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A Lesson in Perseverance

Getty Images / Time LIFE Collection / Mark Kauffman

At 16, Shirley May France became the youngest woman to attempt to swim the English Channel

Sixty-two years ago, Shirley May France taught the world a lesson in perseverance.

At just 16, she became the youngest woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. She failed in all three of her attempts – but she became internationally famous for her determination.

Swimming the English Channel has long been a challenge taken on by adventurous folks. Twenty-one miles wide at its narrowest point, the Channel is cold and choppy, with strong currents and tides making the way difficult for a swimmer. Tides push the swimmer around, making the actual distance swum from point to point nearer to 30 or 40 miles, and the crossing can take anywhere from seven hours to more than a full day and night. Sharks don’t swim these waters, but jellyfish do – and one of their stings can easily put a damper on a crossing attempt.

The daughter of long-distance swimmer John France, Shirley May was a natural in the water. “Shirley had a style that was incredible,” her brother Jackie told South Coast Today. “She looked like she belonged in the water. She glided through the water like a fish. It was effortless to her.” At 10 she bested her father’s time in a 9-mile race in Fall River, Massachusetts, near their hometown of Somerset. Four years later she swam 33 miles across a Michigan lake, then at 16 placed 10th in a 12-mile race across Lake George in New York. 

To make the most of his daughter’s successes and set the stage for an English Channel attempt, John France arranged for Shirley May to swim 14 miles from lower Manhattan to Coney Island. Within days, according to an obituary in the New York Times, she was on her way to the Channel. 

She began her first Channel attempt at 5:26 a.m. on September 6, 1949. The doggedly determined young France refused orders to leave the water, and continued swimming despite being freezing cold and nauseated. She even bit the hand of a helper trying to pull her from the water against her will. Despite her protests, helpers dragged the exhausted teenager out of the water after 10 hours. She was just 6 miles from the Dover cliffs. France attempted to swim the Channel again in August 1950, but was once again pulled from the water, this time 8 miles from her goal.

Though France didn’t complete a crossing, her confidence and will – not to mention her beauty – electrified the world, and she was embraced her as a celebrity. Her son asserts that she was briefly “probably one of the top five most famous people in the world.” Parades were thrown for her, she was offered a Hollywood contract, and she had “oodles of marriage proposals.”

Shirley May France Setters died March 18, 2012. She didn’t swim much after her Channel attempts, preferring to lead the sort of normal life that doesn’t mesh well with constant training. But she captured her moment in history – and she’ll always be remembered for her fierce determination.