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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sandra Bucha Stands Out And Stands Tall

In the world of professional marathon swimming, four women have stood out among their male counterparts. Greta Andersen went goggle-to-goggle with her male rivals in the 1950s and 1960s, often winning and proving herself the greatest of all. Judith van Berkel-de Njis was similar, winning over men and women at the 1964 31-mile Lake Ontario swim in Canada, the 1965 19-mile Lake Ohrid race in Macedonia, the 1965 and 1967 20-mile Maratona del Golfo Capri-Napoli in Italy, the 1965 40K (25-mile) Alexandrium race in Egypt, the 1966 20-mile Traversée internationale du Lac St-Jean in 8 hours in Canada, the 1967 10-mile Hamilton race in Canada, and the 1968 Canalswim Cape Rennes from France to Dover, England.

Shelley Taylor-Smith won the 1991 world professional marathon swimming circuit, outpointing her male rivals that was the catalyst to having separate male and female cash prizes.

These three women have been inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame with Greta and Shelley having been also honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969 and 2008 respectively.

But there is also a fourth gender-bender, a pioneering young woman, Sandra Bucha in the 1970s, who competed well against the top men of her era throughout her short-lived professional career. Sandra was a star throughout her swimming career. Ever smiling and hard working, she appeared on the cover of Swimming World Magazine as a promising age-group pool swimmer and enjoyed an outstanding three-year career as a professional marathon swimmer while studying history as an undergraduate student at Stanford University.

Between her formative years as a young swimmer and before her college career, she and her father, Colonel Paul Bucha Sr., filed a lawsuit against the Illinois High School Federation based on sex discrimination. Their lawsuit went to the Illinois Supreme Court that ultimately ruled that girls deserved equal opportunities to compete in competitive sports on the same level as high school boys. This lawsuit, which was an early precursor to Sandra’s later legal career as prosecutor, public defender and personal injury attorney, resulted in the state of Illinois offering separate competitive sports programs for girls.

While Greta's male nemesis was Egyptian Abdul Latif Abou-Heif in the 1960s and Shelley's was Argentinian Diego Degano in the 1990s, Sandra's rival was her own American teammate, one of the fastest and most prolific marathon swimmers of all time, Olympic gold medalist John Kinsella.

Both distance swimmers got into marathon swimming after the 1972 Munich Olympics. While John won a gold medal in Munich to add to his 1968 Olympic silver medal, Sandra’s pool swimming career came crushingly to an end when she missed the U.S. Olympic Team by a mere 7 tenths of a second in the 100-meter freestyle.

But in an era when collegiate swimming was not the option that it currently is for women, Sandra took to the open water. Based on her successful pool swimming career where she once set an American record in the 200-meter freestyle and her 1971 national championship in the open water, Sandra set off on an unprecedented marathon swimming career. Her first swim was the 1973 10-mile Chicago Lake Front race as part of the Chicago Lakefront Festival in Lake Michigan where she placed second overall finishing only a minute behind Johann “The Flying Dutchman” Schans of the Netherlands. She won US$3,000 while setting a record for women as a college freshman.

I decided after the Olympic Trials that I was not going to swim anymore. School comes first.” But after reading an invitation to the Chicago Lake Front race, she contacted her old coach. "I couldn’t do anything without him. He’s always been my coach." By her sophomore year, she picked up the pace during her summer vacation.

She finished second overall again at the 1974 Chicago Lake Front pro race, winning a bonus of US$1,000 for being the first woman in 3 hours 47 minutes. Completing the 20-loop ½-mile course in 3 hours 41 minutes, she won US$2,000 in the wake of John Kinsella’s victory. She then teamed up with John at the 24-hour <24 Heures La Tuque race, swimming 100 loops to John’s 94 for a world record of 194 laps or nearly 65 miles. After that memorable race over the second-place team of Johan Schans and Claudio Plit, she traveled to lac St-Jean to compete in the 1974 Traversee internationale du lac St-Jean where she finished third overall in 8 hours 19 minutes to John (1st) and Rogosiv Veljko (2nd). From there, she and John went to the professional 10-miler in Laval, Quebec where the Hinsdale duo went 1-2 in 3 hours 40 minutes and 3 hours 49 minutes respectively. The Canadian’s press gushed over the Stanford co-ed, "Crowds lined the banks to cheer on the fetching Miss Bucha who out-swims the men wherever she goes."

Back to Stanford for her junior year, Sandra returned to the 1975 professional marathon swimming season once summer came around. But just as summer returned, so did the indomitable Kinsella. Starting the season in Lake Michigan, Sandra finished second overall in the 10-mile pro marathon, again to her Indiana teammate. From there, she joined forces again with John at the 1975 La Tuque 24-hour swim. John, who could have teamed up with anyone in the world, knew his best shot to set a world record in Lac Louis at the La Tuque race was with Sandra. 24 hours later, the duo won again going away. From there, she traveled to lac St-Jean for the second year in a row and finished second overall again to John, winning US$4,000 for her 8 hour 15 minute effort. The same finish resulted in Laval for the second consecutive year in her final pro swim of her career.

Both coached by renowned American coach Don Watson, Sandra had to swim against her larger and more famous teammate throughout her professional career, mano-a-mano. Coach Watson pointed out, "If John were not of her era, she would have won five professional marathon swims outright." But in partnership with the juggernaut from Hinsdale, Sandra and John twice won the 24 Heures La Tuque, the incomparable non-stop relay that showcased the ultimate one-two punch from Hinsdale.

During her short career of 3 seasons sandwiched between 9 months of intense academic work at Stanford, Sandra wanted to see women separated from the men as long as the purses are equal, but that dream would not come for nearly two decades. With a promising legal career beckoning, she called it a career and focused on her studies, ending her remarkable 9-swim career with 9 wins among the women and 6 overall second places.

Her performance was acknowledged by former FINA president Dr. Harold Henning, a significant nod to her talents as FINA was still 18 years away from absorbing the professional marathon swimming circuit. "I congratulate you upon your performance in the lake swim. I am very happy that you brought home the bacon." That she did, a remarkable professional career from a role model student-athlete.

Cover shot of the December 1969 issue courtesy of Swimming World Magazine.

Copyright © 2011 by Open Water Source

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