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It was 3 a.m. on Oct. 5, 1958, when Greta Andersen emerged from the icy surf onto the beach at Emerald Bay, on Catalina Island off the California coast, bleeding, bruised and numb with cold, as The Los Angeles Times reported a year later.
She had been in the water for nearly 27 hours and swum more than 46 miles, becoming the first person to swim round trip from the island to Long Beach. Her husband, John Sonnichsen, had followed her in a rowboat. When they met up on the cabin cruiser that ferried them home in the pre-dawn hours, he was already fast asleep.
Ms. Andersen, a Danish-born Olympic champion and elite swimmer who then found greater fame as a star of long-distance open water swimming — often besting her male competitors — died on Feb. 6 at her home in Solvang, Calif. She was 95.
Her death, from unknown causes, was announced by the World Open Water Swimming Association.
Ms. Andersen, who broke 18 world marathon records, has been called the greatest female swimmer in history, according to Bruce Wigo, former president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which honored her with its lifetime achievement award in 2015. “She often beat all of the men,” he said.
But in the quaint newspaper parlance of her times, she was more often described as the Danish mermaid, a housewife from Long Beach, a Danish pastry or a really Great Dane.
She was the first woman to complete five crossings of the English Channel and the first to win the race across it twice in a row, which she did in 1957 and 1958. (The first woman to swim the English Channel was Gertrude Ederle, a New Yorker born to German immigrants, who did so in 14½ hours in 1926, breaking the records of the five men who had preceded her.)
In its heyday at midcentury, open water swimming drew thousands of spectators. Women and men swam head-to-head in races all over the world. Then as now, the races were punishing and dangerous. Competitors battled swift tides, strong currents, enormous waves, chilly water, all manner of wildlife — sharks, jellyfish and even whales — seasickness and the dark.
It can be soul crushing, said Ned Denison, chairman of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, when the sun sets.
When Ms. Andersen made her second crossing of the English Channel in 1958, her passage was especially brutal. She was seasick and dizzy by the fourth mile — the channel is about 21 miles wide, but tides and cross currents can add to the distance — and as she neared the coast of Dover, a powerful current held her captive.
It took her an hour and a half to cover the last 300 yards.
“I felt like giving up,” she told The Associated Press, “but my husband chalked on a blackboard to me to read, ‘Hi Greta, you can’t give up. All the other girls are still in there swimming.’”
She was the only woman to finish that day, Mr. Denison said. Of the 29 swimmers who competed, only five made it: Ms. Andersen was first, completing the swim in 11 hours and one minute, more than four hours ahead of her nearest competitor. She was followed by four men, one of whom was disqualified for coming out of the water in the wrong place.
Yet Ms. Andersen was disappointed, having come in about 10 minutes shy of the world record, set by an Egyptian swimmer, Hassan Abdel Rehim, in 1950.
She had come late to the sport, having learned to swim as a teenager at the end of the Nazi occupation of her country in 1945. She was a natural, able to swim 50 meters without breathing — she often said it was because she didn’t know any better.
Ms. Andersen was already a star at home when she represented Denmark at the 1948 Olympics in London, the first games to be held after the 12-year hiatus caused by the war. There, she won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle and a silver in the 400-meter relay.
She nearly drowned, however, in another race, the 400-meter freestyle. The team doctor had given her an injection to forestall her period; she said later that she had no idea what was in the syringe. It nearly killed her. Just as she was nearing the end of the race, she fainted, plummeting to the bottom of the pool.
She returned home a celebrity, and continued to break records, setting a world record for the 400-meter in 1949. She competed in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, but she had had knee surgery to remove cysts and did not win a medal.
Ms. Andersen was a champion but also a realist. She had earned glory, flowers and, once, she said, a bicycle, but there was no money in it. So in 1953 she immigrated to the United States to look for opportunities. Open water swimming, also known as marathon swimming, could be lucrative, with prizes of about $3,000 (about $33,000 today), and she settled in Long Beach to pursue it.
Greta Marie Andersen was born May 1, 1927, in Copenhagen, to Peter and Charlotte Andersen. Her father had been a gymnast who won a silver medal in the 1906 Intercalated Games, a kind of interim Olympics held in Athens.
Greta was 12 when in the spring of 1940 the Nazis occupied Denmark. Her parents feared she might be raped by the German forces, so they chopped off her hair and dressed her as a boy for the five years of the occupation. Afterward, her father encouraged her to learn to swim in a local community pool. A former Olympian, Else Jacobsen, spotted her talent and became her coach.
Her marriage to Mr. Sonnichsen, a high school football coach who had been her trainer, ended in divorce, as did an earlier marriage to Helge Jeppesen, a Danish engineer. She is survived by her husband, Andre Veress, a doctor.
For decades, she ran a swimming school and health spa in Los Alamitos, Calif., teaching swimming to students of all ages.
Ms. Andersen was largely undefeated, with one notable exception: the Molokai Channel — otherwise known as the Kaiwi Channel, or the Channel of Bones — a punishing crossing of 27 miles between the islands of Molokai and Oahu, Hawaii.
Ms. Andersen attempted it twice, in January and April of 1961. On her second swim, which she began just after midnight, she battled sharks — she swam for a time in a specially designed cage — and was bumped by porpoises. She was swamped by 20 foot waves, and stricken with seasickness. There were rain squalls. But it was the current that bested her in the end. She fought it for nine hours, until her crew pulled her from the water at 11:06 that evening, still 9½ miles from Oahu. She had been swimming for nearly 24 hours.
As always, she had drawn an awe-struck crowd, in the water and on shore.
One observer likened her stroke “to watching a gandy dancer drive railroad spikes,” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported. And Rip Yeager, the captain of a yacht that was part of her support team, declared, “I take my hat off to her. That woman has more courage than most 10 men I’ve seen. She’s got just plain guts. She’s a real woman in every sense.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.