There are marathon swimmers, long distance racers and open water swimmers, but Herman Willemse was all of these.
Born in Holland, Willemse was always the swimmer to beat: the “rabbit” of the pack and the undisputed world’s greatest marathon swimmer of the 1950s and 1960s. Out of the water, he was of a retiring and academic nature. But in the water, Willemse was always planning the next move to position himself in the race.
He changed the image of marathon swimming when he was one of the first to use a scientific approach of studying water conditions to develop race strategy.
Nicknamed the Flying Dutchman, a 17th-century ghost-of-a-ship that could cut and “fly” through the wind and waves, Willemse “reined” over the greatest of marathon races. He earned five titles in the 25-mile Atlantic City Swim (1960-1964), three titles in the 24-mile Lac Saint John Swim in Quebec, four titles in the 10-mile Tois Riviere Swim in the St. Lawrence River, and two titles at the C.N.E. Swims in Lake Ontario.
Between 1960 and 1964, he was nearly unbeatable in Argentina's Mar del Plato (28 miles), Suez Canal (26 miles), Quebec City (10 miles), Chicoutimi (28 miles), Rio Parana (55 miles), Capri to Naples (23 miles), the English Channel, and others.
When the World Marathon Swimming Championship points were initiated in 1964, Willemse finished second only to Hall of Famer Abdellatief Abouheif. Willemse swam his solo swims as if he was racing and he became marathon swimming’s greatest racer.