Achieving the “impossible” has long been part of the American dream. For most of the recorded past, it seemed most of the attention was on men. But by the twentieth century, that began to change. American women too sought to break barriers. One of the most famous was Amelia Earhart. With dreams of soaring high, she took to the skies and became the first woman to fly across the continental United States before following Charles Lindbergh in soloing across the Atlantic in 1932. Her reputation increased even more in 1935 when she crossed the Pacific from Hawaii to California in 1935. Then two years later, she embarked on her last and greatest quest — her attempt to fly around the world. She remains one of America’s top aviators, but she was not the only one to achieve immortality by following her dreams. At the same time Earhart was sweeping through the clouds, a California woman was cementing her own reputation on the waves below. This woman came to be one of America’s preeminent swimmers, and she proved it by refusing to allow herself to be defeated. Her name was Florence Chadwick. This is the story of her fortitude and perseverance in overcoming a heartbreaking setback to swim over twenty treacherous miles between Catalina Island and the California coastline.
Florence Chadwick gained an abiding love for the water at an early age and dreamed of becoming a long-distance swimmer. She was born in San Diego, California in November 1918, and entered her first competition at age six — coming in last. Subsequently, she “made up [her] mind to become the best swimmer in California.” At age ten, she came in fourth in a two-and-a-half mile “rough water” swim, and a year later, she won a long-distance race across the mouth of San Diego Bay. Having found her calling, Chadwick began competing in rough water events all across Southern California. She was active all through high school and won every competition, but was most successful in the 2.5-mile race off La Jolla, California — ultimately winning ten times in eighteen years. Her career blossomed, and soon she entertained ambitions not just of being the best in California but of being a world champion.
To achieve her goal, Florence determined to follow the example of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. In 1948 Chadwick moved to Saudi Arabia where she worked for the American oil company Aramco, earning money for the endeavor and training in the warm Persian Gulf twice a day. By 1950 she was ready and travelled to London to apply to the Daily Mail, which sponsored the race. To her shock, she was denied entry due to lack of a reputation. Undaunted, however, Florence paid for her own boat and navigator. Following an unsuccessful attempt in July, she prepared for another go on August 8th. That day she entered the chilly waters off Cape Gris-Nez, France and embarked for the opposite shore — almost twenty-one miles away. Despite the channel’s choppy waves, she kept up a steady pace, all the while fed sugar cubes by her father and encouraged by friends from Saudi Arabia. Finally, she saw the English coast, and a short time later, she stepped foot near Dover as two fishermen looked on — the only witnesses to her extraordinary feat. She made the crossing in thirteen hours and twenty minutes — beating Gertrude Ederle’s 1926 world record by one hour and eleven minutes. Asked how she felt, she replied she was ready to swim in the opposite direction. It was no idle boast. A year later she completed the more rigorous swim from England to France in sixteen hours and twenty-two minutes — becoming the first woman to swim the Channel both ways. Her greatest enterprise, however, was yet to come.
Upon returning home, Florence sought to become the first woman to swim the twenty-mile channel between Catalina Island and the California mainland, a cold and dangerous stretch of water. She spent the remainder of 1951 and the first part of 1952 preparing for the massive undertaking. On July 4th she stood on the island’s shore and gazed toward the distant coastline. Florence knew she had to swim against the frigid California Current, a part of the North Pacific Gyre which brings the cold waters of the North Pacific southward along the U.S.’s west coast. Seawater lapped against her feet, and she shivered from the intense cold. Most problematic of all, however, was the dense fog that covered the channel, another summer phenomenon caused by the cold waters. It was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of her. Still, Florence thought the fog would dissipate soon, so she decided to go ahead and set out for the hidden shore. She dove into the water and began kicking with all her might. Boats filled with support crew followed her, and at times, the crew fired rifles into the water to scare off nearby sharks as they began to circle the determined young woman. Thankful for these efforts, Florence continued to glide through the water, but as the hours passed, the strain began to take its toll. The fog refused to lift, and she began to feel discouraged. She had no way of knowing where she was or how much farther she had to go.
By the time she had been in the water for fifteen hours, she had nearly reached her limit. She called out to her mother and trainer in one of the boats and told them she did not think she could finish. Both women told her to keep going. They insisted she was near her objective, and it would not be long before she stood on the beach at Palos Verde, California. Florence took a deep breath and pushed ahead, but a few minutes later, she raised her head and felt nothing but a numbing exhaustion. Fog was everywhere, and suddenly, Florence Chadwick doubted herself. Admitting defeat, she asked for a nearby crew to help pull her out of the water, and a moment later, she stood on the deck of the boat heading towards shore. It was the first time she had given up and not completed a swim. Her disappointment was magnified minutes later when the boat docked and she realized she had been less than a mile from shore. Standing in front of reporters, she candidly said, “If I could have seen land I know I could have made it.”
For the next two months, Florence reminisced how she allowed the fog to keep her from achieving her dream. She was so close — if only she had been able to see her goal. She then determined it would not happen a second time. That distant shore would never leave her mind’s eye. In September she announced she would be swimming the channel again. Days later, she was back on the Catalina beach looking towards California. With steely resolve, she dove into the water and pushed with all her might. Again, fog descended over the ocean, but this time she was not discouraged. She knew somewhere ahead lay the coastline, and she kept that thought continuously before her. She steadily ploughed forward barely noticing the cold or the fatigue that wracked her body. Each stroke brought her closer to her goal. Minutes turned into hours and hours into a seeming eternity, but there was no quit in her this time. Finally, she felt rocks and sandy soil beneath her and realized she had made it across. Standing up, she felt a burst of pride surge through her. Pushing through all obstacles for thirteen hours and forty-seven minutes, Florence Chadwick became the first woman to swim the Catalina Channel — breaking the men’s record by over two hours. She had come back from an agonizing defeat and was now one of the greatest swimmers in history.
Following her amazing comeback and newfound confidence, Florence continued to prove her prowess in the water. In 1953 she returned to Great Britain and crossed the Channel from England to France in a new women’s record of fourteen hours and forty-two minutes. She also swam the Straits of Gibraltar, off the Spanish coast, in five hours and six minutes — setting a new record for men and women. Then, in the space of just a few weeks, she successfully crossed Turkey’s Bosporus Straits, which separates Europe and Asia, and the Dardanelles. In 1955 she made history one more time by swimming the English Channel in thirteen hours and fifty-five minutes. Though ultimately unsuccessful, Florence also attempted to cross the Irish Sea, which separates Ireland and Scotland, as well as Lake Ontario before retiring in 1960 at age forty-two. Long afterwards, however, she remained an ardent champion of long-distance swimming, and in 1970 she was proclaimed one of the greatest swimmers of all time with her induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Florence Chadwick died in her hometown of San Diego in March 1995, and befitting her love of the ocean, her ashes were scattered over the Pacific off Point Loma.
Like her contemporary Amelia Earhart, Florence Chadwick was a great American woman who set out to achieve the “impossible.” She embodied those personal traits so many Americans admire — fortitude, resilience, determination and unyielding perseverance. Her example stands as a beacon for all to see and to follow. Her story reminds us to never lose sight of our goals, for as she said following that rare defeat off the California coast — if she could have seen the prize, she would have stayed the course. It was a lesson Florence Chadwick never forgot, nor should we.