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Brenda Fisher: accidental record breaker

The 1950s witnessed a number of cross-Channel races. Brenda Fisher was one of the winners.

This article first appeared in H2Open in October 2014. We’re republishing it in recognition of Brenda Fisher’s award of a BEM in the 2018 New Year’s Honour’s list.

Now in her 80s, Brenda Fisher once held the record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel by a woman. That was back in 1951 after her sister persuaded her to sign up for a Channel swimming race organised by the Daily Mail.

“My sister was always the distance swimmer,” says Brenda. “I was more of a sprinter – I used to do the 100 yards freestyle.”

The plan was for the two women to swim together but her sister fell ill with appendicitis and had to drop out, so Brenda decided to continue alone.

Brenda’s swimming career started when she was around nine years old and she joined her local swimming club, the Mermaids, in Grimsby – where she still lives today. She describes herself as being an average swimmer. She continued swimming through her teenage years and World War II during which her brother, a pilot, was killed. In the late 1940s she took part in some open water races in Morecambe Bay but nothing at this stage suggested world record potential.

What Brenda clearly had was a capacity for hard work. She trained in a pool every morning and in Alexandra Dock in the evening. At the weekends she regularly completed six-hour swims under the direction of the coach she’d started with as a nine-year old – a Mr McNally.

When race day arrived, Fisher didn’t have any thoughts of winning.

“I never thought about it,” she says. “I just wanted to get across.”

Once in the Channel the various competitors became separated from each other and the sponsors aboard the Daily Mail boat thought Brenda and her team were lost. Without today’s navigation and communication tools they couldn’t keep tabs on each other. Brenda was grateful that her support craft was a rowing boat as the fumes from diesel engines made her sick.

As for nutrition, Brenda remembers she only had chocolate, bananas and hot tea with sugar.

“The trouble was, I hate tea with sugar,” she says.

She felt sick initially but started to feel better later into the swim.

Brenda eventually hit the coast somewhere near St Margaret’s Bay, to the east of Dover (the swim had started on the French side) but at that stage she had no idea she’d won. That was only something she discovered once her team had made it back to Dover. Her time of 12:42 was also a new world record for women.

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Over the next few years Fisher went on to compete in more Channel swims and other events around the world. In 1954 the cross Channel race was now sponsored by Billy Butlin and Brenda won again but in a slower time.

“We missed the tide and for two hours we never moved,” she explains.

She then recalls a two-day swim down the Nile in which she got badly sunburnt and a couple of long-distance swims in Canada, although that somewhat understates her achievements. The Nile race was 29 miles long, and she won in record time. In Canada she tackled the Niagara to Toronto swim across Lake Ontario, which had been made famous two years previously by 16-year old Marilyn Bell. The 32-mile swim took Brenda 18 hours 50 minutes – more than two hours faster than Bell’s time. Brenda was the third person ever to complete that swim.

Fisher hung up her racing costume in 1956 and became a swimming instructor. She continued to swim for pleasure though – and still does. She’s convinced her swimming has helped her live a healthy life.

When asked how things are different today she firstly mentions how swimming costumes have changed – hers was made of silk – but she also wonders if people’s attitude has softened.

“I don’t think people give up as much as we did,” she says. “They’re not as responsible. I don’t know if they would want to do the type of training I went through, but for us it was normal.”

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.