Once they were America's idols, the marathon swimmers. Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel and only Lindbergh matched her ticker-tape up Broadway, and when George Young made it from Catalina Island, William Wrigley Jr. paid him $25,000 for his pains, which were considerable. Ah, what whacky, romantic times, the '20s! But times changed. Saner sports proliferated. Swimming prizes shrank. Too many people swam the Channel, and last September 24, when a New York cop named Tom Hetzel made crossing No. 213, he rushed to place a transatlantic call. "I made it! I did the Channel!" he screamed. "Yes, I heard it on the radio," his father replied, "but wait till you hear this: the Mets just won the pennant!"
Truly, few really care about the marathon swimmer anymore, and though the Channel is still his Mecca, enduring it is about his only reward. For money he enters races, but even the best in the world rarely makes $10,000 in a year. No professional athlete works harder for less return. No distance runner knows his loneliness. His hours in the water are endless—10, 15, sometimes all day and night. He is as dependent on periodic feedings as an infant, but between them his trainer's boat might as well be in another ocean. His ears are plugged and his goggles are fogged. Nausea torments him. If he touches the boat he is disqualified. If he gets a cramp and stops moving he sinks. Bucking tides, he swims for hours and gets nowhere. Clearly he is mad. And in a few countries, not the U.S., but Canada, Egypt and Argentina, he is a hero.
The World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation, clearing house for the sport, sanctioned eight swims this year—four in Canada, two in Europe, one in Lebanon and a 26½-miler in Newport, R.I. last month. As usual, accommodations rated less than four stars. In Newport, the swimmers were boarded in an old ark of a college dorm, and they tolerated sleeping 11 to a room, with no blankets; but one day's menu of oatmeal for breakfast, rice for lunch and spaghetti for dinner was cause for grumbling in four languages. It was a group of somewhat more eccentricity than, say, the American Library Association, and in this respect the U.S. swimmers were supreme. Our best marathoner is Dennis Matuch (rhymes with Heinie Manush), a hulking 28-year-old Cicero, Ill. swimming instructor who was No. 3 in the world last year. He made $3,000. His hobby is collecting horror comic books. Eerie and Creepy comics are his favorites. "If you ever have trouble with a vampire or a werewolf, call me," he told everyone at Newport. "I know how to get rid of them."
Reginald Huffstetler (his mother named him for the actor Reginald Denny), a drawling, 35-year-old fireman from Charlotte, N.C., just smiled. "Moon," they call him, for his big round face, or "the Catawba Catfish," because since childhood he has been jumping into the snake-infested Catawba River for swims of 10, 15 and 20 miles. "My lifelong dream is to swim the English Channel," he said, "and this fall I'm planning to go. No one in the South's ever done anything like that."
It was only the sixth competition for Moon, but he had already learned a few things. Last year Tom Hetzel swam up beside him in a Canadian lake. "Hi, Moon, what're you eating?" he asked. "Peanut butter and Gatorade," Moon replied. "You're going to kill yourself," Hetzel said. "I know," Moon said. "I don't feel so good." A few minutes later he was on the hospital boat. All night they pumped glucose into him. He hadn't known that during races swimmers need carbohydrates and consume honey and Coca-Cola. Last week Hetzel himself had food problems. Someone forgot to put the proper food in his boat before a race at Chicoutimi, Quebec, and since nobody aboard understood English his anguished pleadings bore no fruit—or sugars. He, too, wound up in the hospital.
Soon the swimmers all would suffer together. Now they joked and horsed around the dorm. Four Egyptians did a snake dance about the dining room, chanting a nationalistic song in Arabic. An Italian made an eye patch of a napkin, leaped to his feet and ran after them. "I am General Dayan," he screamed. An American coach turned to Holland's Johan Schans, 21, a Utrecht swimming instructor. "You know those fish traps we'll be swimming by," he said. "That's where the sharks congregate." Schans looked stricken. "Schans," his coach said, "you know the word bullbleep?" He obviously did because he broke into a grin. "Look at Schans," Matuch said, "the only guy in the world whose face is three-quarters teeth." Schans hadn't been smiling much that day. The swimmers had lunched on a donated barrel of whiting—edible but the cheapest of fish—which came out more raw than cooked. The only one who seemed to thrive on rare whiting was an Egyptian named Abdel Latif Abou-Heif, a former bodyguard to President Nasser. "Ah, but he is from another planet," Schans said of Abou-Heif.
Before a race some marathon swimmers eat little but honeyed tea. Some are too wound up to eat anything. Abou-Heif, however, has been known to gobble down four whole chickens. Three times he has swum the English Channel, three times he has been a world champion, and in Egypt, where marathon swimming is the national sport, there is not only an Abou-Heif Street but an Abou-Heif Beach, and he is known as "the Crocodile of the Nile." "No matter how long the race," said Dennis Matuch, "Abou-Heif always manages to finish strong."
Many of the swimmers whispered about a delightful little man from Pecks-kill, N.Y. named Ralph Willard. He, too, had a big smile, but a bigger belly; he was 56 years old, and all he talked of was the race. He said he was entered, and everyone humored him.
It seemed the only quiet ones were Schans and his main competitor, a 28-year-old Argentine engineer named Horacio Bernardo Guillermo Iglesias. Last year he was world champion. Back home they call him "Dorado," for a great South American game fish. "It is like a kind of drug, this swimming," he said. "It hurts, but you don't want to stop. Maybe it is pride. If the others stay, you stay." He appeared thoughtful, smiled wanly and pointed to his head. "You will find in every marathon swimmer something wrong up here," he said.
The eve of the race was devoted to worry and preparations. A sign painter volunteered to paint the numbers on the swimmers' backs. Several marathoners smelled the can of paint before getting in line. Last year, before a 24-hour race in La Tuque, Quebec, an acid-based paint was used, and backs were bubbling all the way round Lake St. Louis. New York's Benson Huggard still showed the faint outline of a 2 between his shoulder blades. He is known as "Deuce."
A number of swimmers worried about tides. Newport is at the southern tip of Rhode Island, for which the stale is named, and the first 15 miles of the race would be down the tidal Sakonnet River, which bathes the island's east shore. Unfortunately, coming downriver the swimmers would meet an incoming tide, and no one was very happy about it. Now they cached their food in cartons: Coke, honey, powdered glucose, jelly beans. Chewing jelly beans promotes salivation, and this is vital because salt water can swell marathoners' tongues and constrict their throats, making breathing difficult. Horacio Iglesias' staple would be the pulp from four cans of peaches run through a blender. Breakfast was set for 3 a.m., and by 10 everyone was trying to sleep.
At 3 a.m. Tom Hetzel looked haggard. He had lain awake for well over an hour, periodically exclaiming: "Tomorrow I fight the bull." Stella Taylor, a 32-year-old teacher of deaf children from Florida, and one of two woman entrants, was putting on lipstick and eye makeup. The night before she had put her hair up. "I always act as if I'm going to my funeral," she said. "I do better if I look my best."
The swimmers were silent. Some of them ate. Some didn't. Iglesias ate 12 unblended peach halves. A 23-year-old English swimmer named Geoffrey Lake ate 12 raw egg yolks beaten up with sugar. Soon all walked out in the cool dark and entered their bus.
Starting time was 6 a.m., and a couple hundred people were at Island Park in Portsmouth to watch. The swimmers coated their necks and underarms with grease to prevent chafing. Boats with signs numbered to identify their swimmers bobbed offshore. A helicopter deposited Governor Frank Licht on the beach, perhaps to throw out the first ball of grease, and suddenly everyone was swimming.
A mile out, Iglesias was in the lead with Schans a few hundred yards behind. With 24 miles to go, Iglesias was swimming 80 strokes to the minute, and far to their rear the day's first tragedy occurred. A 45-year-old incinerator stoker named Maurice Zatonsky went to rinse his goggles, both lenses fell out and he had to quit. In his only previous swim he hadn't worn goggles, and he stopped after 9½ miles, nearly blinded by the salt water.
Halfway down the Sakonnet River the water was a warm 72°, to the chagrin of Matuch, who was far behind Iglesias and Schans. Unlike them, and most other modern marathoners, Matuch thrives in cold water. Twelve miles out and 4½ hours into the race, Schans swam to within 150 yards of Iglesias, but this was the closest he would come. Iglesias finished in 10:21:20, won the $2,000 first prize and was now only a few points behind Schans in the world standings. Schans was second, 23 minutes back; he earned $1,000. The tide had been so strong near the finish in Newport Harbor that the America's Cup yacht Intrepid was barely making headway under full sail. Iglesias had predicted his time as 10:10. He had studied the tide charts, he said, and started fast to beat the tide coming into the river. The others, with the exception of Schans, had been caught.
An Egyptian named Marwan Shedid won $800 for third place, finishing in 11:25:25, but the greatest drama of the race was still unfolding. For 25 miles and 11½ hours, Matuch, Abou-Heif and another Egyptian, Mohamed Hussein Gamei, had swum neck and neck, stroke for stroke. They were half a mile at sea, not stopping for nourishment, plowing through clouds of jellyfish. Finally, Matuch 's comment about Abou-Heif's staying power proved true. With half a mile to go, the Egyptian pulled away to finish fourth ($600), in 11:51:56, one minute and 15 seconds ahead of Matuch, who earned $400. Gamei was sixth, in 11:57:56 ($200). By the race's end, Matuch had drunk 18 bottles of Coke and 15 glasses of water.
And far behind, Ralph Willard, 56 and pot-bellied, was still in the water. He had been last from the start, and after an hour many thought he was through. After seven hours he was so far back that his boat crew begged him to get out. One of his crew even claimed to be having a heart attack. Finally, they motored off and left him. However, his son, who was also his trainer, leaped overboard and swam with him for an hour until a houseboat came along. A few hours and they wanted out, too, but Ralph Willard kept swimming. Marine radios throughout the area buzzed with the story. "He hasn't been fed for six hours," was one widespread report—an exaggeration. Finally, the race committee ordered him out. He wouldn't budge. He stayed in the water for 12 hours, until the race officially ended. He had swum 14 miles.
That night there was a farewell dinner for the swimmers, but few of them ate much. They sat around white-faced, telling each other how sick to their stomachs they'd been. Johan Schans had vomited five times. "You cannot imagine how it feels at the end," he said. "Like you haven't slept for three nights and had parties all the time." Some had experienced hallucinations. Moon Huffstetler saw the bottom in 90 feet of water before he quit at 18 miles. Stella Taylor kept seeing sharks. At the meal's end, a Newport city councilman announced the presentation of a little memento to the swimmers for their ordeal—a specially made ashtray. "What do you know," one swimmer said, "for once marathon swimming is getting some recognition." They filed up for their ashtrays. The ashtrays were decorated with a picture of a yacht. "America's Cup Race—Newport, R.I." the inscription read.