Sixty-two years ago, Shirley May France taught the world a lesson in perseverance.
At just 16 years old, 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.
Shirley May France (Photo by Mark Kauffman//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Crossing the English Channel – by boat, in the air, or simply swimming – 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 more like 30 or 40 miles, and a crossing can take anywhere from seven hours to more than a full day and night. Sharks don't swim in those waters, but jellyfish do – and one of their stings can easily put a damper on a crossing attempt.
In 1949, France was an Olympic swimmer who was disappointed when the endurance race was cancelled at the Games. So she made her own endurance race, with her first Channel attempt. Though she didn't complete the crossing, she was doggedly determined. She 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.
The world was delighted with her strong drive to succeed, and she was embraced as a celebrity even when she couldn't complete her crossings. Her confidence and will – not to mention her beauty – electrified the world, and 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 on Sunday, March 18. She didn't swim much after her Channel attempts, preferring to lead the normal life that can't be achieved with constant training. But she captured her moment in history – and she'll always be remembered for her fierce determination.
Written by Linnea Crowther