Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wherever She Saw Water, Willy van Rysel Wanted To Swim

Courtesy of British Long Distance Swimming Association and Willy van Rysel.

Willy van Rysel was born Wilhemina Magdalena van Rijsel in Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 1916 and passed away 92 years later. She was inducted as an International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Swimmer in 2002 and in the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 2008.

She was the first woman to receive the Irving Davids-Captain Roger Wheeler Memorial Award from the International Swimming Hall of Fame. She traveled throughout Great Britain promoting long distance swimming and setting records. In 1948, she became the first woman to swim across IJsselmeer and set a record when she swam 24 km from Stavoren to Enkhuizen. In 1949, she attempted a crossing of the English Channel from France to England that was aborted only 500 yards from shore. In 1950, she became the first person to swim 18 km from Dungeness to Hythe and participated in the 1950 Daily Mail race across the English Channel. In 1950, she set a record of 5 hours 15 minutes swimming 26 km from Dover to Ramsgate in 5 hours 15 minutes. In 1951, she set a record swimming 16 km in Lake Windermere from Waterhead to Lakeside first in 7 hours 38 minutes. In 1955, she set two records swimming 18 km from Katwijk to Scheveningen and swimming 16 km in Lake Windermere again in 6 hours 50 minutes. She established the fastest female crossing of Falmouth Harbour in 1969 in 4 hours 24 minutes. Over the course of her prolific career, she completed more than 100 lake, sea and river swims in Europe and North America and broke records in many.

In the pool, she was a force in the masters swimming world. She broke hundreds of masters swimming records and set world records in seven masters age groups from 60-64 years to 90-94 years. At her death, she held two world, 22 European and 33 British masters records.

In the 1969 British Long Distance Swimming Association annual report [see here] produced by G. Trevor Smith and John K. Slater, she wrote about her early career:

"My swimming life is a long one and full of interest from the time I was 7 years old, when I had my fee off the ground for the first time in the North Sea in Scheveningen, Holland, without swimming lessons. I then discovered that seas, lakes, and rivers were not only meant for ships. One could travel without any aid whatsoever. From that moment you could say I was launched. Water worked like a magnet, wherever I saw water, I wanted to swim.

My parents were against it, they said that it was indecent for a girl to wear nothing but a swimsuit and that it was unhealthy, one could be pneumonia, etc.

When we lived in Amsterdam, the town where I was born, I went secretly to an outdoor swimming pool outside the town, which was a two hours walk. Admittance was only two cents (half penny) for 20 minutes. These 20 minutes were not enough and when I was sent out, I waited till my hair was dry and got in again. I soon became a regular customer, not much liked by the attendants because I turned up in the most appalling weather conditions, rain, thunder and lightning, and they had to sit by the side of the pool in pouring rain for the full 20 minutes.

There was one snag, the deep bath was forbidden territory for me as I did not possess a diploma in the necessary swimming technique. I therefore watched the advanced swimmers very carefully and copied the swimming strokes, which did not take me long. I was then allowed to put my name down for the great day to take the test for that necessary diploma, the key to the deep bath which from that day on was mine. I was 12 years old then and still treasure it.

I had to do all this without my mother finding out, which was not easy. I had no swimsuit, I used my vest and a safety pin to fasten it down below and had to wait till it was dry before I could go home.

I still had to wait till I was 17 when someone who saw me swimming asked me to enter for an open competition for swimmers who did not belong to a swimming club.

After much persuasion because I thought I was not good enough, I entered...and received my first trophy. I was then asked to join a swimming club, became a sprinter, diver and water polo player.

After the war, I was too told for the sprint, besides, the indoor pool was not big enough any more. I tried long distance and wanted to swim the Channel. There were no long distance races in Holland, only 2 and 3 km and no one with experience. I swam across the greatest stretch of water in Holland, the Ijsel Lake about 15 miles in 9 hours 39 minutes as the first woman.

I did some research abroad and came to England in 1948, to swim from France to Dover. I was forced to come out only 500 yards from Dover Harbour, through very thick fog, the Pilot did not know we were so near. I stayed in England ever since.

I was delighted when the B.L.D.S.A. was formed, it came too late for me, nevertheless, I enjoy every swim I do. One can swim till a ripe old age. I broke the record of Lake Windermere at 40, and the record for the Solent at 51.

Here is a word for the young swimmers of to-day: You have it all on a plate in front of you now. If you think your training becomes a sacrifice, which we hear so often now, you are in the wrong sport, you do not have to become a swimmer. It should be a form of relaxation and pleasure. It always was for me
."

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