Once they were America's idols, the marathon swimmers. Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel and only Lindbergh matched her ticker-tape up Broadway, and when George Young made it from Catalina Island, William Wrigley Jr. paid him $25,000 for his pains, which were considerable. Ah, what whacky, romantic times, the '20s! But times changed. Saner sports proliferated. Swimming prizes shrank. Too many people swam the Channel, and last September 24, when a New York cop named Tom Hetzel made crossing No. 213, he rushed to place a transatlantic call. "I made it! I did the Channel!" he screamed. "Yes, I heard it on the radio," his father replied, "but wait till you hear this: the Mets just won the pennant!"
Truly, few really care about the marathon swimmer anymore, and though the Channel is still his Mecca, enduring it is about his only reward. For money he enters races, but even the best in the world rarely makes $10,000 in a year. No professional athlete works harder for less return. No distance runner knows his loneliness. His hours in the water are endless—10, 15, sometimes all day and night. He is as dependent on periodic feedings as an infant, but between them his trainer's boat might as well be in another ocean. His ears are plugged and his goggles are fogged. Nausea torments him. If he touches the boat he is disqualified. If he gets a cramp and stops moving he sinks. Bucking tides, he swims for hours and gets nowhere. Clearly he is mad. And in a few countries, not the U.S., but Canada, Egypt and Argentina, he is a hero.
The World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation, clearing house for the sport, sanctioned eight swims this year—four in Canada, two in Europe, one in Lebanon and a 26�-miler in Newport, R.I. last month. As usual, accommodations rated less than four stars. In Newport, the swimmers were boarded in an old ark of a college dorm, and they tolerated sleeping 11 to a room, with no blankets; but one day's menu of oatmeal for breakfast, rice for lunch and spaghetti for dinner was cause for grumbling in four languages. It was a group of somewhat more eccentricity than, say, the American Library Association, and in this respect the U.S. swimmers were supreme. Our best marathoner is Dennis Matuch (rhymes with Heinie Manush), a hulking 28-year-old Cicero, Ill. swimming instructor who was No. 3 in the world last year. He made $3,000. His hobby is collecting horror comic books. Eerie and Creepy comics are his favorites. "If you ever have trouble with a vampire or a werewolf, call me," he told everyone at Newport. "I know how to get rid of them."
Reginald Huffstetler (his mother named him for the actor Reginald Denny), a drawling, 35-year-old fireman from Charlotte, N.C., just smiled. "Moon," they call him, for his big round face, or "the Catawba Catfish," because since childhood he has been jumping into the snake-infested Catawba River for swims of 10, 15 and 20 miles. "My lifelong dream is to swim the English Channel," he said, "and this fall I'm planning to go. No one in the South's ever done anything like that."
It was only the sixth competition for Moon, but he had already learned a few things. Last year Tom Hetzel swam up beside him in a Canadian lake. "Hi, Moon, what're you eating?" he asked. "Peanut butter and Gatorade," Moon replied. "You're going to kill yourself," Hetzel said. "I know," Moon said. "I don't feel so good." A few minutes later he was on the hospital boat. All night they pumped glucose into him. He hadn't known that during races swimmers need carbohydrates and consume honey and Coca-Cola. Last week Hetzel himself had food problems. Someone forgot to put the proper food in his boat before a race at Chicoutimi, Quebec, and since nobody aboard understood English his anguished pleadings bore no fruit—or sugars. He, too, wound up in the hospital.
Soon the swimmers all would suffer together. Now they joked and horsed around the dorm. Four Egyptians did a snake dance about the dining room, chanting a nationalistic song in Arabic. An Italian made an eye patch of a napkin, leaped to his feet and ran after them. "I am General Dayan," he screamed. An American coach turned to Holland's Johan Schans, 21, a Utrecht swimming instructor. "You know those fish traps we'll be swimming by," he said. "That's where the sharks congregate." Schans looked stricken. "Schans," his coach said, "you know the word bullbleep?" He obviously did because he broke into a grin. "Look at Schans," Matuch said, "the only guy in the world whose face is three-quarters teeth." Schans hadn't been smiling much that day. The swimmers had lunched on a donated barrel of whiting—edible but the cheapest of fish—which came out more raw than cooked. The only one who seemed to thrive on rare whiting was an Egyptian named Abdel Latif Abou-Heif, a former bodyguard to President Nasser. "Ah, but he is from another planet," Schans said of Abou-Heif.
Before a race some marathon swimmers eat little but honeyed tea. Some are too wound up to eat anything. Abou-Heif, however, has been known to gobble down four whole chickens. Three times he has swum the English Channel, three times he has been a world champion, and in Egypt, where marathon swimming is the national sport, there is not only an Abou-Heif Street but an Abou-Heif Beach, and he is known as "the Crocodile of the Nile." "No matter how long the race," said Dennis Matuch, "Abou-Heif always manages to finish strong."
Many of the swimmers whispered about a delightful little man from Pecks-kill, N.Y. named Ralph Willard. He, too, had a big smile, but a bigger belly; he was 56 years old, and all he talked of was the race. He said he was entered, and everyone humored him.
It seemed the only quiet ones were Schans and his main competitor, a 28-year-old Argentine engineer named Horacio Bernardo Guillermo Iglesias. Last year he was world champion. Back home they call him "Dorado," for a great South American game fish. "It is like a kind of drug, this swimming," he said. "It hurts, but you don't want to stop. Maybe it is pride. If the others stay, you stay." He appeared thoughtful, smiled wanly and pointed to his head. "You will find in every marathon swimmer something wrong up here," he said.
The eve of the race was devoted to worry and preparations. A sign painter volunteered to paint the numbers on the swimmers' backs. Several marathoners smelled the can of paint before getting in line. Last year, before a 24-hour race in La Tuque, Quebec, an acid-based paint was used, and backs were bubbling all the way round Lake St. Louis. New York's Benson Huggard still showed the faint outline of a 2 between his shoulder blades. He is known as "Deuce."