Walter Poenisch, the first to swim Cuba to Florida assisted

In celebration of what would have been Walter Poenisch’s 106th birthday on 11 July, I am sticking the below post from 2013 to the top of my blog. Happy birthday Mr. Poenisch and RIP, sir. 

The Diana Nyad controversy continues. As I discussed in other forums, I believe she accomplished an incredible assisted swim, staying horizontal for 53 hours. That’s a long time to swim. A long time to stay horizontal then pop up vertical and walk to dry land. But she is not the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida. Two others accomplished the feat before her, Walter Poenisch and Susie Maroney. In this post, I’ll talk about the first person to make an assisted swim from Cuba to Florida, Poenisch.

Walter Poenisch

Walter Poenisch was an adult onset swimmer, like yours truly, who made it his mission in life to swim from Cuba to Florida, calling the event the Swim for Peace. He started campaigning both the U.S. and Cuban governments for permission to do the swim in 1963, less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The man was tenacious, like a pit bull, without the unwarranted random killing. He never gave up on the swim.

For training, the man would tow boats in a quarry in Columbus. He owned a bakery, so he’d enlist one or two of his workers to sit in the boat while he swam. Oh, and did I mention he started this dream at the age of 50? Incredible. In 1968 he was 54 and swam his first-ever ocean swim, and made it only 50 miles between Nassau to Miami. He would have made it the entire way if his homemade shark cage hadn’t broken. For all his marathon swims “The World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation awarded [him]  the title of World’s Strongest Endurance Swimmer  for

towing two rowboats containing several people for 3 1/2 miles in Columbus. One year later, he towed a 28-ton, 47-foot yacht for 20 feet against the current of the Miami River, and, in 1971, he pulled a 15-ton steamboat a mile and a half in Gull Lake, Michigan. This generated even more headlines, as well as an appearance on the television show, To Tell The Truth.

The man was incredible, and one younger marathon swimmer wasn’t going to let him have his Swim for Peace. Diana Nyad, in her late 20’s at the time, wanted to be first to swim from Cuba to Florida. In 1978, 15 years after he started the campaign, the Cuban government granted his request. Poenisch immediately called his sports agent, Chuck Jones. Jones wanted the phone number of the Cuban government representative who called Poenisch, in order to verify the information for press purposes. Five days later, Poenisch and his young wife woke up to see a headline in the Ft. Lauderdale News saying that Diana Nyad would attempt the swim. Poenisch called his contact in Cuba, who told him someone “named Chuck Jones” called to discuss a young woman wanting to do the swim. Jones never mentioned Poenisch’s name. The race to swim it first was on.

Walter’s wife Faye greases her husband before his historic swim

Fortunately for Poenisch, he was farther ahead in the visa process than Nyad; he started his swim on July 11, 1978.  She didn’t get to scoop him on the start date. However, Jones never got any media for Poenisch’s swim. Worse, an IMSHOF representative, Dick Mullins, called him a fraud. Ironically, Mullins and IMSHOF sponsored Poenisch’s other charity marathon swims throughout the 1970’s, and even awarded him a plaque for his bicentennial swim in ’76. Poenisch took observers on his swim, observers who were known to the community of marathon swimmers, unlike Nyad on her recent (2013) swim. Interestingly, turns out that IMSHOF’s then-director, Buck Dawson, had been Nyad’s coach. Hmmm…

Poenisch with Johnny Weismuller during awards ceremony

Nyad called Poenisch “overweight” and old at, wait for it…64! (She was wrong, he turned 65 during the swim.) Yep, the same age she was when she completed her assisted swim in 2013. She must have said other harsh things (that she and her ilk now say we, marathon swimmers of the world, have been saying about her!) because Poenisch sued her and the IMSHOF for defamation. Because of a Florida statute of limitations law, pulled out after the case had already been ongoing for four years (!), Poenisch had to settle out of court. He didn’t make enough to pay his lawyer, but he did get a letter from Nyad saying she was wrong!

Poenisch’s widow is still alive (he was 54 when they were married, she was 21!) and was asked what she thought about Nyad’s 2013 swim. “As far as I’m concerned, she helped destroy my husband’s life.” Nothing I’ve read or heard from Nyad since her 2 September 2013 swim makes me think she gives a flying you-know-what. Poenisch was the bigger man. Even while Nyad and Poenisch’s agent were conspiring against him, and right after his swim, Walter Poenisch held back any comments about Nyad. After her attempt, he had this to say:

I didn’t want to harass her the way she harassed me. I knew she wasn’t going to make it and I didn’t want to be blamed for that. I left that girl alone.

Character trumps charisma ego every time!

One thought on “Walter Poenisch, the first to swim Cuba to Florida assisted”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *