In an Olympic-sized swimming pool, it would take thirty-three laps (that’s swimming from one end to the other) to swim about a mile. How long that would take you depends of course on your fitness level and technique. Let’s say the pool is now filled with salt, so the longer you swim, any chafing from your suit or folds in your skin begin to burn with stinging, annoying pain. Speaking of stinging, why don’t we toss in a dozen or so jellyfish. Now, imagine the pool has a small motor capable of pushing a current in multiple directions at once, sometimes meaning you’re swimming upstream, then downstream. Do you think you could swim 700 laps in those conditions? Oh, and the water temperature is in the low 50s. How far could you get?
That’s roughly the equivalent to swimming the English Channel, a distance of about twenty-one miles. Throw in seasickness, the mental hurdles of justified or not fear of sharks, the eerie awareness that you’re swimming above a seemingly bottomless and impossibly black sea, and you have one of the great human endurance events of all time. Almost 2,000 swimmers have completed the swim, some of whom have done it more than once; about 2,400 completed swims have been recorded.
Greta Anderson did the swim five times. She was the first woman to do that. She was the first woman to swim lots of things, and, throughout her career as a marathon swimmer, she smoked all comers, men, women, whomever. In total, Anderson broke 18 world records in marathon swimming. She was also an Olympic gold medalist. Anderson was a swimming badass. So badass, she was called the greatest female swimmer in history by the president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Anderson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1927. She didn’t learn to swim until she was 12, just after the Nazis occupied the country. Her parents feared she’d be targeted for assault by the German soldiers and officials in town, so they chopped her hair off hoping she’d pass as a boy. Perhaps that set the tone for her future trouncing of male competitors when swimming.
Right away it was clear she had a natural gift in the water. Without any training, as a beginning swimmer, she was able to swim underwater 50 meters on one breath. “It’s because I didn’t know any better,” she once said. A former Olympian who frequented the same pool decided to coach Anderson, hoping to propel her to national greatness.
Anderson already had won two European medals in international competitions when she exploded onto the world swimming stage at the 1948 London Olympics. She won a gold and a silver medal at those games. Four years later, she qualified for the 1952 games in Helsinki, and competed despite having the use of only one leg after a recent surgery—she still helped the Danish team come in fourth in the 4 x 100mm relay.
But Anderson was disappointed she couldn’t earn a living as a professional swimmer in Europe. Sure, she’d won lots of flowers, even a bicycle once. But she struggled to convert her fame in Denmark into a real career in the water.
So in 1953, she moved to Long Beach, California, hoping for more lucrative swimming options. She found them in open water distance swimming, or marathon swimming. Open water swimming was enjoying a kind of heyday in the 1950s with professional competitions paying out real money. Winning an international competition could fetch as much as $30,000 in today’s dollars. Anderson repeatedly bested men in these races—she was the strongest open water swimmer on the planet.
In 1958 she became the first person to swim one of the world’s major swimming channels, the Santa Catalina Channel, in both directions. She claimed world records in multiple marathon swimming distances. Anderson crossed the English Channel five times between 1957 and 1965, setting speed records along the way.
“I take my hat off to her,” said the captain of one of her support boats. “That woman has more courage than most 10 men I’ve seen. She’s just plain got guts.”
Anderson retired from competition to run a swimming school she started with her husband in Southern California, teaching swimming classes herself. Imagine that. Oh, my kids’ swim teacher? Yeah, basically she’s a sea god.
In February, 2023, Anderson died at her home in Solvang, California. She was 95 years old. In 1969 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Words by Justin Housman