EL PAIS SEMANAL

Charting new waters for long-distance swimmers

Montserrat Tresserras defied Francoist conventions to become the first Spanish woman to swim the Strait of Gibraltar and the English Channel

Montserrat Tresserras with the Order of Sports Achievement.
Montserrat Tresserras with the Order of Sports Achievement.Lupe de la Vallina

Montserrat Tresserras’s smile today embodies the spirit of open-sea marathons, just as it did in in the 1950s when she challenged the attitudes of the period to pioneer long-distance swimming for women.

Born in the Catalan town of Olot in 1930, she is reported to have been a robust, brave and daring little girl, or in the words of local historians, “like a little boy”. Hence her first dip at the age of six, when she fell into the Fluvià River while fishing for crabs.

Far from making her fear the open water, the accident sowed the seeds of a sea-faring future. At the age of 12, she learned to swim on the Costa Brava with the help of a book; and by 20, she had entered her first race in the Fluvià River with the encouragement of her brother Joan.

Soon Tresserras was unstoppable, going on to follow in the footsteps of her heroine, the British athlete Mercedes Gleitze, who was the first woman to swim the Strait of Gibraltar in 1928.

Building up to this feat, she began with the Escala-Roses swim in the north of the Costa Brava, which she swam with the Straits of Gibraltar in mind. She then swam the Straits of Gibraltar with the English Channel in mind. In 1958, she plowed her way across the Channel and successfully made it to the other side, ahead of fellow Spaniard José Vitos from Asturias.

During an era which offered women little in the way of independence, long-distance swimming was Tresserras’ ticket to freedom. She simply couldn’t have a boyfriend, for example, because it would have meant giving up the sport. “The two were incompatible,” she explains. “And I wanted to live for the moment.”

But while she didn't have a beau cheering her on from the sidelines, she did have the support of her family, her team and her great friend Mary Casacuberta, who came to her aid economically, socially and even in a managerial capacity throughout her aquatic career.

Though Tresserras was nominated three times as Sports Woman of the Year, she never actually won the award. Undeterred, she conquered lakes, rivers, estuaries, seas and oceans in both Europe and the Americas.

She crossed the English Channel in both directions, becoming the first woman to do so, and received innumerable trophies and prizes, not to mention the honor of being the first woman to be inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1970. Today, she sits on the board of this organization and two international trophies bear her name.

Uncompromising to the last, Tresserras never entertained the notion of failure, instead turning defeat into a stimulus for improvement. One of her favorite trophies, a seahorse on the coral off the Medes islands, commemorates one such setback when, ignorant of the currents between Calpe and Ibiza, she was forced to abandon the crossing after 55 hours in the water, all but reaching her goal.

Most remarkable is Tresserras’ humility despite her success, an attitude that has inspired young swimmers over the years. The sport, of course, is different now with different training techniques and aids that were not available to Tresserras. But she was known to dismiss even those that were, such as the anti-shark cage.

Instead, she gleaned enough information from chats with fishermen to know that she could dive under when she came across blue sharks and watch their elegant progress in safety. When she experienced a truly difficult moment while swimming the English Channel, she got through it by remembering her mother praying to Our Lady of Tura.

Considering her own approach, it is hardly surprising that Tresserras has little sympathy for wetsuits that increase buoyancy and resilience and, therefore, in her mind, detract from merit.

“If people can’t stand the cold without a wetsuit,” she declares, “they should dedicate their lives to doing something else.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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