11 Open Water Swimmers Who Changed the Game (Before Diana Nyad)

11 Open Water Swimmers

In August 2013, long-dis­tance swim­mer Diana Nyad earned her place in the record books. The 64-year-old New York native became the first per­son to swim from Cuba to Flori­da with­out the aid of a shark cage; the 110-mile jour­ney took 53 hours to com­plete. Ms. Nyad first gained recog­ni­tion in 1975 when she swam around Man­hat­tan (a dis­tance of rough­ly 28 miles), and she told the New York Dai­ly News that she plans to swim for 48 con­sec­u­tive hours in Octo­ber to raise mon­ey for Hur­ri­cane Sandy victims.

In hon­or of Diana Nyad’s tri­umphant Cuba-Flori­da jour­ney, we’ve decid­ed to look back on some of her equal­ly impres­sive coun­ter­parts in the field of open-water swimming.

Lynne Cox
In 1971, Ms. Cox and a cou­ple of her swim­ming team­mates became the first teenagers to cross the Catali­na Island Chan­nel ― and she has­n’t real­ly stopped chas­ing records ever since. The fol­low­ing year, she set the first of her two Eng­lish Chan­nel cross­ing time records (her sec­ond came the fol­low­ing year). In 1976, she record­ed the first cross­ings of both the Strait of Mag­el­lan in Chile and the Cape of Good Hope off the coast of South Africa. Eleven years lat­er, she became the first swim­mer to cross the frigid Bering Strait (from Lit­tle Diomede, Alas­ka, to Big Diomede, Sovi­et Union). And in 1992, she record­ed the first cross­ing of Lake Tit­i­ca­ca.

Gian­ni Goli­ni
Any swim­mer can tell you the but­ter­fly is one of the tough­est strokes to mas­ter, as well as one of the most exhaust­ing ― and that makes this Ital­ian leg­end’s dual accom­plish­ments all the more impres­sive. In 1976, he record­ed the fastest dou­ble-cross­ing of the Strait of Messi­na (a four-mile stretch that sep­a­rates Sici­ly from Italy’s south­ern tip) using only the but­ter­fly stroke; he fin­ished with a time of 2 hours and 23 min­utes. The fol­low­ing year, he com­plet­ed a record-set­ting sin­gle-cross­ing of the strait in just a shade under 52 min­utes, also sole­ly uti­liz­ing the but­ter­fly. Both of these records remain unbro­ken to this day. 

Blair Can­non, Phil Cut­ti, David Hod­sch­er, Zach Jirkovsky, Luane Rowe, and Grace van der Byl
Last month, this six-mem­ber team com­plet­ed a record-break­ing, 228-mile con­tin­u­ous relay swim off the coast of Cal­i­for­nia. The swim­mers reached their final des­ti­na­tion ― the San Diego Yacht Club ― in just over four days, well ahead of sched­ule. The group was com­mis­sioned by the Night Train Swim­mers, a non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that has raised mil­lions of dol­lars for char­i­ty through open water swims around the world.

Bob Rop­er
Thou­sands of swim­mers have com­plet­ed the near­ly two-mile dis­tance that spans the length of the Gold­en Gate Bridge, yet Bob Rop­er’s 1969 record remains untouched. The San Fran­cis­co police offi­cer com­plet­ed this ardu­ous trek in just 17 min­utes, 21 sec­onds. Rop­er him­self has also stood the test of time; he con­tin­ues to coach swim­mers in the Bay Area, and has emceed the annu­al Gold­en Gate invi­ta­tion­al swim that bears his name for the last eight years.

Mar­tin Strel
This Sloven­ian dynamo has set the Guin­ness World Record for long-dis­tance swim­ming an unprece­dent­ed five times, and on four dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents no less. It all began in 2000, when Strel swam more than 1,800 miles along the length of the Danube Riv­er in 58 days. Two years lat­er, he swam the entire Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er ― break­ing his pre­vi­ous record by near­ly 500 miles ― in 68 days. In 2003, he com­plet­ed Argenti­na’s Parana Riv­er, which spans more than 2,400 miles, in just 21 days. Then, in 2004, he swam the entire length of the Yangtze Riv­er (more than 2,500 miles) in only 51 days. His most recent feat came in 2007 when he swam the entire Ama­zon Riv­er from source to estu­ary, a dis­tance of more than 3,200 miles. Pirah­nas and blis­ter­ing sun­burn near­ly end­ed his Ama­zon trek, but he man­aged to out­last the ele­ments for 66 days and earned his fourth world record. And just in case you’re won­der­ing, he has no plans to swim the Nile.

Ling Tienyu
Every year dozens of swim­mers take part in the Kin­men-Xia­men race that cov­ers the sev­en-kilo­me­ter stretch of sea between Tai­wan and main­land Chi­na. Hong Kong native Ling Tienyu was only 17 when he took part in the 2010 con­test, but youth cer­tain­ly did­n’t stop him from com­plet­ing the swim in 94 min­utes flat and set­ting the all-time record (the sec­ond-place swim­mer reached the fin­ish line only three sec­onds later).