Death of a Champion

The Crossing: The Glorious Tragedy of the First Man to Swim the English Channel

by Kathy Watson
Tarcher/Putnam, 242 pp., $22.95

Throughout the nineteenth century the English were generally considered the best swimmers in the world. Ever since Waterloo was supposedly won on the playing fields of Eton, their enthusiasm for sport and games became almost their distinguishing feature, a source of fascination to the rest of Europe. “They even taught us Swiss to climb our own mountains,” commented Jung, “and make a sport out of it.”’

Swimming contests were held in rivers throughout England and in most coastal towns, where the shape of the harbor provided a natural amphitheater, accommodating thousands of spectators. Most of the stars came from the north. The last, John Jarvis, the champion of the 1900 Paris Olympics, where the swimmers raced in the Seine, was described as “fat all over, which literally hangs in some parts. His breasts fall like a woman’s, but he has powerful shoulders and tremendous thighs.”

The English had every confidence in their superiority. A Victorian treatise on swimming begins: “There is no instance of any foreigner civilised or uncivilised, whose achievements in the water surpass those of the British.” The champions of England sailed to America and returned unbeaten. The great Frederick Beckwith gave Dearfoot, the Seneca Indian, a quarter-minute start and still beat him.

For years the English swimmers had adopted as the model for style the movements of the frog. Frogs were kept in tubs by the side of pools as a means of instruction. The swimmers admired the screwlike actions of their legs below the knees and the way they kicked and leaned their chests on the water. Learners were advised to place basins half full of water on the floor, insert a frog, then lie face downward over a stool and imitate its movements. The preeminence of the breast stroke was evident when two Indians, Flying Gull and Tobacco, were sent over by the Americans to challenge the English supremacy and lost easily to the local champion, although in the words of the Times they “lashed the water violently with their arms like the sails of a windmill.” The English tended to deplore the new overarm strokes that were becoming fashionable elsewhere. They objected to their ugly gestures. They called it “trick” swimming. Their attitude was principally aesthetic. They preferred the graceful movements of their own swimmers such as Sam Pamplin, the “Scudding Seal,” who always kept both arms underwater and whose style was, in the words of a spectator, like “dancing, the poetry of motion.”

When on August 24, 1875, ten years after Edward Whymper’s conquest of the Matterhorn had established the English as the leading mountaineers, Captain Matthew Webb set out to become the first man to swim across the English Channel, he naturally used the breast stroke. In her excellent book, Kathy Watson describes how Webb, after battling through rough seas for twenty-two hours, developed such deep raw creases in the back of his neck from having to keep his head upright for so long that he couldn’t button his …

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