ASK THE GOAT: Channel crossing

Jun. 27, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

In my journey to become an endurance triathlete, I have spent a bit of time scouring the achievements of various swimmers to see how they trained. In that quest, I have come across a small, select group of “Channel Swimmers.”

These folks crossed that span of cold, choppy water between the Cliffs of Dover, on the English coast, to the beaches of Calais, in France. The total distance (at its narrowest point) is measured at roughly 22 miles. The list of people annually making this swim is growing each year; but when did it begin? Who crossed first to start this seemingly fantastic craze?

The first man to successfully swim the English Channel was a Shropshire, England native named Matthew Webb. From birth, he showed a flair for doing seemingly impossible feats, like walking the school wall’s crest to amaze his peers. What truly set Webb apart in mid-19th century England was his love of swimming.

Victorian laws actually regulated natatorium number and function, mandating that it be used as therapy rather than for recreation or exercise. Webb was regularly seen in his youth cutting through the waves of the Severn River, slowly and methodically using the breaststroke. Webb was a stocky man with a barrel-chest and broad shoulders. At the time of his Channel crossing, he would have been deemed “chubby” by modern standards.

On Aug. 24, 1875, Webb dove into the Dover surf to begin a 21-hour trek across the frigid waves of the English Channel. He wore a pair of red “swimming trucks,” not unlike the boxing/MMA shorts of today. When he scrambled up the beach at Cap Gris Nez in Calais, France, after this momentous crossing, Webb’s life completely changed. He was heralded as a “Half-Man, Half-Fish.” He had become a hero, national icon and international celebrity. Webb was asked to make speeches, marshal parades and compete in events around the world. For nearly a year, Webb basked in the fame of his Channel swim. Then, like all fame, it showed its cost.

People are fickle; they rally fast, but bore quickly. Webb tried to rekindle his popularity with a series of daredevil and exhibitionist feats that progressively pushed him into “sensationalism” and circus-type venues. From 72-hour tank submerges to swimming a near-frozen river, Webb risked his reputation, respect and health to fight his way back into the limelight. And like so many others in his predicament, he decided to risk it all on a single enterprise.

On July 24, 1883, nearly eight years after Webb shot to fame, he dove into the Niagara River on the United States side and attempted to swim through the rapids of the falls, around a huge natural whirlpool, and safely come out on the Canadian riverside. Several attempts had been made by swimmers before, all of which ended up in fatality. Webb wore his famous red trunks which had served him so well in the English Channel and, at 4 p.m., jumped in. He was seen for around five minutes and then disappeared. On July 28, a bricklayer discovered a bloated corpse in red shorts hung in a bramble of logs along the Niagara River’s edge. Webb was pronounced dead, leaving behind a wife and two children.

Many feel Webb knew he was doomed before he even entered the water. Some speculate the loss of his fame was too much to bear. The fact remains, though, that Matthew Webb will always be the first man to cross the English Channel, and is mentioned every year during the annual Channel swimming event.

- Factual information from The Crossing, by Kathy Watson, published in 2000 by Tarcher/Putnam.