Professional long-distance swimmers come in many shapes, but Mary Martha Sinn's is the best. This is a professional long-distance swimmer? Mary Martha, who is called Marty, is as good as she looks. She is one of the best long-distance swimmers in the world. "Sometimes you think it's a distinction," she says, "and sometimes you think: so what." Marty is 20 years old, 5 feet 4½, weighs 128 pounds, makes 72 strokes every minute, breathes on her right side, kicks only enough to maintain her balance and is an art major at the University of Michigan.
Legend has it that the first 56 nights of her freshman year Marty had 56 dates with 56 different boys, whom she tends to divide into nerds, hunks and hunks-and-a-half, or not so hot, good and better. "Well, I didn't keep track by making notches in my belt or anything," she replies when asked to confirm it. "Anyway, I don't want to make my private life a spectator sport, too." Marty is also, as a friend puts it, "sort of on the edge of becoming an intellectual." It is not at all extraordinary for her to make mental comparisons of novels by Stendhal and Dreiser—to cite a recent case—to pass the time while taking a five-mile practice swim.
Above the country-club level there are very few sports where women compete with men—which, in a way, helps preserve the peace. Among these few are the equestrian events, shooting, an occasional auto race or fishing tournament, showing dogs and professional long-distance swimming. The latter is not swimming across the English Channel for love or, possibly, money. ("Florence Chad wick is a very slow swimmer," every professional long-distance swimmer will tell you sooner or later.) It is racing a group of other swimmers 15 to 60 miles across lakes, through oceans and bays, down rivers or around and around immense swimming pools for cash.
Professional long-distance swimming, like professional fasting, has never really caught on in the U.S., but it is very big in Canada, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Argentina, where, for example, 300,000 watched the Santa Fe race last February. Eight of the 10 races this year take place in those countries, the others in Atlantic City, N.J. and between Capri and Naples. There is practically no amateur long-distance swimming, largely because there are not very many men and women who are crazy enough to swim for as long as 32 hours, or in 46° water, for nothing. For that matter, there are not too many men or women who are willing to do it for first prizes of $1,000 to $7,000, which is the going rate. In 1955, however, Cliff Lumsden of Canada won $15,000 in prize money in a 32-mile race at Toronto in which he was the only finisher. He also got a frozen tongue, which left him speechless when he was showered with gifts of a hunting lodge, a car, a house, a contract to endorse corn syrup and a dollar for every stroke he took in the last five miles—another $84,000 worth. Among the venturesome few there is a good deal of wistful thinking—usually in midstream—that they should have stood on the shore.
August 23, 1964
"I hate the water," says George Park, a Canadian who was first in the Chicoutimi, Que. swim early this summer. "I don't like swimming, either. I swim with my eyes shut. I don't want to see what's under there. My greatest fear is deep water—anything over nine feet. I'm always afraid of drowning."
"Drowning would be very appropriate," says Marty Sinn, laughing. "It's a bizarre sport. The situations you get into are so extreme, so unrealistic. I don't take a race or myself too seriously. After all, the sport is a little on the humorous side. It's just sort of ridiculous to dive in and swim away with a crowd of people around looking at you like you're in the zoo. I think it's a little silly."
It is also almost unendurable. Last summer, when Marty finished second in the 15-mile swim at Toronto's Canadian National Exposition, the temperature of Lake Ontario was announced as 56°, although a reading of 46° was taken at one point in the course. Most people would not even consider wading in water that is below 60°. "When I think back on it I don't know why I wasn't cold," Marty says. "I guess it's the same way on a battlefield—when the soldiers are running around they don't hear the bullets. Anyway, everyone else dived in—I had to." During the race, in which 29 of the 38 starters dropped out, Marty became acutely depressed, hallucinatory, told her rower in theatrical terms that she was quitting ("when you're very tired you tend to overdramatize," she says) and finally passed out at the finish line. "I'm disappointed I didn't know what was happening at the time," Marty says. "It's an experience to faint. I'd never done it before."
Long-distance swimmers often become seasick from the chop or ill from swallowing salt water. They consume aspirin after aspirin in an attempt to diminish the terrible pain of cramps. Some take pep pills. One swam the Atlantic City race on rum and Coke and was, predictably, lushed at the finish; another once downed 26 Cokes in an 11-hour event. One swimmer tried to compete on tranquilizers and fell asleep in mid-ocean; another became blind from salt water and could only continue because his coach banged a Coke bottle against the transom of his rowboat to indicate the way. Johnny LaCoursiere of Montreal is an advocate of posthypnotic suggestion. Before a race he tells his rower the key word and at what point to utter it. Johnny claims it unleashes hidden reserves of resolve and energy. He also swims nude to eliminate chafing. Last year in the Atlantic City race—a 25-mile swim around Absecon island, on which the city is situated—Marty took off her suit, too. For the last 14 miles the course is a tidal inlet called the back bay, where the water is warm and shallow. As it happened, Marty and Johnny swam for several miles together in this stretch. As they passed under the bridges, spectators shouted, "Adam and Eve!" "When you're swimming, you're not thinking of the sensation you're causing," says Marty. However, in this year's race Marty decided she would rather keep her suit on. "I didn't like the publicity when I took it off last year," she says. "Besides, I didn't want to get my fanny sunburned."
Swimmers have kept going with fishhooks embedded in their fingers, with their teeth broken and breasts bruised from being battered against rock jetties, with wicked barnacle cuts suffered when they were pulling themselves from bridge piling to bridge piling against a five-knot tide. They have been bitten by lampreys and stung by jellyfish. "You see the jellyfish coming and have to plow right through them," Marty says. "When you know something is going to hurt, it hurts a lot more. It's like going to the dentist. After four or five miles, when you are tired and your reactions are sluggish, you touch something slimy and you get nervous. Of course, in my case it may also be a natural, feminine fear of little frogs, snails and things." You also get impatient. Tom Park, George's brother, once knocked an eight-foot sand shark out of his way.
Far more hazardous than sharks or jellyfish are the swimmers themselves. Long-distance swimmers like company, as in misery likes company. They will swim together in what they call packs because they feel they gain inspiration and impetus from one another. Accidental collisions are quite frequent in such close quarters, particularly if the swimmers are in rough water, and with $7,000 at stake there is also a certain amount of premeditated punching, kicking and grabbing.
On one occasion, it appears that the outcome of a race was assured beforehand, no matter what mayhem the swimmers wrought upon one another. The suspect event, which took place in Egypt last October, began at midnight on the Great Bitter Lake and continued at dawn down the Suez Canal. Marty was led so far astray in the dark by her native rowers that she passed the same girl twice in three hours. Herman Willemse, a Dutch schoolteacher who looks like Clark Kent in and out of his street clothes but is far and away the best long-distance swimmer in the world, caught up with Marty at the entrance of the canal, passionately shouting: "This bloody lake! They've been leading me in bloody circles!" The Egyptians won it big.
During this race, Marty became so mesmerized counting the bricks in the canal wall that her manager, Buck Dawson, led her out to the middle of the canal, where she discovered she was able to take advantage of the ships that were steaming in the opposite direction. She got right in behind them and rode their wakes. Almost anything goes in long-distance swimming. The rules only state that no artificial swimming aids, such as fins or floats, are permitted, and that any physical contact between the swimmer and a member of his crew or the boat is forbidden. For example, there is nothing in the rules about "scooping." Scooping is an old and dishonorable form of propulsion that is chiefly practiced in the back bay at Atlantic City. When the tide is flowing against the swimmers, they hug the shore where the water is knee-deep and, still kicking, pull themselves along the mud bottom.
Perhaps the most disheartening experience that a swimmer ever had was one that befell Greta Andersen, who won an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle for Denmark in 1948 and was the doyenne of long-distance swimming until the advent of Marty, who has beaten her three out of four times. Greta was competing in the 1959 Capri-Naples race when a swimmer passed her while eating a banana that he held in his right hand. She could not believe her eyes until she noticed that in his left hand he was holding a rope, the other end of which was attached to his boat.
So what is a good-looking, sane, middle-class, mixed-up kid like Marty Sinn, who does not need the money, doing in a sport like this?
Marty was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., where her father, who died several years ago, managed a small factory that is now run by her mother. "I think they make little parts for bigger machines," says Marty, hopefully. "I haven't the faintest idea." They make production counters, which are fitted to punch-and-drill presses in auto plants to count the number of pieces that come off the presses. When she was a little girl Marty used to ride around town on her bicycle, sneaking into swimming pools much the way other kids sneak into movie theaters. By the time she was 14 she held several state freestyle records for women. When she speaks of this era she always starts off by saying, "When I was an amateur...," or, "Before I turned pro...," which she did in 1962.
Since Marty was 11 she has been a camper and counselor at Camp Ak-O-Mak [which means across the water] on Ahmic Lake in central Ontario. The camp is operated by Buck Dawson and his wife Rose Mary, who was Marty's swim club coach in Ann Arbor and is the daughter of the late, celebrated swimming coach, Matt Mann. Ak-O-Mak calls itself merely "An Athletic Camp for Young Ladies," but it is actually a swim-or-you're-sunk proposition. The nearest thing to arts and crafts is painting canoe paddles on a rainy day, and Ak-O-Mak's antimotto is a line of Matt Mann's: "Lady, if you want your daughter to sew beads on a belt, send her somewhere else." One of the camp's most popular activities is the four-mile individual medley.
"Just for fun I used to run a couple of miles through the woods or paddle nine miles into town," says Marty, recalling her early days as a camper. As she grew older, she began to swim to town while the others canoed, so that when she heard of the 15-mile swim at the Canadian National Exposition, she says, "It sounded like fun—like swimming into town for ice cream."
About the same time, Marty was losing what speed she had at the conventional distances. "I was getting worse," she says. "It seemed sort of silly, so I decided I might as well try pro swimming." In her first pro race, a two-mile swim at Karney, Ont., she won $25, which she used to pay her way to the National Exposition, where she was the first woman to finish, was fifth overall and earned $2,300. By the end of 1963, she had competed in five races, was first woman in four of them, and won a total of $7,500.
She had found a field in which she excelled, but it was one that was making increasingly greater demands on her time and energy—what had started as a lark had become, at times, an ordeal and an obligation. Swimming lengths in an Ann Arbor pool when you are 14 is one thing, but getting in shape for a 25-mile swim when you are 20 and life offers so many other rewards (like hunks-and-a-half or reading The Red and the Black) is something else again.
Training is the most dismal part of long-distance swimming, mainly because it is so intolerably boring. During the winter Marty takes it easy: she plays a little handball with the boys at Michigan, works out with 20-pound weights and swims an hour a day. At Ak-O-Mak she swims four to seven miles daily and does some cross-country running, in refutation of the saw that swimming and running do not mix. "I'm terrible," she says. "I run like a girl." The problem is to find something to think about to pass the tedious hours while swimming mile after mile. "For the first quarter mile, I think about my stroke," Marty says. "Then I try to think hard on a particular subject so that my arms will be rotating automatically. When my head is encased in my bathing cap and goggles it seems to be completely disassociated from my body. Sometimes it's even a surprise to find myself swimming. With my head and eyes dry, there are times that the water doesn't even feel wet. It's funny. You have to be a little creative to start thinking of a topic. Then, as you swim along, you go from one subject to another. After a while, you build up a large repertoire of topics. As with the violin or anything else—the day-to-day preparation is boring, but a person should have enough self-discipline to get through each day.
"Then, every day has a little different appeal. Cold, rainy days are pretty. Sometimes you sort of swim into a sunset. It's relaxing, tranquil—swim out into the wild blue and get away from it all. And swimming's fun—a lark. But the more races I swim in, the more pressure there is, which is unfortunate. In a race three hours seems like 20 minutes, but you get periods of great depression. If the race is 20 miles, and I've done about eight or nine, gone a long way but haven't done half yet, then I try to think about something pleasant: how can I afford a dress I want?
"I really pity a lot of the pros," Marty says. "They get so terribly wrapped up in it. Everything else in this life is an anticlimax. Swimming is just part of my life. A fifth. I have other interests. Last year, for instance, I studied art for a semester in Mexico City. In the winter I associate with a different kind of person. I prefer it that way. I don't think most of my friends at home are even aware I swim in these races. Swimming has its little niche—three months of the year.
"I'm suspicious of people who are terribly gung-ho about all phases of athletics—diet, sleep. I eat chocolate ice cream before a race, blueberry pancakes and chocolate cake. ["Why she doesn't sink, I don't know," says Rose Mary Dawson.] I try to think of things that dedicated athletes wouldn't do, and do them. I'm a little critical of people who train so intensely—they become machines instead of people, they become masochists. I just don't believe in it. It's detrimental to your character later, naturally, and to the sport, too. Obsessions can become vicious. You get so wrapped up, you lose perspective. I think parties are important, for instance. Sometimes I won't have anything to drink, but sometimes I really get in the bag."
If her latest performance is any indication, Marty Sinn need not worry about how pancakes and painting in Mexico affect her swimming. Competing in Atlantic City, she was the first woman to finish, beat nine of the 15 men in the field and won a total of $1,000.
The Atlantic City World's Championship Professional Long Distance Swim, which took place July 21, offered $11,100 in "cash awards" and was "open to men and women of the world" for a $35 entry fee, a photograph and a record of past performances. All professional long-distance swims, like many professional wrestling bouts, are for the world championship. The Atlantic City swim was founded 11 years ago by Jimmy Toomey, a former lifeguard who is in the vending-machine business and has invented a better mousetrap, but only lonely long-distance swimmers beat a path to his door.
Marty arrived in Atlantic City four days before the race. She was met by her rower, Boomer Blair, and her feeder, Dr. Wilmer Abbott. Boomer is a 6-foot-6, 265-pound lifeguard captain who played a little football for Minnesota, Seton Hall and the Jersey City Giants and has won the South Jersey Lifeboat Rowing Championship nine times. He has rowed in every Atlantic City race, and each year singlehanded. All the other boats employ two rowers. Dr. Abbott, an Atlantic City dentist, was captain of the 1947 University of Pennsylvania swimming team.
Although the race was to be run with the tide this year—in 1963 many of the swimmers were severely banged up on jetties as they struggled against the tide—Boomer and Dr. Abbott took Marty out to practice at a couple of points where they felt the going might be rough. The first was the Brigantine Bridge, which crosses the back bay within a mile of the finish at the State Marina. It was conceivable that Marty might not make it to the bridge before the tide turned, so three days before the race, at an hour when Boomer figured the incoming tide would simulate that which she might encounter during the race, Marty slipped gingerly out of Boomer's Boston Whaler before Brigantine Bridge. She stood up, adjusting her goggles. "There's dangerous critters down here," she said, apprehensively. She swam along the grassy fiats where the current was weakest and under the bridge between the row of pilings closest to the eastern shore, pulling herself along on them and finally squeezing through an opening that the swimmers call "the rathole." Some discussion followed about whether Dr. Abbott should file the barnacles off the pilings before the race. Marty said she would rather take a chance on getting cut than have them so smooth she could not get a secure grip. The next day Dr. Abbott took her down to Longport, the southernmost point of Absecon island, where the swimmers make the turn into the bay after the 11-mile ocean leg. The previous year many of them had been thrown up against two stone jetties or had been swept out into the channel by the contrary tide.
But most of the time before the race Marty was either taking dips in her hotel pool or in the ocean or reading on the hotel sun deck. She is a prodigious reader. At Ak-O-Mak she is forever wandering about like Hamlet with her nose in a book. Two days before the race she was lounging on the sun deck with a copy of Mad magazine and a well-chewed paperback edition of The Brothers Karamazov. "I know it looks like I really got my teeth into it," Marty said, "but, actually, I find it too depressing. You know, I think War and Peace has much in common with East of Eden, although I suppose Tolstoy would resent the comparison."
There had been some question as to whether Marty would show up for the race. Late in June she had announced she was quitting swimming, and again in July when she was taken out of the water at Chicoutimi after she had swum for two hours against the tide without making any progress. "My first retirement stemmed from too much dull training, too much work—mowing fields, hard labor, swimming," she said now. "It was cold one day, and I didn't feel like going into the water, so I decided I didn't want to swim anymore. I'm temperamental. At Chicoutimi, George Park got so far out in front of me—it was silly. I knew I wasn't going to catch him. I had been in the water for nine hours, and I wasn't getting anywhere. It was impractical—a combination of too much physical drain and too little financial gain.
"I haven't been terribly enthusiastic about swimming this year. The training is getting to be too boring, and I'm beginning to feel a little silly diving in the water, trying to beat everyone. It's a natural but an almost vulgar display of competitive urges. It's so obvious.
"You can train your body to a certain extent to do extensive physical feats, if you train your mind," Marty said. "If I'm swimming 30 miles I might be capable of swimming 40, but my mind is prepared to stop at a certain point. You build up mentally to a critical peak, and when you reach it that is the climax of your mental preparation.
"Seventy percent of my ability is determined by mental attitude. It's detrimental to be noncompetitive, not to have the killer instinct. I have to work at it. I try to build up my enthusiasm, to get excited about performing well. I have to build up some sort of pride in achievement, to try to think positive thoughts, to try to think out at what points in the race I will be discouraged.
"I like to look good to the other swimmers—sort of a professional integrity. It's a sign of weakness of character to have to prove yourself to other people. I sometimes tend to, but I try not to. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think, too, every swimmer has some doubts about what kind of shape he's in. You have a few misgivings when you see the group all together at the start. We really form an inner circle, and the public acclaim is so far removed from what it's like and the real reason we enjoy it."
That night while she was waiting for a table at a restaurant on Atlantic Avenue, a bartender looked Marty over and said, "You going to try to swim the island?" Marty said she was. The bartender reached across the bar and gave her biceps a feel. "You're a little girl," he said. "I hope you make it."
Long after Marty had gone to bed, one of her opponents, Carlos Larriera of Argentina, was sipping a gin and tonic and smoking a cigarette. "I am in training for the Toronto swim," he explained. "It is at night."
The morning of the race, Marty arose at 5. She got to the marina at 7:30 and, after kibitzing with several other swimmers, curled up on the wooden deck. The field was international, as always: five Americans, four Canadians, three Egyptians, who are apparently subsidized by their government, three Argentines, one Yugoslavian, one West German, one Netherlander and one Mexican. Of these, four were women—Marty, Greta Andersen and two girls who were entered in their first professional race. It was a bleak, fog-shrouded morning, and the gloom was not dispelled by a lady who played lugubrious selections on a small electric organ.
When the swimmers were asked to get into the water, Marty greased herself lightly with Vaseline, mainly under her arms, where she would experience the greatest chafing. "I was thinking," she said before, leaping in, "Margaret Chase Smith would have made the best running mate."
The swimmers hung to a line supported by floats, which was strung across the narrow harbor mouth. Their lifeboats waited 150 yards ahead. At 9 a.m. they were off, sprinting furiously. In 1963 Willemse got so far ahead at the start that he missed the unfavorable tides, which subsequently impeded the other swimmers, and came in an hour and 24 minutes before the second finisher. This time he quickly assumed the lead again but was closely pursued by Dicki Bojadzi of Yugoslavia who, before the race, had been going around asking everyone he saw, "Do I look American?"
The fog did not lift until 11:30, when the swimmers were plowing through moderate seas about 200 yards off Margate. Willemse and Bojadzi were still in the lead, then there was open water, then a pack of three, including the toothy Egyptian, Abdel Latif Abou-Heif, who is the second-best long-distance swimmer in the world, and Jorge Mezzadra of Argentina, then more open water and then another pack of three that included Marty.
Off Margate, Marty swam over to her boat for the first of six feedings of mixtures of honey and tea, honey and orange juice and honey and Coke that she had during the race. Dr. Abbott handed it to her in a paper cup, which she cast on the waves when she was ready to resume swimming. Feeders also give the swimmers advice and encouragement by writing messages on small blackboards that they hold aloft, and one message that cheered Marty in the early going was that Greta had dropped out. She already knew that the two novice women were hopelessly in the ruck.
After her feeding Marty had fallen 75 yards behind her pack, and she was unable to make it up. For the rest of the race she swam alone. Entering the back bay she was 11th but, finding the still water more to her liking, she began slowly closing in on the leaders. Since she was swimming almost up against the east, or right, bank and she breathes on her right side, Dr. Abbott got out of the boat from time to time to walk along the shore and shout instructions and exhortations.
Ten hours, 18 minutes and 15 seconds after he started, Herman Willemse won his fifth consecutive Atlantic City race. Abou-Heif touched out Johnny LaCoursiere for second at 10:31:23, followed by Lumsden, Mezzadra, Bojadzi and then Marty at 10:37:15. She won $200 for seventh place overall and $800 more for first woman. If the race had been several miles longer, she would have undoubtedly improved her position, for the men were laboring and she was still closing ground—or water, rather.
The following morning, Marty was initiated as a squaw in the Thunderbird Society by the Little Indian Day Camp, which had chartered a 95-foot party boat that had followed her in the race. "I was embarrassed," Marty said. "They made me feel I was some kind of a freak, all of them cheering me out there in the middle of the ocean." After attending a luncheon given by the local Lions Club, she returned to her hotel room. A bouquet of roses that the campers had presented to her was in the bathroom sink.
"I'm glad it's over," she said. "I did the best I could and didn't consciously loaf at any point. I was getting a little seasick in the ocean—I swallowed quite a bit of it. Towards the end I felt real strong. I just felt so good. I was elated. It was just like entertainment, picking off the boys. I was singing a Beatles song to myself as I swam along—Not a Second Time. Oh, I had a great time of it in the back bay!
"But I'm still not real enthusiastic about swimming. Other things I'm becoming interested in are going to be more important to me in years to come, and I don't want my swimming to become half-hearted. It would be very distasteful to me to pursue anything in that fashion.
"You do well in a race, and you're excited for the first few days. Then you go back to your former frame of mind. It's better to accept circumstances and not blow them up, treat them like everyday things, and not be an ass.
"Of course, I would like to go to Argentina for the race there next February. I have been told that they will pay all my expenses, and I've never been in South America. Swimming's been amazing. I've gotten oodles of things out of it."