The International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame announced its Honourees for its Class of 2014. In addition to Melissa Cunningham (Australia), Elizabeth Fry (U.S.A.), Vojislav Mijić (Serbia), James Anderson (U.S.A.), Jane Katz (U.S.A.), the Indonesian Swimming Federation, Sandra Bucha of the U.S.A. was selected as an Honour Swimmer.
In the world of professional marathon swimming, four women have stood out among their male counterparts.
Greta Andersen, Judith van Berkel-de Njis and Shelley Taylor-Smith are widely known. But there is also a fourth gender-bender, a pioneering young woman: Sandra Bucha in the 1970s competed extraordinarily well against the top men of her era throughout her professional career.
Bucha was a star throughout her short-lived swimming career. Always smiling and ever hardworking, she appeared on the cover of Swimming World Magazine as a promising age-group pool swimmer and enjoyed an outstanding three-year career as a professional marathon swimmer while studying history as an undergraduate student at Stanford University.
Between her formative years as a young swimmer and before her college career, she and her father, Colonel Paul Bucha Sr., filed a lawsuit against the Illinois High School Federation based on sex discrimination. Their lawsuit went to the Illinois Supreme Court that ultimately ruled that girls deserved equal opportunities to compete in competitive sports on the same level as high school boys. This lawsuit, which was an early precursor to Bucha’s later legal career as prosecutor, public defender and personal injury attorney, resulted in the state of Illinois offering separate competitive sports programs for girls.
While Greta Andersen's male nemesis of the professional circuit was Egyptian Abdul Latif Abou-Heif in the 1960's and Shelley Taylor-Smith's was Argentinian Diego Degano in the 1990's, Sandra's rival was her own American teammate, one of the fastest and most prolific marathon swimmers of all time, Olympic gold medalist John Kinsella. Both distance swimmers got into marathon swimming after the 1972 Munich Olympics. While Kinsella won a gold medal in Munich to add to his 1968 Olympic silver medal, Bucha’s pool swimming career disappointedly came to an end when she missed the U.S. Olympic Swim Team by a mere 7 tenths of a second in the 100-meter freestyle. But in an era when collegiate swimming was not an option that it currently is for women, Bucha took her talents to the open water.
With a strong foundation and a successful pool swimming career where she set an American record in the 200-meter freestyle and a background of hard training, Bucha soon set off on an unprecedented marathon swimming career. Her first swim was the 1973 10-mile Chicago Lake Front race as part of the Chicago Lakefront Festival in Lake Michigan where she placed second overall finishing only a minute behind Johann “The Flying Dutchman” Schans of the Netherlands. She won US$3,000 while setting a record for women as a college freshman. “I decided after the Olympic Trials that I was not going to swim anymore. School comes first.”
But after reading an invitation to the Chicago Lake Front race, she contacted her old coach. "I couldn’t do anything without him. He’s always been my coach." By her sophomore year, she picked up the pace during her summer vacation. She finished second overall again at the 1974 Chicago Lake Front pro race, winning a bonus of US$1,000 for being the first woman in 3 hours 47 minutes. Completing the 20-loop ½-mile course in 3 hours 41 minutes, she won US$2,000 in the wake of John Kinsella’s victory. She then teamed up with her male teammate at the 24 Heures La Tuque race, swimming 100 loops to John’s 94 for a world record of 194 laps or nearly 65 miles.
After that memorable race over the second-place team of Johan Schans and Claudio Plit, she traveled to lac St-Jean to compete in the 1974 Traversee internationale du lac St-Jean where she finished third overall in 8 hours 19 minutes to Kinsella (1st) and Veljko Rogošić (2nd). From there, she and Kinsella went to the professional 10-mile race in Laval, Quebec where the Hinsdale duo went 1-2 in 3 hours 40 minutes and 3 hours 49 minutes respectively. The Canadian’s press gushed over the Stanford co-ed, "Crowds lined the banks to cheer on the fetching Miss Bucha who out-swims the men wherever she goes."
Back to Stanford for her junior year, Bucha returned to the 1975 professional marathon swimming season once summer came around again. But just as summer returned, so did the indomitable Kinsella. Starting the season in Lake Michigan, Bucha finished second overall in the 10-mile pro marathon to her Indiana teammate. From there, she joined forces again with Kinsella at the 1975 24 Heures La Tuque. Kinsella, who could have teamed up with anyone in the world, knew his best shot to set a world record in Lac Louis was with Bucha. 24 hours later, the duo won again going away.
From there, she traveled to lac St-Jean for the second year in a row and finished second overall again to Kinsella, winning US$4,000 for her 8 hour 15 minute effort. The same finish resulted in Laval for the second consecutive year in her final pro swim of her career.
Both coached by renowned American coach Don Watson, Bucha had to swim against her larger and more famous teammate throughout her professional career, mano-a-mano. Coach Watson pointed out, "If John was not of her era, she would have won five professional marathon swims outright, against all-comers." But in partnership with the juggernaut from Hinsdale, Bucha and Kinsella twice won the 24 Heures La Tuque, the incomparable non-stop relay that showcased the ultimate one-two punch from Hinsdale. During her short career of 3 seasons sandwiched between 9 months of intense academic work at Stanford, Bucha wanted to see women separated from the men as long as the purses are equal, but that dream would not come for nearly two decades.
With a promising legal career beckoning, she called it a career and focused on her studies, ending her remarkable 9-swim career with 9 wins among the women and 6 overall second places to one of the greatest marathon swimmers of all-time. Her performance was acknowledged by former FINA president Dr. Harold Henning, a significant nod to her talents as FINA was still 18 years away from absorbing the professional marathon swimming circuit. "I congratulate you upon your performance in the lake swim. I am very happy that you brought home the bacon."
That she did, a remarkable professional career from a role model student-athlete. "Between 1973 and 1975, Sandra was the female winner in the nine professional marathon races she entered. At that time, marathon swimming was a single gender sport. During her professional marathon swimming career no female was able to challenge her title as the #1 marathon swimmer in the world. Only three males finished ahead of her in her in nine marathon races."
Kinsella, arguably the most dominant swimmer on the professional marathon swimming circuit, knew who he could count on during his professional marathon swimming career. Coach Don Watson helped prepare him for an unprecedented career while his Hinsdale teammate, Bucha helped him when cold became an issue. At the 1974 24 Heures La Tuque race, Kinsella who was called The Machine by his colleagues was getting cold during the night over the 24-hour race. His choice in a teammate could not be better. The much lighter and smaller Bucha, the only woman among the top four teams, told Sports Illustrated Magazine that her ability to keep going had physiological reasons. "It's my layer of fat," although the reporter insisted that fat was nowhere to be seen on the former sprinter. As the top male professional marathon swimmers were fading as the night went on, Sandra not only kept pace, but rather kept getting stronger. Her father and trainer Colonel Paul Bucha told Sports Illustrated, "She feels better now [at 2 a.m.] than she did six hours ago." By 5 a.m., 14 hours after the start, Bucha felt good and explained why, "You look at the sky and get energy."
As his mood and skin were simultaneously turning blue, Kinsella was also hurting with a pulled tendon into the 16th hour of the race. Advised to slow down and that his team would still win, he replied, "It still hurts. Sandra really came through when I needed her and I did not want to let her down. Not that I was thinking of dropping out, though. I was in too much pain to think about it."
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