I Thought I Would Drown: An Olympic Story

Winning an Olympic swimming race has never been easy, but not many have felt that the will to win was over-come by the will to survive!

The very first swimming race, at the Olympics in 1896, was in open ocean and was in bad weather. The winds that day made cresting waves, as big as twelve feet high and many swimmers in the race decided not to swim. The race was from a boat off-shore and back into the harbour. Many swimmers simply refused to start because they knew they might not make it to shore.

From the original ten swimmers entered into the 1200m race, only six tried.

If you’ve been in big surf you will know that waves in high seas are completely relentless; they simply roll on and on. Once you’ve got a mouthful of seawater, it is crucial the next breath is a good one or you’ll end up gasping for air in deep dark water.

The 1200m race started outside the Bay of Zea harbour in open water.

Turbulent water was not the only problem. You might assume the Mediterranean was warm but it was not. It was very cold. Ice baths have become a rediscovered experience in our busy world looking for stress relief. Although not a new phenomenon, it is very difficult to do. The stress is immense and mind altering. Psychiatrists have used ice baths for years to alter troubled minds. However the ice bath is normally done in a controlled environment.

Sports scientists’ recommendation is to try to survive ten minutes in ten degrees to get a massive endorphin rush. So the 13•c water at the 1896 Olympics was like cold immersion, plus twelve foot waves…plus a race! It is a surprise no one died.

This start shows the 500m race which was closer to shore than the 1200m event and on a calmer day.

The winner of the first Olympic swim, Alfréd Hajós of Hungary, battled the waves, weather and 13°c cold water. Upon emerging from the Bay of Zea, surviving the 12 foot waves, Alfréd said; “ I’m glad to be alive. My will to live overcame my will to win”.

Glad to be alive is a long ways away from ‘I’m Going To Disneyland’, which was said in the 1984 Olympics by American swimmers who were rumoured to be given an undisclosed amount by the Disney Corporation for the live declaration sent around the world to the billion viewers.

Competing at the Olympics is many swimmers’ goal but the first champion wasn’t thinking about a Disney-like holiday; just a warm bed and a dram, thankful to be alive.


About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at: https://www.artgallery.co.uk/artist/gary_Vandermeulen
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