Florence Chadwick was a world-class athlete who set and broke long-distance swimming records for women…and men. In 1950, she crossed the English Channel faster than any other woman in history. A year later, she crossed it again, this time against the current, something no other woman had ever done.
But on July 4, 1952, Chadwick did something else she’d never done before.
American-born Florence May Chadwick began swimming at the tender age of 6. Almost immediately, she developed a passion for long-distance swimming. While just a girl, she won several competitions, in spite of the rigorous conditions that come with being a long-distance swimmer. Unlike Olympic swimmers, long-distance swimmers battle ocean currents and the effects of salt water. They also have to contend with sharks, ships, and the brutality of the scorching sun.
But Chadwick flourished at the demanding sport.
She was the first child to swim the San Diego Bay Channel. On August 8, 1950, she crossed the 21-mile-wide English Channel in just 13 hours and 20 minutes, shattering the world record held by another American swimmer, Gertrude Ederle. In an interview on the French beach, she said, “I feel fine. I’m quite prepared to swim back.” One year later, she did just that, swimming from France to England against the current, in 16 hours and 22 minutes, making her the first woman to swim the Channel in both directions!
Looking for an even greater challenge, Florence set her sights on a longer swim, the 26 miles between Catalina Island and the California mainland. On American’s birthday in 1952, Florence slid into the water off Catalina Island and began the long journey toward California’s coastline.
As usual, she was flanked by boats, some that were making sure she didn’t get hit by other vessels and some that were making sure she didn’t get attacked by sharks. It wasn’t long before Chadwick began feeling sick; she was having trouble breathing and felt nauseous. It was quickly discovered that one of the boats in her fleet was leaking oil. The ship was removed from the course, and Chadwick paddled on, stroke after laborious stroke.
Fifteen long hours later, another element threatened her attempt at making history; a thick, heavy fog set in on the bay. It was so blinding that she couldn’t see the land ahead of her, and as the minutes passed, the fog grew more and more dense. The water temperatures began to change and the humidity meant that her breathing became more difficult. Chadwick was afraid she was swimming in circles, and began to lose hope.
From one of the boats, her mother (and trainer) offered encouragement. In spite of her mother’s support, all Chadwick could see was a wall of fog. Finally, in desperation, Florence did something she’d never done before. She asked her safety crew to pull her into the boat.
She was done.
The exhausted and disheartened swimmer was pulled into a chase boat, and given medical treatment along with some food. Adding regret to weariness, Chadwick soon discovered that she had stopped swimming less than one mile from the California shore.
Yep. She’d swam 25.5 miles, only to quit with a half-mile to go.
In interviews later that day, Florence explained that she’d quit because she couldn’t see the coastline. She couldn’t see her goal and she lost hope.
It’s easy for Christians to make the same mistake that Chadwick made. When we lose sight of our purpose in life we tend to lose hope. When we lose hope, we typically forfeit the race we are running for Christ’s glory. Hebrews 10:23 gives a great piece of instruction to anyone in that predicament.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
That’s basically what Florence Chadwick did two months later. In September, she stepped off the Catalina shore once again, and set her sights on California. Mother Nature was just as menacing this time around, sending yet another dense fog the swimmer’s way. But this time, Chadwick kept a mental picture of the shoreline in mind, and when she touched the sand on the California beach, she became the first woman to complete the trek, and even bested the men’s record by two hours!
A to Z of American Women in Sports by Paula Edelson. Facts on File, Inc., 2002, Pages 38-39.
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