Against the Current: Florence Chadwick in and out of the water

She won her first race when 11 years old swimming from Ballast Point to the foot of Broadway.

Florence Chadwick, Las Vegas, 1952. Covered with six pounds of grease, Chadwick set out in 1960 to become the first woman to swim the twenty-two-mile-wide North Channel of the Irish Sea. Her crew informed her later that they could tell she was freezing. A crewmember jumped in the water to push her into the boat. She refused to go.
  • Florence Chadwick, Las Vegas, 1952. Covered with six pounds of grease, Chadwick set out in 1960 to become the first woman to swim the twenty-two-mile-wide North Channel of the Irish Sea. Her crew informed her later that they could tell she was freezing. A crewmember jumped in the water to push her into the boat. She refused to go.

On a recent afternoon, after the museums had closed and the daytime tourists had deserted Balboa Park, about a hundred people gathered in front of the newly rebuilt Electric Building. Among the crowd were business people, a state park service official, a few city staff members, the police chief, and the mayor. They had come to witness the dedication of the new home of the Hall of Champions and to participate in one of modern society's most anticlimactic rituals, the ribbon cutting.

Chadwick in 1982.  Her hair is lighter and shorter, and curlier than when she swam the channel. And she is heavier, too, a fact she's quick to mention; she says she wants to lose fifty pounds.

Chadwick in 1982. Her hair is lighter and shorter, and curlier than when she swam the channel. And she is heavier, too, a fact she's quick to mention; she says she wants to lose fifty pounds.

Just before the mayor stepped up to snip a four-inch-wide blue ribbon with a pair of scissors, while he talked with several reporters about senate hopes, Florence Chadwick strode down the Prado to join the celebration. Her arrival was barely noticed. She walked to one edge of the crowd to greet City Manager Ray Blair, whom she knew from her tenure as a member of the city's stadium authority board. Blair welcomed her with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, the way he might greet a great-aunt. Then Chadwick shook hands with Police Chief Bill Kolender, who was chatting with Blair and whose expression suggested he wasn't sure if he recognized her.

August 9, 1950, following first English Channel swim. Chadwick swam it four times setting records each time.

August 9, 1950, following first English Channel swim. Chadwick swam it four times setting records each time.

Many years earlier, on her return to San Diego from a trip abroad, Chadwick had been greeted by city officials with considerably more pomp - a jubilant ticker-tape parade down Broadway, a key to the city, numerous gifts, and the exalted status befitting her celebrity. At the age of thirty-one she had conquered the English Channel in world-record time, and had done so with such innocence and naïveté and spunk that instantly became famous and admired throughout the world. She was a success story, a star of the first rank, a heroine shining bright against the villainous war in Korea, the hysterical threat of communists roaming the streets of America, and the citizenry of her home town embraced her that day as a national treasure.

Perhaps Chief Kolender can be forgiven if he didn't recognize Chadwick that evening several weeks ago; after all, she hasn't been in the spotlight much lately, and at the time of the ribbon-cutting, the intended contents of the new Hall of Champions - the photographs, trophies, medals, and other memorabilia recording San Diego's sports history - had not yet been moved from their old home farther down the Prado. Had any of the dignitaries walked a hundred yards west and into the old display room, however, they would have known a superstar was in their midst. Among the many items there chronicling Chadwick's remarkable career as a long-distance swimmer is a large photograph of her, younger, slimmer, which shows her in a plain dark bathing suit, walking out of the English Channel that momentous day in 1950. In the photograph she is smiling a weary but triumphant smile; she had beaten immense odds and had won for herself the most important personal victory of her life.

Swimming the English Channel has been described in one English medical journal as "possibly the greatest feat of endurance in the world of sport." Chadwick swam it four times (three times against the current), setting records each time. Her first attempt, in August of 1950, she swam the twenty-one-mile-wide channel in thirteen hours twenty minutes, breaking by one hour and nineteen minutes a women's record set by Gertrude Ederle in 1926. Chadwick was only the thirty-second person successfully to swim the frigid, unpredictable waterway separating northwest France from England. One year later, in 1951, she became the first woman to swim it from England to France, against the flow of the channel's strong currents. Only about 220 swimmers of the untold hundreds who have tried to cross the channel are known to have succeeded; only a handful have received much attention for their feat. Of those, probably no one received as much attention, or built as successful a swimming career because of an English Channel crossing, as Florence Chadwick.

Thirty-two years after her great victory, Chadwick sits at a table by a window at the Bali Ha'i restaurant on Shelter Island, not far from her Point Loma home. She is quiet a moment as she looks out at the flat, glassy surface of the San Diego Bay. The sky is overcast but the water is calm, barely moving. "Look at how smooth it is. This is the way you'd hope to find a channel swim," she says. "You could start off like that in the English Channel, but in four hours it would be a very rough sea. Kicks up awful fast over there." She is sixty-three now. Her hair is lighter and shorter, and curlier than when she swam the channel. And she is heavier, too, a fact she's quick to mention; she says she wants to lose fifty pounds. There is the same smile, the almond shaped eyes and long arching eyebrows that were photographed over and over again during her swimming career. She talks quickly, laughs easily, greets people heartily. The successful swims are recalled in detail; the unsuccessful swims are slipping from memory. Sometimes, after recounting some anecdote about her historic channel swim, little stories that indicate how naive but determined she was, she seems as amused by what she has done as anyone hearing the tale the first time. Occasionally she has difficulty understanding what drove her to do it, but wastes little time contemplating that mystery. Perhaps she just wanted to emulate her childhood heroine, Gertrude Ederle, and become the best female swimmer in the world. Or perhaps, she suggests, she just wanted to do what she liked doing best, while making up for early losses.

Chadwick's first loss was an embarrassing one that drove her to do more and better swimming until she could win. When she was six years old, her parents enrolled her in a swimming class at the Mission Beach Swimming School. Classes were held at the public pool by the old roller coaster, and after a few months she entered her first competition. For days before the competition she bragged that she'd win, and she made sure her family was at the pool to watch her race. There were seven children entered in the competition, their ages ranging from six to twelve. The race was over in a manner of minutes and Chadwick was humiliated; she finished last. Several months later she raced again, this time in a pool in San Clemente. Again she finished last. She had stopped along the way to retrieve a piece of chewing gum that had fallen out of her mouth, while the other swimmers raced past. She was so embarrassed by both losses that she determined to keep swimming until she won something. Chadwick liked swimming, loved training, and until she lost, she enjoyed competition. Her parents encouraged her to continue swimming as a child, and made sure she had transportation to meets and helped her train, but, she says, they didn't push her the way some parents do their children these days.

When other kids were playing games, going to parties, developing a social life, Chadwick was swimming. "My father used to help me train in the garage [at home]. I sawed wood and chinned myself. I used to say I wanted [boxer] Max Baer shoulders." She swam laps in pools, swam up and down the edge of Bonita Bay, near the Belmont Park roller coaster, much of which has been transformed by landfill into today's Mission Bay aquatic park. Her mother would walk up and down the edge of the bay as Chadwick swam. "She'd pace me; she's walk up and down on the beach and pace me. My whole life was swim, swim, swim. Someone told me playing the saxophone would develop my lungs, so for six years I played. All I had to do was go to school and swim."

When she was ten, she started training under San Diegan Florence Chambers, a backstroke swimmer who had won a bronze medal at the Paris Olympics in 1924 at age sixteen. In 1930, when she was eleven years old, Chadwick won her first silver cup in a race across the San Diego Bay from Ballast Point to the foot of Broadway. After that, she started winning races regularly. She continued training with Chambers until she was twelve, then worked with a number of other trainers for two years. In 1932, after seeing Chadwick swim, Henry Gunther, a prominent and successful swimming coach who lived in San Diego, agreed to train her. For an entire year he didn't allow her to compete; instead, he made her concentrate on improving her technique. She had had so many trainers up to that point, and had incorporated so many pieces of advice and instruction, that she had developed a motley stroke. When she went back into competition, she was rewarded with cups and medals won in races. Between about 1933 and 1941 she won seven La Jolla rough water swims, when the course ran two and a half miles from Scripps pier to La Jolla Cove. She set county records for shorter pool swims, doing best in backstroke events.

While she was a student at Point Loma High School, Chadwick began commuting between San Diego and Los Angeles to swim with the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. That team was better than any local team at the time, and Chadwick wanted to race on their relay team. One of her teammates was Esther Williams, an Olympics hopeful who cut her amateur career short to star in movies. (Any time swimmers get paid for swimming, even if just for swimming in a movie, they're no longer eligible to compete in amateur events.) In 1945 Chadwick also ended her amateur career to swim in one of William's movies, Bathing Beauty. In the film, Chadwick and some other swimmers performed synchronized swimming in a pool, "which I call ballet baloney. I never did like it and I never was very good at it."

By 1947 Chadwick's person life had included a number of disappointments. She had been twice married and twice divorced, the first time to Alex Balich, whose family, like her own, was in the restaurant business. She married Balich when she was twenty and as engrossed as ever in swimming. Balich was young and jealous, she says, and couldn't believe that all the time she was away from him was actually spent swimming and training. But she was determined nothing would interrupt her swimming. They were divorced after eighteen months. The second marriage in 1946 to a motorcycle policeman, Bob Warner, who worked with her brother, also ended after eighteen months. Warner was on leave from the police department serving in the Navy, which meant he was transferred and shipped around the state a lot. Chadwick was involved in swimming in Los Angeles and going to law school there at night at Southwestern College. He was transferred to San Francisco for a while, and Chadwick decided to wait in Los Angeles. One day, she recalls, she "found him with a blonde. The next morning I was at the lawyer's filing for a divorce.

Chadwick's father was a San Diego police officer; her mother owned two restaurants, called Chadwick's, at Thirtieth and Market streets. After Chadwick's second divorce, her mother convinced her to return to San Diego and help run the restaurants. Chadwick was working in one as a hostess, managing the other, doing bookkeeping for both, and teaching swimming. For a while she continued going to law school here at nights, but dropped out, an average student who decided she didn't like law. She found she didn't like the restaurant business either, and in 1948, after reading a newspaper account about an American woman who worked for an oil company in Saudi Arabia, earning a sizable salary plus room and board and passage back to the United States by way of Europe, Chadwick decided she had found the way to fulfill her dream of following the path of Gertrude Ederle, of swimming the English Channel.

Channel swimming is expensive; crews and boats must be hired, hotel and travel expenses must be paid. Chadwick figured that she could train in Saudi Arabia while saving her earnings to finance a channel crossing. Without telling her parents, she applied for a job with the Arabian American Oil Company. She drove to Los Angeles and took and passed bookkeeping and secretarial tests and a physical exam. Between the time she applied for the job and left for Saudi Arabia six weeks later, she didn't tell anyone about her plans. Then, the day before her plane left, she told her mother and father that she was going, but not that she planned to swim the channel. She had waited until the last minute because she knew they would try to talk her out of it. And she didn't reveal her channel plans because she didn't want her dream ridiculed. Her mother was furious. "I didn't hear from her the two years I was gone," Chadwick recalls. When her plane stopped over in New York, Chadwick's father reached her by phone to make one more plea that she not leave. Her mother wanted her to take over the restaurant business that the Chadwicks had built up from scratch. But the young woman said no to her fretful parents.

The first year in Saudi Arabia Chadwick was stationed in Dhaharan, slightly inland from the Persian Gulf. Housing was scarce, so she shared a home with seven other American women working for the oil company. During the day she filed, did bookkeeping, and occasionally decoded messages regarding trade secrets. After work each day she swam in a nearby swimming pool. At first training was painful; her muscles had grown flabby in the previous year of restaurant work. Sometimes after going home she cried herself to sleep, thinking she'd never be able to get into shape for the channel. Her housemates, however, didn't know about her goal. Chadwick was careful not to tell anyone for fear they'd think her idea was crazy. Slowly she worked up to where she could swim for four hours every night after work. After a year, she asked to be transferred to the company's operation in Ra's Al Mish'ab, a town located directly on the Persian Gulf. Her plan was to train in the gulf.

When she got there, she lived in a room in a type of dormitory, located a few miles from the gulf. "In those days women couldn't drive anywhere, so I had to bribe a couple of men to take me to the Persian Gulf train. I'd bribe them by buying a case of beer, a half a case of beer, and they could sit there [on the beach] and guzzle beer while I'm out there swimming. You know, it's fine with them. So I'm out there seven hours tied on the end of the rope swimming."

The men, two Americans who also worked for the oil company, were the only people she let in on her secret plan. They would take turns driving her to the gulf, where she would swim four hours each night after work, and seven hours one night a week before the Moslem holy day. Anyone who knew she swam so much apparently just figured she liked to swim, she says. She rarely socialized, concentrating instead on her training. Her parents still didn’t know about her plans, and when she wrote them, she mentioned she was swimming, but never mentioned why. Her mother, still bitter, never wrote back but her father started writing during her second year in Saudi Arabia.

In part because of the secrecy, Chadwick was left to rely on what she already knew for her own training. She didn’t have a Florence Chambers or Henry Gunther to watch her and point out her errors, give advice for improvement, develop strategy for conquering the channel, inform her about what to expect on her swim. She learned to improvise, though. She recalled having read about how, prior to the advent of air travel, Olympic contenders would travel by ship to the countries where games were being held. To stay in shape during the long trip, swimmers would train in the ship’s pool. So that more people could train at once, and to help build up strength, the swimmers would tie a rope around their waist and secure it to some stable object and then swim at the end of the rope. The rope would keep them in place and provide resistance that helped build muscles. Chadwick adapted the idea by tying a rope around her waist; the other end was tied to a trashcan on the beach that was weighted down with rocks. The rope also kept her from traveling too far from the shore and into the shark-infested waters farther out in the gulf.

Since she didn’t have a trainer, Chadwick decided to teach her pals how to train her. She would demonstrate a stroke on the beach to her two chauffeurs, explaining to them how it should look when she was in the water. Then she’d have them watch her in the water and tell her when she was swimming imperfectly. She also set up codes that would let her know how long she had been in the water. At set intervals the men would tug on the rope; just before it was time to come in, a tug would signal her to sprint for a while to develop speed.

After two years, Chadwick had saved about $5000 from her job. Her contract had expired and it was time to return to the States. She arranged to return by way of France, hoping that the $5000 would be enough to pay for two months of training at the English Channel and pay for the crossing itself. Two weeks before she left, she wrote her parents and told them she had been training for the channel swim. As her plane was preparing to take off from Saudi Arabia, a small boy ran up to it, waiving an envelope in his hand. It was a letter for Chadwick from her father: he said he was joining her in France to help her train.

It was around June 1, 1950 when Chadwick marched into American ambassador Kenneth Bohon’s Paris office and announced she planned to swim the English Channel. Did he, she asked, know of a good place to train? The ambassador more or less laughed her off, but she persisted, and when he realized Chadwick was serious, he made a few inquiries and found that swimmers went to Calais. Chadwick caught a train to Calais, but as she was on her way a French passenger on the train listened to her story. No, he said, Wissant was where she should be headed. Wissant, a small village in northwest France, was closer to Cap Gris Nez, the starting point for channel crossings. As soon as they came to a station, the Frenchman helped Chadwick, who spoke no French, change trains and escorted her to Wissant, where she settled into a hotel. There were only two hotels in the town, and she quickly discovered that she had settled into one where no one spoke English. After a few days of attempting to communicate by sign language, the hotel maid led her to the other hotel, which was run by a Welshman named Davis. Finding Davis proved to be a blessing for Chadwick. She knew absolutely nothing about the logistics of channel swimming; she knew only how to swim. Davis knew nothing about swimming, but enough hopeful channel challengers had passed through the town that he knew a little about the logistics.

Ocean swimming is a science, and normally swimmers prepare strategies for conquering the English Channel as carefully as military commanders prepare for an invasion. The season for swimming is between July and September --the weather is more likely to be good, the water temperature (about sixty degrees) is warmer than any other time of the year. Still, within those months, only a few weeks, when the tides are in the neap stages, is swimming likely to be successful. During the neap tides, the current is manageable; the rest of the time the currents can be unruly. About twice a month, five days at a time, the tide will be right, but it’s rare that the weather will also cooperate. Chadwick knew none of this when she started her English Channel swim. It was only by coincidence and the off luck of rejection that she chose to swim on a day when the tides were in neap stages and the weather was good.

After arriving in Wissant, but before her father arrived in early July, Chadwick heard that the London Daily Mail was sponsoring a channel-swimming contest August 10. She sent in an application. “They just sent me an answer back and said, ‘Did I realize some of the best swimmers in the world had entered their swim?’ And they hated to put me to the time and trouble and expense involved when they knew I didn’t have a chance.“ The rejection almost shattered Chadwick’s dream. She recalls that first she became sad, then angry, then determined to swim anyway. When her father arrived, he consoled her by suggesting that she should just move her swimming date to a couple of days earlier than the Daily Mail swim.

Innkeeper Davis helped Chadwick round up a crew of five boatmen to take her out into the channel each day for training. She paid the boatmen about six dollars each and a round of cognac each day. When her father arrived, he would sit on the beach and watch with binoculars as Chadwick swam beside the large rowboat up and down the coast. For years he had watched her coaches training his daughter and he knew what advice she needed.

Davis also arranged for Chadwick to meet a boat pilot who might be interested in accompanying the swimmer across the channel. Chadwick and her father traveled four times to Boulogne, the pilot’s nearby home, making small talk for several of the visits, getting more and more anxious. Davis had advised Chadwick not to ask the pilot at their first meeting if he would travel across the channel. Things just aren’t done that quickly in France. Davis told her. The tedious, roundabout negotiating was practically driving Chadwick crazy, until on their fourth visit, the pilot accepted the job.

August 8, 1950, two days before the Daily Mail race, shortly before three o’clock in the morning, Chadwick stood on the beach at Cap Gris Nez, ready to swim. Her father, a couple of friends, a few crewmembers, a nurse, the pilot, the navigator, and three official observers who would record the crossing, climbed into a vessel about the size of a tugboat. The boat would accompany Chadwick across the channel and the people aboard would provide encouragement and watch for signs of danger, such as ships crossing in front of the swimmer’s path. At hourly intervals, Chadwick’s father would pass sugar cubes and beef bouillon to her, just enough food to give quick energy, food that would taste good even if accidently mixed with a swallow of salt water. Throughout the swim, Chadwick would have to remain out of contact with anything but the water --her food would be handed to her on a pole, she could not lean on the boat to rest or she would be disqualified.

She wore a bathing suit, a bathing cap, goggles, and a coat of grease on her body. Channel swimmers dread cold water more than anything, so they coat their bodies in some sort of grease --some use lanolin, some Vaseline --hoping to retain body heat. In reality, the grease does little except provide a psychological barrier against the cold, but until just a few days before the swim, Chadwick had no idea she was supposed to use grease. Again, Davis came to her rescue, told her about the grease, and gave her a container of it another channel swimmer had left behind a year before. That channel swimmer, Shirley May France, a teen-ager from Massachusetts, didn’t complete that first trip. Chadwick recalls that newspaper accounts quoted France as blaming the grease in part for her failure.

Though Chadwick didn’t know it until the day of her swim, France would make her second attempt to cross the channel only a few minutes after Chadwick. France had hired a manager to promote her attempt, and a film crew and six boatfuls of reporters were gathered to record it. Had France not been there with such an entourage, Chadwick’s success might not have been so quickly and enthusiastically reported. France, plagued by cramps and violent nausea, had to give up six miles from the English shore. But the reporters would still have a story.

After months of training, the swim seemed to fly by in no time. She never suffered another common complaint of long-distance swimmers --boredom. Her former trainer, Henry Gunther, had relayed the message to her through her father that if she felt her muscles and arms getting so tired she couldn’t go any farther, she should switch from the American crawl to the breaststroke. Chadwick says she spent much of the time during the channel swim wondering when her arms would feel so tired. The swim was smooth until the last three miles, when the currents became so strong it looked as though Chadwick might not make it in. She kept battling them, though, and made her way to shore. The observers on board the boat knew then that she had broken Ederle’s world record. But there was not time to celebrate. Panic set in when she climbed back into the boat for the return trip to France: she couldn’t feel anything in her legs, she felt paralyzed. Soon, however, it was determined that she was just cold, that her legs were numb from kicking four times to every stroke her arms took. Her arms took about twenty-eight strokes per minute on most of the swim.

Once on the boat, the crew and passengers spent much of the next two hours helping Chadwick get warm, wrapping her in blankets, giving her hot drinks and hot-water bottles. In the next few days, word of her feat was carried around the world, and Chadwick began celebrating with her French friends, attending a reception at the American Embassy, and being honored by the French parliament. Then she and her father boarded a plane and returned to New York. A representative of the mayor of New York met her at the airport, the Lexington Hotel set her up in the governor’s suite. Five phones were ringing when she arrived at her room, and they continued ringing until she tracked down a publicity agent, who immediately arranged for newspaper and radio interviews. After two days in New York, Chadwick and her father left for San Diego, knowing that she would have to return to New York in two weeks for another round of interviews.

Before Chadwick’s plane touched down at Lindbergh Field, she learned there would be a crowd to greet her, but she didn’t expect the celebration that followed. When she stepped off the plane, she was escorted to the nearby Coast Guard hangar, where she was loaded onto a sea plane. The plane then took off, circled the bay, and made a dramatic landing in the water at the foot of Broadway. She was transferred to a boat decorated like a parade float, and the boat took her to the pier. Standing at the edge of the pier, waiting to welcome Chadwick home, backed up by a huge crowd, was her mother, no longer demanding that her daughter give up swimming for restaurants. Following a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, Chadwick was presented with a brand-new car and a ceremonial key to the city. She had spent every penny she had on the English Channel swim, and wondered, as she received the car, how she would fill its gas tank.

Two weeks after returning to San Diego, Chadwick was back in New York to begin an endless series of interviews, appearance, and commercial promotions (for which she was paid). She stayed at the Hudson Hotel for free in exchange for mentioning where she was staying every time she was interviewed. That arrangement continued for about a year, until she rented an apartment. By December her money was getting low, when a New York friend suggested off the top of his head that she should announce she was going to swim the channel from England to France, a difficult challenge because of unfavorable ocean currents, and something never before achieved by a woman. He said such an announcement would probably generate more media interest. She laughed at the idea. Swimming, for Chadwick, had never been a publicity stunt and she didn’t want to make it become one. However, she liked the idea of swimming the channel the opposite way, so when shortly after that conversation the London Daily Mail invited her to participate in their annual channel race, she turned them down. She was going to swim the channel the opposite way, instead, she said. With that announcement, requests for more appearances rolled in to her in New York, here new home.

She saved enough money from her promotional work to try the channel again, and in the summer of 1951, just a year after first channel swim, Chadwick and her father flew to England to begin the swim from Dover. The event was postponed several times because the weather was bad, but finally, one late-September night, though the water surface was choppy, the tides were wrong, and the fog was thick, Chadwick got tired of waiting and began her second English Channel crossing. Three hours out from shore she became violently ill, throwing up every third stroke. It looked as though she might have to quit until her team, which included her father, realized that the exhaust from the boat was blowing into her face, making her ill. Chadwick changed her position in relation to the boat and recovered and kept swimming. At another point the fog was so think she lost the boat. But after sixteen hours and twenty-two minutes of battling the waves, Chadwick landed on the French coast.

After the second channel swim, Chadwick returned to New York and started in earnest her circuit of radio --and now television --appearances. Along the way, she discovered she could get other people to finance more channel swims. In 1952 the National Broadcasting Company financed her swim of the Catalina Channel in California. She broke the men’s record for that channel and became the first woman to swim it. Chadwick’s life became a hectic arrangement of schedules. Part of the year she taught swimming and organized swimming programs at Grossinger’s, a resort in the New York Catskills, part of the year she toured the country for the Catalina swimwear company, speaking at swimsuit fashion shows, drumming up publicity for the business: she promoted products, including Coca-Cola, and appeared at sports shows; and part of the year she concentrated on intensive training for more long-distance swims. In the 1950s she was the country’s highest-paid female professional athlete, earning through events and promotions about $75,000 a year. She completed sixteen long-distance swims, including crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, the Bosporus, and the Bristol Channel. She attempted but failed to complete the Strait of Juan De Fuca, which runs between Vancouver, British Columbia and the state of Washington; Lake Ontario; and the Irish Sea. He ice-cold water forced her out of each of these.

She was compulsive about her work, looking for more challenging swims, driven as much by the success she achieved as she had been driven before by the desire to have success. She wanted recognition, adventure, and the sense of accomplishment she got each time she complete a swim. She demanded so much of herself that setting a record wasn’t enough if she didn’t think she had gone as fast as she possibly could.

In 1960, after failing for the second time to swim the North Channel of the Irish Sea, Chadwick returned to New York and worked at Grossinger’s. She loved to teach, so she opened two swimming schools of her own, one in Manhattan at the Hotel Park Crescent, and one in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The schools were financially successful, so when the hotel was sold and Chadwick was faced with closing up one school or finding a new location, she opted to start hunting for a new location. Then, while she was hunting, her brother, seven years her senior, underwent heart surgery. She flew to San Diego to visit him and while she was here her mother’s doctor told Chadwick her mother, who had been living alone since her husband’s death in 1952, shouldn’t be left unattended. Her mother had suffered a knee injury that was growing increasingly serious. She could fall while working in her prize rose garden and not be discovered for several days, the doctor said. Chadwick decided then, in 1967, to move back to San Diego.

She closed her New Jersey school, moved out of the apartment she had rented in New York since 1953, and returned home. For the first six months here she concentrated on getting her mother in better shape. Then she opened a swimming school behind the Masonic Temple in Mission Valley. But after a few months of spending twelve hours a day in the water teaching swimming, she decided she had had enough. She had been interested in the stock market and how it operated since she was in her early twenties, and now, nearing fifty, Chadwick changed her career. She started studying to become a stockbroker through a correspondence course.

From the ranch-style house in Point Loma were Chadwick has lived alone since her mother dies two years ago (her brother dies about five years ago). Chadwick can see the bay where she won her first long-distance swimming race. From the twenty-fourth floor of the California First Bank Building downtown, where Chadwick has an office, she can see the same scene from the opposite direction. In either place there are few signs of her swimming career. The tangible rewards, the silver cup and paper certificates, sit in the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park and in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But even without the trophies around, Chadwick is reminded constantly of her place in history. About twice a month she’ll receive requests in the mail for her autograph. The requests come from children and adults. Occasionally a letter will be addressed simply to Florence Chadwick, San Diego, California. Sometimes when she makes business calls and identifies herself, a phone operator will ask if it’s really Florence Chadwick the swimmer. She still swims occasionally at the pool at the Kona Kai Club on Shelter Island, but she says she’s out of shape so she swims early in the morning in hopes that not many people will see her now that she’s well past her athletic peak. Occasionally she gets invited to speak to organizations and classes about swimming, and accepts the invitations when she has time. Recently she accepted a request to speak at an Elk’s Club parent-daughter dinner. After so many years of notoriety, Chadwick is still flattered when people recognize her, when they remember the records she broke, records that have long since been broken by other swimmers.

For most of the past fourteen years, though, Chadwick has concentrated on developing her new career. As a stockbroker she works the same long hours she did while training as a swimmer, putting together stock portfolios for clients. Most of her customers at Smith Barney Harris Upham and Company are senior citizens who invest in “safe” stocks – municipal bonds, utility companies. She says she’s successful, is making good money, and is working to build up financial security so she can retire and travel. The public isn’t watching her each day as she works, expecting her to set world records each time she trades a stock. But she’s compulsive about her work, taking only a few days off for vacation each year, spending twelve-hour days at work, working six-day weeks. She says she works hard because she got a late start in stockbroking, has to spend the extra hours, loves to work hard, needs the challenge she once found in swimming.

Her last long-distance swim was probably the greatest challenge, and one of the most bitter disappointments of her career. Covered with six pounds of grease, Chadwick set out in 1960 to become the first woman to swim the twenty-two-mile-wide North Channel of the Irish Sea. That channel, which lies between Northern Ireland and Scotland, had only been successfully swum once, in 1947 by swimmer Tim Blower. In 1957 Chadwick tried but failed to swim the channel. Sports Illustrated offered to finance a second attempt. By the time she began that attempt, it had been ten years since she first swam the English Channel. She was almost forty-two.

Hypothermia is one of long-distance swimming’s greatest dangers. The water temperatures can slowly freeze the body while the swimmer keeps pushing, stroking, unaware that a few more minutes in the water could be disastrous. In 1959 a Greek swimmer, Jason Zirganos, froze to death as he swam the North Channel.

The water was fifty-two degree when Chadwick began her swim. She can’t recall much of what happened in the last minutes of the swim, twelve and a half hours after starting – she was incoherent – but her crew informed her later that they could tell she was freezing. A crewmember jumped in the water to push her into the boat. She refused to go. She was determined to finish. She was just seven mile from her goal and she didn’t want to disappoint the magazine or herself. As she was pulled into the boat, she wrapped her feet around the vessel’s edge, refusing to give up. She knew she could make it. The crew knew she couldn’t. When they got her into the boat, her body temperature was recorded as having dropped to ninety degrees, dangerously low. She apologized to the crew later, and then to Sports Illustrated. After years of success, she had finally been beaten – twice. She decided that losing attempt would be her last. Her days in the ocean were over.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader