 the local swimming coach Henry Gunther took over, and he remained her coach throughout Chadwick’s amateur career. She failed to break into the national ranks while swimming with the Los Angeles Athletic Club with teammates Eleanor Holm and Esther Williams. Chadwick did little better than a second-place finish to Holm in the 1932 U.S. Nationals. She realized that her forte was in outdoor swimming.
Chadwick attended Loma Portal Elementary School and in 1936 graduated from Point Loma Senior High School, where she swam competitively, was elected president of the associated high school student body, and was a member of the Girl Reserves, a junior branch of the YWCA. She attended San Diego State College (1937), Southwestern University of Law at Los Angeles (1938), and Balboa Law School in San Diego (1939). In 1940 she entered the local Dickenson Business College for eighteen months and became a trainee at the comptometer school of San Diego’s Felt and Tarrant Manufacturing Company. Vacillating between an athletic career and show business, she produced and performed in aquacades, an entertainment rage of the time. She also appeared in Bathing Beauty, a 1945 MGM swimming film extravaganza, with her former teammate Williams. She was briefly married twice. She first married Alex Balich in 1939; they divorced in 1940. In 1942 she married Bob Warner, a San Diego policeman; they divorced in 1946. Chadwick referred to both marriages as “detours” from her swimming career.
After two years as aquatic director at nearby La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, Chadwick left in June 1948 for Saudi Arabia and an office job with the giant Arabian-American Oil Company. Committed to her childhood goal of swimming the English Channel, she banked her salary and trained daily. When transferred to Ras al Mishah in the Persian Gulf, she trained in the gulf’s redolent, oil-slicked waters, which she later said felt like swimming in “hot soup.” A strict conditioning regime made her “swim until tired, then swim until exhausted, and then swim an extra half-mile.” She saved $5,000 toward her Channel expenses and in June 1950 headed for Wissant, France, where she trained for another two months.
At 2:37 A.M. on 8 August 1950 Chadwick entered the Channel’s choppy, frigid waters, nowhere warmer than 60 degrees Fahrenheit, at Cape Gris-Nez on the coast of France. Escorted by the Marcel Nicole fishing boat carrying her father, two Saudi friends, and officials, she swam through the night, starting off at a blistering sixty strokes a minute. She reached Dover, England, in thirteen hours and twenty minutes, lopping more than an hour off Ederle’s twenty-four-year-old record. She was the twelfth woman and the thirty-second swimmer to complete the nineteen-mile swim since England’s Matthew Webb first swam the route seventy-five years earlier. In a dramatic finish, British artillery forces suspended fire as Chadwick swam into their gunnery practice area. Wading ashore through a bed of kelp she announced, “I feel fine and I am quite prepared to swim back.”
Chadwick did swim back, but not until a year later. She overcame strong tides, winds, heavy fog, and icy waters to become the first woman to swim the Channel from England (Saint Margaret’s Bay, Dover) to France (Sangatte) on 11 September 1951. She made that swim in sixteen hours and twenty-two minutes, a record she would shatter twice before retiring in 1960.
Known as the “channel barnstormer,” Chadwick set swimming records for California’s Catalina (1952), the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bosporus, and the Dardanelles (all in fall 1953). The once-impoverished Californian who had exhausted her nest egg for her first Channel swim now commanded fees ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 an exhibition, made frequent appearances on radio and television, and traveled nationwide on behalf of her sponsor, Catalina Bathing Suits. Between “channels” she worked for Grossinger’s Resort in New York’s Catskills Mountains as aquatics director (1952–1963). Her annual income was well in excess of $50,000, making her the highest paid woman athlete in the country. As late as 1957 she was still setting records, swimming the fourteen-mile Bristol Channel (England to Wales) in six hours and seven minutes. Three years later, after several failed efforts to cross the treacherous North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, Chadwick retired. In her forty-year career she had set seventeen world records in long-distance swimming, leading Sports Illustrated to name her the “best woman long-distance swimmer the world has ever known” (7 November 1960). She was inducted into San Diego’s Hall of Champions in 1962, the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1970, and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
Chadwick remained in New York City, her home since 1950, where she taught swimming until 1966. At that time she joined Manufacturers Hanover Bank as a credit counselor and public relations representative in its Wall Street branch. Her mother was ailing, so Chadwick moved back to the pink house on Warrington Street in 1970. Equipped with a broker’s license earned in 1969, she spent her remaining years as a stockbroker and financial consultant and continued to work with a new generation of marathon swimmers. She died of leukemia at age seventy-six in San Diego’s Mercy Hospital. Her body was cremated and her ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
Chadwick was one of the world’s great marathon swimmers. At 5 feet 6 inches and 140 pounds, her physique was more that of a swimsuit model than an endurance swimmer and helped dispel the myth that only well-padded women could withstand the rigors of marathon swimming. Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic champion and motion picture star, once said of Chadwick, “She’s the greatest swimmer of all time—maybe of either sex.” Her achievements came at a time when most Americans viewed marathon swimming as comparable to flagpole sitting or Niagara Falls barrel sailing. Few regarded the endeavor as much more than a publicity stunt. Chadwick’s career changed that perception. Her records all have been superseded, but she was among the first to lend credibility to the sport of endurance swimming.
Both the Henning Library and Archive at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the San Diego Hall of Champions maintain a collection of photographs, articles, and memorabilia pertaining to Chadwick’s career. Gail Campbell, Marathon: The World of the Long-Distance Athlete (1977), places Chadwick in the context of the history of marathon swimming and devotes a short chapter to her achievements. “Whatever Happened to Florence Chadwick?” San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle (13 Sept. 1970), recounts events in the swimmer’s early career and her training methods. “Florence Chadwick Still Dreams of Channel Swim,” San Diego Union (22 Mar. 1970), offers a glimpse of the aging swimmer’s regrets and hopes as well as her outlook on swimming. Obituaries are in the San Diego Union-Tribune (18 Mar. 1995) and the New York Times (19 Mar. 1995).
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Chadwick, Florence May
CHADWICK, Florence May
Chadwick was one of two children of Richard William Chadwick, who, after retiring from a twenty-three-year-long career in the San Diego police department as a detective and narcotics agent, operated a restaurant with his wife, Mary Chadwick.
Chadwick's swimming career began early. She was taught to swim by an uncle but lost her first contest at the age of six, coming in last. "I can still remember the humiliation I felt but it only made me want to win more than ever," she later commented.
Chadwick graduated from Point Loma Junior and Senior High Schools in San Diego in 1936, then attended San Diego State College. She went on to Southwestern University of Law in Los Angeles, California, then to Balboa Law School and Dickenson Business College, both in San Diego. Chadwick appeared in aquatic shows, was a swimming instructor, gave celebrity endorsements, and in 1944 appeared in the movie musical Bathing Beauty.
Years earlier, at the tender age of ten, Chadwick was inspired by the record-setting feats of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. It was this inspiration that led to Chadwick's greatest triumph: swimming the channel on 8 August 1950 in the record time of thirteen hours and twenty minutes—one hour and eleven minutes faster than Ederle had.
The preparation for this triumph had not been easy. After a long and varied swimming career, Chadwick worked for an American oil company in Saudi Arabia, saving the $5,000 needed to enter the contest. She practiced long hours in the Persian Gulf, and when she took to the French waters of Cape Gris-Nez at 2:37 that August morning, the five foot, six inch swimmer weighed in at 141 pounds. As she swam toward England, her father, officials, and friends accompanied her in a fishing boat.
Throughout the swim Chadwick nibbled on sugar cubes and fluctuated her number of strokes per minute to help conserve her energy. For four hours she had to overcome the obstacle of an ebb tide encountered three miles out. Fortunately for her, British artillery in the area had been suspended. After making it to England, she commented nonchalantly to the reporters on shore, "I feel fine. I am quite prepared to swim back." She did swim back, but not until the next year.
On 10 and 11 September 1951 Chadwick performed the England to France crossing, a much more difficult task, becoming the first woman swimmer to cross the English Channel in both directions. She and her father waited for eleven weeks in a seaside hotel while she strengthened herself with a calorie-rich diet. Finally she decided to brave foggy waters and unfavorable tides and embarked upon her swim, which this time would take her from Dover, England, to Cape Gris-Nez in France. After sixteen hours and twenty-two minutes of arduous swimming (made even worse by the choking fumes from an accompanying motorboat), Chadwick landed at Sangatte, three miles south of the French seaport of Calais. But her conquest of the English Channel did not end there. On 4 September 1953 she again went from England to France, this time in fourteen hours and forty-two minutes. Two years later on 12 October 1955, when she was thirty-six-years-old, she crossed the channel in thirteen hours and fifty-five minutes.
Other aquatic achievements by Chadwick include swimming across the San Diego Bay Channel at age ten, an unprecedented feat by a child of that age; winning the annual 2.5-mile race at La Jolla, California, ten times; breaking a record when she covered the twenty-one miles from Catalina Island to the California mainland in thirteen hours and forty-seven minutes on 21 September 1952; conquering the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Africa on 20 September 1953 in five hours and six minutes; completing a round-trip across the Bosporus between Europe and Asia on 7 October 1953 in a little over an hour and fourteen minutes; and setting her fourth record in five weeks on 9 October 1953, crossing the Turkish Dardanelles (a narrow strait also known as Hellespont) in less than two hours. Chadwick received the Helms Athletic Foundation Award as athlete of the month for August 1950; was named to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1970; received the Living Legacy Award and induction into the San Diego Hall of Champions, both in 1984; and was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. Her hometown threw a ticker-tape parade in her honor in 1950, and a white-tipped dahlia was named for her.
For quite a while Chadwick was the world's highest-paid woman athlete. She founded swimming schools named for her in New York, New Jersey, and California and was the aquatic director at Grossinger's, a famous resort in New York State. At the age of fifty, in San Diego, she embarked upon a successful career as a stockbroker, which she pursued for the next two and a half decades. Chadwick died in San Diego on 15 March 1995 after a long unspecified illness. She was never married and had no children.
Extraordinarily good looking with large, lustrous, dark eyes and a flashing smile, Chadwick was called "the most beautiful woman in sports" by Gypsy Rose Lee, an entertainer and a beauty in her own right. Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic swimming champion and film star, said she was "the greatest woman swimmer of all time—maybe of either sex—and it's time she got credit for it." But it is in her own words that she is best summed up: "Life seems so much simpler swimming. The experience must be similar to that of a flyer above the clouds by himself. I am also in my own little world out there.… If I had a chance to relive my life, I would do it all again because it is trying to do what you badly want to do that counts."
Biographical sketches of Chadwick are featured in Current Biography (1950, 1995); Encyclopedia of World Biography (1998); and Women in World History (1999). Entries on Chadwick are also in David L. Porter, Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Basketball and Other Indoor Sports (1989); Ralph Hickok, A Who's Who of Sports Champions (1995); Joe Layden, Women in Sports (1997); and Janet Woolum, Outstanding Women Athletes (1998). Articles on the swimmer's channel crossings include "Channel Challengers," Newsweek (21 Aug. 1950), "Two Girls in Swimming," Time (21 Aug. 1950), and "Wrong Way Swimmer," Time (24 Sept. 1951). Elizabeth Witty, "Chadwick Out of Water but Still 'Swimming,'" Futures (Oct. 1986), deals with her post-swimming career. An obituary is in the New York Times (19 Mar. 1995).
Dorothy L. Moran
"Chadwick, Florence May." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 2, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chadwick-florence-may-0
"Chadwick, Florence May." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: Sports Figures. . Retrieved September 02, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chadwick-florence-may-0