As she approached the shore of Sangatte, France, Florence Chadwick was exhausted. She had been swimming in the English Channel for over 16 hours, battling strong winds and thick fog that made every stroke a challenge. The previous leg of her journey, from France to England—which she had completed a year earlier—had been easy compared to this. But her effort would be worth it: When she finally arrived on French soil that day, September 11, 1951, she became the first woman to successfully swim round-trip across the English Channel.
Born in San Diego, California in 1918, Chadwick discovered her love of ocean swimming at an early age. Her hometown offered her easy access to the beach, and she started competing in swimming races at 6 years old. She liked pushing herself to swim in difficult conditions: at night, in fog, and in strong winds. At the age of 10, she swam a two-mile race in the rough waters of Hermosa Beach, wowing the crowds. At 13, she earned second place at the U.S. national championships.
After graduating from San Diego State College, she produced aquatic shows for the U.S. military, and in 1944, she swam with MGM’s water ballet star Esther Williams in the musical film Bathing Beauty. But Chadwick had her sights set far beyond Hollywood.
As a child, Chadwick had been inspired by Gertrude Ederle, who, in 1926, became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Before her, women were considered incapable of such a long-distance swim. Ederle not only proved them wrong, but beat the men’s record by two hours.
Chadwick became determined to be the first woman to swim the Channel round-trip—not just from France to England, as Ederle had, but from England to France. Swimmers and other experts considered the latter to be a more difficult crossing, in part because of the strong current pushing away from the shore. No woman had ever swum the England-to-France route successfully. Chadwick set a goal of swimming both Ederle’s route and then back again, even if she had to rest in a bit between trips.
After World War II, Chadwick took a job as a comptometer (a type of adding machine) operator with an American oil company in Saudi Arabia. She swam in the Persian Gulf before and after work and for up to 10 hours on her days off. After two years of rigorous training, she decided she was ready to make the first part…