Letters from Connie: Why?

The second in a series of posts inspired by Conrad Wennerberg‘s classic┬áWind, Waves, and Sunburn: A Brief History of Marathon Swimming.


In a brief chapter titled, simply, “Why?”, Chairman Connie ponders marathon swimmers’ reasons. In the end he concludes, basically, Why ask why? – but he offers some intriguing thoughts and observations along the way. One passage is particularly striking:

In my twenty years of observing the world-champion swimmers I have discovered an interesting common denominator. It became evident while discussing their personal lives with them. Hours of conversation with fourteen swimmers… brought to light the fact that twelve of them were under severe emotional tension during the time they were champions. Only two were not under such tension and seemed to have planned a course of action that led to their achievement without emotional involvement.

The others were reacting to the tensions incurred by: (1) the breakup of a marriage and divorce; (2) loss of a job; (3) sexual maladjustments. Physiologists tell us that such serious threats to one’s personal life are manifested by bodily response. The pituitary gland lying at the base of their brain secretes more of the substances that monitor brain and bodily functions. One of the repsonses is extreme nervousness and tension. Luckily, those professional swimmers reacted normally to the stimulus by working it off in training. They were tranquilizing themselves in the most sensible fashion: action.

I think this is keenly observed… though my inner social scientist feels compelled to note: correlation does not imply causation. In two respects:

Wind, Waves, and Sunburn

First, the fact that many champion marathon swimmers’ personal lives were in disarray does not mean their swimming somehow benefited from the personal stress. On the contrary, I think it’s always better to approach a gargantuan physical undertaking such as a marathon swim from a position of stability – with a clear mind and a fat wallet. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way ­čÖé

Second, though Connie implies that swimmers’ personal tensions, in a sense, motivated their training and eventual success – the opposite relationship is quite plausible. Anybody remember this story?

Finally, apropos of nothing in particular, I wanted to reproduce the closing passage of “Why?”… I’m not sure why, I just love it.

All that can be said is that man is attracted to water in the same fashion as he is attracted to a beautiful woman or a tasty meal. Would we say it was a matter of chemistry? Such things are the mysteries of life.

Letters from Connie: There Is No Perfect Stroke

Conrad Wennerberg is Chairman Emeritus of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and author of the authoritative history of marathon swimming: Wind, Waves, and Sunburn. Originally published in 1974, the book was re-printed in 1999, and is now out of print once again. (Used copies are available through Amazon.)

Wind, Waves, and Sunburn

Conrad (or “Connie,” as he’s known to friends) is a familiar face at Promontory Point┬áin Chicago, my preferred training location in 2010-11. Now in his 80s, Connie still takes his noontime dip in Lake Michigan, May through October. Connie is also responsible for rescuing a treasured thermos of mine, which his friend Frank the Klepto had stolen during a late-season training swim. True story.

I’m just now getting around to reading Wind, Waves, and Sunburn, and it’s delightful. More than anything else I’ve read, it captures the spirit of marathon swimming – and this power is undimmed by the passing of 37 years. For some perspective: in 1974, the records for the fastest crossings of the English and Catalina Channels were both held by Lynne Cox.

1962 Lake Michigan marathon swimIn an early chapter, Connie recounts the classic “36 3/4 to 50 mile” Lake Michigan race in 1962. This race was actually two races in one. First, a 36 3/4-mile swim from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois – an attempt to break Ted Erikson’s record of 35 hours for the same distance the previous year (Chicago to Michigan City,┬áIndiana). The first swimmer to reach Waukegan could choose to exit the water and collect $4,000. Or, swimmers could choose to keep going past Waukegan, all the way to Kenosha, Wisconsin – a distance of 50 miles and a new world record for distance. The first swimmer to reach Kenosha would win $10,000.

Of the 20 or so swimmers who dove into Lake Michigan that day, only three would finish: Ted Erikson, Greta Andersen, and Dennis Matuch. All three would subsequently be enshrined in the marathon swimming hall of fame. In Connie’s eyes, the story of their epic race is more than a story: It’s an allegory. He describes their respective stroke techniques:

Ted Erikson was “poetry in motion”–the classic stroke with hardly a millimeter variation between either arm as it entered the water. His legs beat in a steady, even throb that impressed the observer. His powerful arms carried him through the water at a speed of close to two miles per hour. Here was the man to watch. His forty-eight strokes per minute would prevent his burning out.

Moving on to Dennis Matuch, a local lifeguard with a decidedly different approach to swimming:

His arms worked in what seemed like frenzied action. Eighty-five strokes per minute…. Extremely short, his high stroke rate prevented any smooth entry of his hands and arms into the water. Consequently there was a splash upon entry into the water and corresponding flurry of water upon recovery. The average spectator would also have been amazed at the total non-use of his legs. They simply dragged along behind him…. Spectators scratched their heads and said, “This man will drown shortly.”

And finally, Greta Andersen, the greatest female marathon swimmer of her era:

What one would have observed would have been an extremely uneven stroke. As Greta turned her head to the right to breathe, her left arm reached only a little more than half the distance ahead as the right arm. One would have been tempted to say, “What a cock-eyed stroke.” It was very uneven and looked quite uncomfortable to the swimmer.

Based on these observations, Connie concludes:

Ted Erikson would win this race. Greta Andersen, if she were lucky, would go half way. Dennis Matuch would drown in about another ten minutes. Self-satisfied, the general observer would sit back and await the “sure” and inevitable outcome.

Conrad Wennerberg
Conrad Wennerberg at Promontory Point

So, what actually happened?

  • Dennis Matuch swam 36 3/4 miles to Waukegan in 21 hours, earning a new world record and $4,000.
  • Greta Andersen, five minutes behind Matuch, continued on to Kenosha, finishing in 31 hours — a new world record for distance, earning the top prize of $10,000.
  • Ted Erikson, three hours behind Andersen at Waukegan, also kept going. By the time he reached Kenosha he was five hours behind. In reward for 36 hours of swimming, he received nothing but a metaphorical pat on the back.

The chapter concludes with a statement as true today as it was in 1974:

The moral to be learned from the above is that one should never stress the importance of “evenness” and proportion that characterizes the classic swimming stroke. The individual variations in human anatomy and physiology preclude warping an individual’s personal adaptation to the water into the closed channel of “water ballet” perfectionism.

Hear, hear!

And Connie, if you read this, please give my regards to Frank the Klepto.