Florence Chadwick 1953-1964

Florence Chadwick was the first person to complete 2 and 3 crossings.

Florence Chadwick Florence Chadwick 2

Florence Chadwick congratulating Bill Pickering, who had just broken her World record by 36 minutes. She got it back barely 6 weeks later, beating his time by 11 minutes.

Florence Chadwick receiving food

Florence receiving food.

Florence Chadwick 1950 – 1955
(Source: ISHOF)

Typist and swimming coach from California. 4 successes in 10 attempts. 32 years old when she became the first woman to swim from England to France in 1951, St. Margaret's Bay to Sangatte. This also made her the first woman to do the double as she had swum France to England in 1950 (Cap Gris Nez to South Foreland). Her 3 England to France swims each took the record for the fastest time, going from 16 hours 22 mins in 1951 to 13 hours 55 mins in 1955. On her last 3 successful swims she also attempted to swim there-and-back but gave up on the return legs.

England to France: 10/9/1951 (success), 2/8/1953 (failed), 15/8/1953 (failed), 4/9/1953 (success) 15/8/1955 (failed), 23/9/1955 (failed), 26/9/1955 (failed), 12/10/1955 (success)

France to England: 26/7/1950 (failed), 8/8/1950 (success)

1970 Honor Swimmer

FOR THE RECORD: First woman to swim the English Channel both ways, 1950 (France to England); 1951, 1953, 1955 (England to France); First woman to swim the Catalina Channel (1952); Straits of Gibraltar (1953); Bosporus (one way) 1953; Dardanelles (round trip) 1953.

For a period of 10 years going on immortality, Florence Chadwick owned the English Channel, a piece of flooded real estate that has changed hands about every quarter century. First it was Captain Webb in 1875, then Burgess in 1911, followed by the remarkable women Channel swimmers Ederle 1926 and Chadwick 1950.

After 18 years as an amateur swimming shorter ocean races off hometown San Diego, then training in the Persian Gulf while saving her money for a Channel try, Florence Chadwick left the Arabian American Oil Company and was off to England and preparation for her lifetime ambition, a try at the English Channel. Swimming from France to England, she made it in 13:23 finally breaking the women's record (14:34) set by Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim it. Eleven others had made the Channel between Ederle and Chadwick, but all in slower times. Chadwick's #13 women's crossing lowered the record by an hour and 11 minutes. Counting males as well as females, Florence was the 32nd person to complete the crossing, called impossible until Capt. Webb accomplished it in 1875. No other man made it until 1911 and Miss Ederle was the first woman in 1926.

Florence Chadwick, age 32, was denied entry (no previous record or reputation) in the 1950 half-century contest sponsored by the London Daily Mail so she went about conquering the Channel at her own expense (boat, trainer, navigator). She tried and missed in July, staying in the water 14 hours. On August 8, she left Cape Gris Nez, France and crawled ashore at Dover, a record 13 hours 23 minutes later, with the comment that "I feel fine. I am quite prepared to swim back." This she did the following summer, the first woman to swim it from England to France (16:22) and the first woman to swim it both ways.

From there it was around the world swimming straits and channels that had defied man and woman. In 1952, it was the Catalina Channel, the first woman to swim it and in an over-all men's and women's record from island to mainland. She had been preparing for this since childhood swimming San Diego Bay at age 10 and later winning ten 2 1/2 mile rough water ocean swims at La Jolla.

Barnstorming during the summer of 1953, Florence Chadwick swam again from England to France (14:42, a new women's record); the Straits of Gibraltar (5:06--men's and women's record); then off to Turkey for the Bosporus (one way) and the Dardanelles (round trip). In 1955 she again squashed the England-France Channel record (13:55)

Less it all sound too easy, there were the agonizing near misses fighting icy water and tides at Juan De Fuca, across Lake Ontario and twice the Irish Sea which she tried on her last great swim in 1960.

After that it was sportsman's shows, swim schools, radio and TV, public appearances to teach children to swim and to encourage people of all ages to extend themselves physically. At 51, Florence Chadwick began a successful new career as a stockbroker. Her first full market year (1969-70) would be a challenge to anyone, but what is rough water after you've made it a habit to swim the English Channel?

Who We Are Honorees Awards Museum Library Gift Shop Membership Calendar Links Contacts Home
© 1970 ISHOF, Inc. Biography: Florence Chadwick

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.

Long-Distance Swimmer

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 Cap 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 Sangatte 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 travelled 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 ever 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's Legacy

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. Chadwick was one of the pioneers. She helped to change attitudes toward women as endurance swimmers and cleared the way for others to follow.

Further Reading

Hickok, Ralph. A Who's Who of Sports Champions, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

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.

WIC Biography, http://www.wic.org/bio/chadwick.htm