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.

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