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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 4�, 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.
"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.