40th Anniversary of Penny Dean's EC Record
Forty years ago today, Penny Dean swam the English Channel in 7:42, becoming the first person to go under 8:00 and breaking the overall record by over an hour. Her record stood for 16 years. Only two people have held the overall record longer than that: Matthew Webb and Georges Michel, who set the record in 1926. Michel's time spanned WWII, i.e. six years during which there were no swims at all (according to https://www.dover.uk.com/channel-swimming/swims). If you subtract those six years—and who wouldn't want to do that—Penny's overall record stood longer than anyone's except for Webb's.
Chad Hundeby, whom Penny had trained, finally broke her record in 1994. Not until 2006, when Yvetta Hlaváčová went 7:25, did a woman swim faster than Penny. By then, Penny's women's record had stood for 28 years.
I tried to keep up with Penny once. I had the luck and privilege to train on a team with her during the summers of 1977 and '78. I never understood how she could be so fast. I mean, she's all of 5'2"—I had her by a whole two inches—and she's certainly no hulk. So I decided one morning, just before we set off on a 15-mile workout, to try to keep up.
Big mistake—as big a mistake as, say, challenging Lebron to a shoot-off or trying to out-sing Adele. It ended up being the only workout in those two summers that I didn't finish. I stayed close for a couple of miles but had to sprint to do it. That left me, with most of the workout still to go, barely able to breathe. I limped along for as long as I could but threw in the beach towel with three miles left. I never tried to keep up with Penny again.