The one thing successful open water swimmers all seem to have in common is their appreciation for their crew and team. It’s usually all they can talk about after a swim, and Irene van der Laan is no different.
Irene van der Laan learned to swim at the age of six in a pool in Amsterdam. She would go to the beaches during the summer but she was the only one in her family that knew how to swim. She eventually took stroke lessons at the pool and began swimming for Coach Jaap Ploeg, soon finding herself swimming on a team with Olympians. Irene was inspired!
After 11 years of pool swimming, she tried an open water swim of 500 meters in the rowing track in Amsterdam. The year after, she swam 1,000 meters, and she was hooked on open water racing. Her parents were very supportive as she began swimming longer and longer races.
In 1976, after getting special permission from the federation because she was not the minimum age of 16, Irene swam her first 16 kilometer race. Irene completed the race in 4 hours and18 minutes and was the first female to finish, but she wanted even longer races. In 1978, she went to the biggest event at that time, the 25 kilometer Lake Windermere race in the U.K. It was Irene’s first international race and she finished third.
The year 1979 was the pinnacle of her open water swimming: The English Channel. Irene easily swam it in 8 hours and 44 minutes. The pilot said, “I know you can do it two-way.” So, in 1982, Irene tried a two-way. She nearly finished the first half of the two way crossing in record time, but two ships got in her way. Because of the very fast first-half effort, her team decided to stop when they came in at France. In 1983, she finally succeeded at the two-way Channel crossing in world record time, 18 hours and 15 minutes. Irene also turned pro that year, as other long swims were waiting: Capri-Napoli was a favorite. In both 1982 and 1983 she won the Rolex watch for the fastest Channel swim of the year.
Irene loved to travel and swim; swimming in the summer and working part time in the winter. There were not really enough swims on the pro circuit each year, but still, she says, it was a good life. She loved traveling to Australia, Egypt, Argentina, Mexico, the USA, Canada and Italy, always finishing in the top three. Then in 1988, after five years of second place finishes, she became the Woman’s world champion of professional swimming.
Among her favorite races were the Traversee International du lac St. Jean, in Canada, where she raced 27 times; Farosmarathon in Stari Grad, Croatia, 21 times; and Lake Memphremagog, Canada, 20 times.
In her prime, Irene van der Laan was one of the fastest and most durable marathon swimmers in the world. Having competed in over 200 marathon swimming competitions during her career, she has arguably competed over a greater distance in the water than anyone in history.