Passages: Olympic Pool Champion and Open Water Queen Greta Andersen Dies At 96

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On February 6, 2023, the world of swimming lost a long-time ambassador in 96-year-old Greta Andersen. One of the greatest swimmers of all time, Andersen burst onto the world’s stage when she won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle at the 1948 London Olympics. When she returned home to Copenhagen Denmark, she was a national hero.

After moving from her native Denmark to Long Beach, California, in 1953, she found she needed to make a living. She met Tom Park, a record-setting Catalina Channel swimmer, who convinced her she had what it took to be a successful marathon swimmer.

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Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

In 1956, Andersen won the first of seven Around Atlantic City Marathons swims. She then won the 50-mile Lake Michigan race from Chicago to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Andersen finished 10 miles ahead of her nearest competitor and captured the $25,000 first place prize money. The next year, she entered her first Sir Billy Butlin Cross English Channel Marathon race. She won again in 1958 and after her third swim, in 1959, Sir Billy gave her the perpetual trophy.

During her career, Andersen broke 18 world marathon records. She was the first woman to complete five crossings of the English Channel – set speed records in both directions – and was the first person to swim the Santa Catalina Channel both ways … nonstop, a feat that took almost 27 hours. She earned first, second, or third place in every event, competing with men head-to-head, and never lost to another woman. She was the largest money winner in women’s professional swimming history.

Confident, personable, and talented, she made quite a splash on the pool deck when she opened the Greta Andersen Swim School in 1960 and devoted her life teaching children how to be water-safe and confident swimmers. “Teaching toddlers to be unafraid of water,” she said, “and introducing them to the fun of swimming, has been her fondest ambition since earning her degree in physical education in Denmark in the 1940s.

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Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

During her life, she was an Olympic champion, world professional marathon champion, multiple world-record holder from 150 yards to 50 miles, businesswoman, teacher and inspiration to men and women around the world. She was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1964 and the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1969, and in 2015, the International Swimming Hall of Fame honored her with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

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