Chadwick, Florence (1918–1995)

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Chadwick, Florence (1918–1995)

American marathon swimmer who holds the women's record for swimming the English Channel. Born Florence May Chadwick on November 9, 1918, in San Diego, California; died on March 15, 1995, in San Diego; daughter and one of two children of Richard William Chadwick (a police officer, later a restaurateur) and Mary Chadwick (a restaurateur with her husband); graduated from Point Loma Junior and Senior High School, San Diego, 1936; attended San Diego State College, Southwestern University of Law at Los Angeles, and the Balboa Law School, San Diego; abandoned study of law to attend Dickenson Business College, San Diego; never married; no children.

Won second place in national backstroke championships at age 13; became model for Catalina swimwear and appeared in movie Bathing Beauty with Esther Williams; made her first swim of the English Channel, from France to England, in 13 hours 20 minutes, breaking the 1926 record of Gertrude Ederle (1950); elected to International Hall of Fame for swimming (1970); served as president of San Diego Stadium Authority and member of the board of directors San Diego Hall of Champions.

Major swims: Cape Gris-Nez, France, to Dover, England (August 8, 1950); English Channel from England to France (1951, 1953); English Channel from England to France in 13 hours and 55 minutes, 11 minutes faster than the existing men's record (1955); Catalina to California coast in 13 hours and 47 minutes, breaking the record set in 1927 by George Young (1952); Straits of Gibraltar, Dardanelles, Bosporus (1953).

On August 8, 1950, when Florence Chadwick made her first record-breaking swim of the English Channel, she was 32 years old, an age when most of her fellow athletes were thinking about retiring. Chadwick, on the other hand, was only beginning. Having long postponed her childhood dream of swimming the channel, she now embraced the challenge wholeheartedly. She made three additional crossings, becoming the first woman to make the swim in both directions and capturing a place among the premier distance swimmers of all time. It was not until she was 50 that Chadwick finally traded her swimsuit for a business suit and settled into a new career as a stockbroker.

Florence Chadwick was born on November 9, 1918, in San Diego, California, where her father was a detective and narcotics agent. Her uncle, who taught her to swim when she was a child, also sparked her competitive spirit. "He entered me in a race, which I lost," she once recalled. "I was six years old, but I decided to work harder and prove somehow that his confidence was not misplaced." Chadwick was just eight when American Gertrude Ederle made her successful swim across the English Channel in 1926. The event galvanized interest in long-distance swimming in the United States, and Ederle became the idol of many youthful swimmers, including young Florence.

Chadwick gradually grew to prefer rough-water swimming over traditional lap-swimming, and at the age of ten became the first child to swim across the channel at the mouth of San Diego Bay. (During the next 18 years, she would win the annual 2½-mile race ten times.) At age 13, she finished second to Eleanor Holm in the U.S. National Championships in the backstroke. Chadwick continued to swim competitively throughout high school, where she was also president of the Associated Student body. After graduation, she pursued the study of law for a number of years, before abandoning it for business college. She eventually left college to accept a contract to promote Catalina swimwear.

With the onset of World War II, Chadwick became a troop entertainer through the United Service Organizations (USO), producing, directing, and appearing in a number of aquashows for the benefit of America's soldiers and sailors. The aquashow was an outgrowth of American's love affair with swimming. Although female athleticism was suspect during the period, women swimmers were an exception, mostly because they didn't grunt or sweat noticeably while performing, and because they maintained an idealized female body type, without bulky muscle development. Both men and women embraced the sport and enjoyed watching swimmers perform, making aquashows a profitable entertainment. Even show business great Billy Rose produced his own Aquacade, starring champion swimmers Eleanor Holm and Esther Williams . In 1945, Chadwick relinquished her amateur standing to appear in the MGM movie Bathing Beauty, with Williams, who, now billed as "Hollywood's Mermaid," starred in a series of films during the 1940s and '50s that featured spectacular underwater scenes and were box-office bonanzas. After completing her stint in the movies, Chadwick returned to San Diego where she worked as a professional swimming instructor at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. Teaching provided her with the time and financial support to continue her own intensive training for her long-dreamed-of chance to swim the English Channel.

In June 1948, partly in order to raise money for her channel swim, she went to Saudi Arabia as a statistician with the Arabian-American Oil Company. There, she began training in earnest, using the 150-foot pool at Dhahran. Later, when she was transferred to an office in Ras Al Mishab, she trained in the choppy waters of the Persian Gulf. On her free days, she would spend as many as ten hours in the water. (At 5′6" and 141 pounds, Chadwick was said to have possessed an unusually high tolerance for cold temperatures, which gave her an edge in her long-distance swims.) In June 1950, having saved $5,000, Chadwick left her job and traveled to Wissant on the French coast for final preparations for her channel attempt.

When she entered the water on August 8, 1950, Chadwick became the 12th woman to attempt the 19-mile channel swim. She left Cape Gris-Nez at 2:37 am, accompanied by a party of 15 (including her father, officials, crew, and friends) in an escort fishing boat. With lumps of sugar as her only nourishment throughout the swim, Chadwick made the crossing in 13 hours and 20 minutes, beating Ederle's record by 1 hour and 11 minutes. Met by reporters when she reached shore, Chadwick flashed her glorious smile and commented, "I feel fine. I am quite prepared to swim back." Arriving in the U.S., Chadwick spent a few eventful days in New York, where she made a number of radio and television appearances before traveling home to San Diego. There, she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade and a public luncheon in her honor.

Chadwick made good on her proposal to "swim back," making the more arduous channel crossing from England to France in 1951, and again in 1953 and 1955. Continuing to improve through training, Chadwick, at 37, made the 1955 swim in 13 hours and 55 minutes, 11 minutes faster than the existing men's record. She also swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, and the Bosporus, swims that were completed before satellite and radio-tracking systems allowed the distance swimmer to take advantage of the shortest courses across the open sea. Between channel swims, Chadwick returned to her home waters in September 1952, where she swam the 21 miles from Catalina Island to the California coast, breaking the time record established in 1927 by the Canadian George Young.

Chadwick made the most of her success and notoriety and, for an extended period, was the world's highest-paid woman athlete. She established Florence Chadwick Swimming Schools in New York, New Jersey, and California and was the aquatic director at Grossinger's, the posh Catskills' resort, for a number of years. In 1960, well into her 40s, she made an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Irish Sea. Shortly thereafter, she began to rethink the future, and a possible move into the business of finance, which had held her interest since the early 1920s.

In 1968, Chadwick moved back to San Diego to begin a career as a stockbroker. She became active in San Diego society as well, serving as president of the San Diego Stadium Authority, and as a member of the board of directors of the San Diego Hall of Champions. She also wrote a monthly column on women's investment issues for The Moneypaper, a financial publication especially geared to women's needs and interests. Chadwick ended her business career as vice-president of First Wall Street Corporation in San Diego. The champion swimmer was inducted into the International Hall of Fame for swimming in 1970. She died in the city of her birth on March 15, 1995, at the age of

76. The following year, she was inducted into the Women's Sports Hall of Fame.


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Wanda Ellen Wakefield , historian, SUNY, Buffalo, New York