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Greta Andersen, Olympic gold medalist and marathon swimmer, dies at 95

After winning a gold medal at the 1948 Olympics, Ms. Andersen became the world’s greatest marathon swimmer, regularly trouncing men

Danish-born swimmer Greta Andersen receives a warming drink after winning the 1958 International Cross Channel race across the English Channel. (Popperfoto/Getty Images)
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Greta Andersen, a Danish-born swimmer who won a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics and later became the world’s greatest marathon swimmer, crossing the English Channel six times and regularly trouncing men, including one she beat by more than five miles, died Feb. 6 at her home in Solvang, Calif. She was 95.

Loper Funeral Chapel in Solvang confirmed the death but did not provide the cause.

Ms. Andersen broke 18 world marathon swimming records during her career, never lost to a woman and was the first person to swim the Santa Catalina Channel back-and-forth — in nearly 27 hours, nonstop. Her domination of the sport left her competitors overpowered and dazed.

In 1962, at a 50-mile swim from Chicago to Kenosha, Wis., an Egyptian team relied on Ms. Andersen as the event pacesetter. That strategy proved unwise. As she recalled to the Orange County Register, the Egyptians dropped out after 25 miles. In frigid water, she kept going, subsiding on nutritional supplement sticks. After 31 hours, she crawled ashore as the winner.

To Ms. Andersen, swimming distances most people would rather drive was an exercise in determination. “You just don’t think about it,” she once said. “You forget about it and you just swim.”

Ms. Andersen was originally more of a sprinter. At the European Championships in 1947, she won gold in the 4-by-100-meter freestyle relay and silver in the 100-meter freestyle. The next year, at the London Olympics, she took gold in the 100-meter freestyle and then silver in the 4-by-100 relay.

Her third event at the London Games was the 400-meter freestyle. She held the world’s best time in the event the previous two years.

“I was positive I was going to win,” she recalled years later. “Nobody is going to touch me. I was strong and healthy.”

The day of the race coincided with Ms. Andersen’s menstrual period, so the team’s doctor suggested an injection to delay it. “I thought the doctor knew better than me, so I got the injection,” Ms. Andersen said.

She felt good until she hit the water.

“Then I felt like paralyzed in my legs, my stomach,” she said. “I just blacked out. I don’t remember. I was sinking. I was going underwater.”

A Hungarian water polo player and another swimmer dove in to save her, pulling her from the pool in one of the most dramatic moments in Olympic history. Ms. Andersen was initially devastated. Then she turned philosophical.

“So life goes on. Find something else and get happy,” she said. “Whoever has a perfect life from the beginning to the end?”

Greta Andersen was born in Copenhagen on May 1, 1927. Her father was a champion gymnast, and her mother was a homemaker. When she was 12, in 1940, Nazi forces crossed the border into neutral Denmark.

“I still remember the airplane coming over,” she said on the public radio show “Only a Game” in 2016. “They were dropping all kind of pamphlets, and they said, ‘You are occupied by the Germans. You don’t have a king anymore. We are in charge.’ That was pretty horrible.”

Fearful that German soldiers would rape her, Greta’s parents cut her hair short and dressed her in boys’ clothes throughout the occupation. There were Jews living in her neighborhood, and she witnessed them rounded up and killed.

“I can still hear them coming up the stairs and taking down the people and putting people up against the wall and just shooting people, just in front,” she told the radio show. “I saw it. They just shoot people and they don’t care.”

After the German surrender in 1945, her family began to resume a normal life. Greta’s father thought she should learn how to swim. She was terrified. He took her to a local pool and pushed her in. The water was cold. Ms. Andersen was barely able to dog-paddle across.

Still, she kept going back to the pool. One day, Else Jacobsen, a renowned Danish swimmer teaching lessons at the pool, saw her swim.

“She made me swim 50 meters,” Ms. Andersen later recalled to “Only a Game.” “And I didn’t know how to breathe, so I swam the 50-meter holding my breath. She said, ‘Well, you’ve got good lungs. We have something to work with.’”

Ms. Andersen joined the local club team and, in 1947, took first place in the 100-meter freestyle at the European Championships in Monaco. In addition to the 1948 Olympics in London, Ms. Andersen competed in the 1952 games in Finland, but she was recovering from recent knee surgery and didn’t fare well.

In the 1950s, Ms. Andersen moved to the Long Beach area in Southern California after honeymooning there with her first husband, Helge Jeppesen. She became a naturalized citizen and quickly took up marathon swimming, sometimes logging more than 800 miles a year.

Ms. Andersen’s feats in the water brought her national fame. She appeared on Art Linkletter’s radio show and in magazine ads for Nutrilite.

Ms. Andersen was married at least three times, according to news accounts. Survivors include her husband, Andre Veress.

Though she never had children, Ms. Andersen taught thousands of them to swim at a Los Alamitos aquatics school she opened in 1960. She was an early proponent of teaching infants to swim — an easier job, she’d often say, than swimming for more than 24 hours.

“It was rigorous,” she told the Long Beach Press-Telegram, looking back on her career. “You would get beaten up on the rocks and would be bleeding in the water. I always compared it to mountain climbing, dangerous but challenging. It was a tough job but I really liked it.”

She especially enjoyed beating men.

“What woman doesn’t get extra satisfaction out of beating the stronger sex at anything?” she said. “I always want to beat everybody else in any race against me, but I always feel better when I finish ahead of some men.”