Walter Poenisch inducted to ISHOF, 39 years after historic Cuba swim

One of history’s most remarkable swimmers, and swims, has finally been recognised by the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF), which this week announced that Walter Poenisch will be one of 17 honourees in their class of 2017.

In announcing their decision, ISHOF describe Poenisch as a baker, rodeo competitor, strongman and swimmer, who entered his first competitive swim in 1963, at the age of 50. It was the 60-mile Jim Moran professional marathon swim in Lake Michigan. Walter failed to finish but was hooked on the sport and was determined to swim even greater distances.

Troubled by the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe, he conceived of the idea of swimming the 90 miles from Cuba to the USA for world peace. As the USA had no formal relations with Cuba, Poenisch started a letter writing campaign to governments that had contact with Havana for help getting permission and to promote his cause of easing tensions between the USA and its Caribbean neighbour.

Confident in his cause, he immediately began serious training. But the required permissions were not forthcoming. For 15 years, he continued to write letters, make calls and worked with Rene Mujica of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, DC. All the while, he continued to train and kept his dream alive in the media with stunts like towing boats filled with passengers and setting long-distance records in the Florida Straits. Finally, early in 1978, Poenisch received an invitation from the Cuban Government to make the swim.

It was planned to begin on 11 July 1978, a date coinciding with Poenisch’s 65th birthday. On hand to celebrate Walter’s birthday and wish him success on his “Swim for Peace” was Cuban leader Fidel Castro. 

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A birthday toast with pineapple juice, just before starting the swim

As the first person to attempt to swim from Cuba to the USA, specific rules were drawn up by an authenticating organization, The International Federation of Ocean Swimmers and Divers. These rules, announced before the swim, permitted him to use a shark cage, fins to protect his feet from the cage, and a snorkel. He was also permitted to get out of the water up to four times for a period of no longer than five minutes to administer emergency medicine treatment, receive critical nourishment or for any reason that directly threatened the life of the swimmer.

Thirty-four hours after leaving Cuba, Poenisch completed his swim on the shores of Little Duck Key, Florida.

Purists today may quibble about the use of the shark cage, which as well as providing protection from the ocean’s top predator is believed to provide the swimmer with a drafting benefit. They may also contend that using fins doesn’t adhere to the true spirit of the sport. But this shouldn’t detract from what was an incredible sporting and political achievement. We should also remember that swimmers in the 1970s didn’t have access to electronic shark deterrents and their pilots had no assistance from GPS.

Bruce Wigo, ISHOF’s President and CEO, says: “Walter will enter the ISHOF as a ‘Pioneer’ and I want to commend the selection committee and its Chairman, Camillo Cametti, of Verona, Italy, for recognizing Walter, who was one of the first to use his swimming talents to promote a greater cause.”

The Pioneer category was created to honour great achievements that have been overlooked by the fog of time or special circumstances that interfered with their careers, such as accidents, war or politics. 

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Walter Poenisch died on 6 June 2000, just short of his 87th birthday. Unfortunately, he never received the recognition due him for this remarkable achievement and his persistence, perseverance and courage. He is survived by his wife, Faye, who will accept his honour on his behalf. In a ceremony in Fort Lauderdale between 25 and 27 August.

The International Swimming Hall of Fame was established in 1965 as a not-for-profit educational organization located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Its mission is to promote the benefits and importance of swimming as a key to fitness, good health, quality of life, and the water safety of all adults and children. It accomplishes this through operation of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a dynamic shrine dedicated to preserving the history, memory and recognition of the famous swimmers, divers, water polo players, synchronized swimmers and people involved in life saving activities and education whose lives and accomplishments inspire, educate, and provide role models for people around the world. 

Listen to Faye Poenisch talk about the day she met Fidel Castro

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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.