Georges Vallerey, Jr. (FRA)
Honor Pioneer Swimmer (2017)
FOR THE RECORD: 1948 OLYMPIC GAMES: bronze (100m backstroke); 1932 CROIX DE GUERRE AVEC ETOILE DE BRONZE (War Cross with Bronze Star); 1947 EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS: gold (100m backstroke); MEMBER OF FRENCH WORLD RECORD SETTING MEDLEY RELAY
In the early morning hours of the 8th of November, 1942, an armada of American destroyers, aircraft carriers and troop ships carrying 35,000 American soldiers approached the Moroccan coast under cover of darkness. Their mission was to destroy the French fleet guarding the port of Casablanca and occupy the city. The defending French warships were outgunned by the American fleet and as the battle ensued, several French vessels retreated into the harbor while under attack, hoping to avoid being sunk at sea.
Watching the battle from the beach, which was taking place a few miles out to sea, was Georges Vallerey, Jr. Although he was only 15 years old and not even 5’8” tall, he was a very strong boy, with a Herculean build and could swim like an otter. Nicknamed “Yo-Yo”, he was born in France and moved with his family to Casablanca, in the French colony of Morocco. It was in Casablanca’s Piscine Municipal, the largest swimming pool in the world, where his father taught him and his four brothers and sister to swim. Georges was always ready to help others and when he was only eleven he made news, saving a young girl from drowning.
Standing on the beach, Georges saw a ship being hit by high-explosive shells some 300 meters off the shore. By tradition, many of the sailors did not know how to swim and he quickly realized that many were drowning as they abandoned the ship. Without any hesitation, he undressed, jumped into the water and began to swim to the ship, which was still being hit by bullets and shells, through water covered with burning oil. He would rescue a sailor, return to the beach with him, and immediately swim back out to the burning wreck. While the bombing continued he didn’t stop until he found a little boat on the beach, tied a rope around his waist and swam it out to the ship. By this method he saved scores more seamen.
For his heroics, he was decorated with the Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Bronze (War Cross with Bronze Star).
Three years later, in 1946, Georges, by now a robust young adult, began his remarkable swimming career that saw him establish with Alfred Nakache and Alexandre Jany the world record for the 300m medley relay. By 1947, he was the best French swimmer in the 200m breaststroke, 100m and 200m backstroke and 400m freestyle.
The next year, at the London Olympic Games, he won the bronze medal in the 100m backstroke. Unfortunately, the medley relay was not part of the 1948 Olympic program. The next year America’s Allen Stack, the 100m backstroke Olympic champion at London, thinking that the Casablanca swimming pool was fast, wanted to try for the world record and asked Vallerey to accompany him. Vallerey won the race in a time faster than Stack’s winning Olympic time had been.
Then in December, he swam in a Christmas Cup, where the water was at 1° Celsius (34° Fahrenheit). He developed a throat infection, that would incapacitate him for four years and finally claim his life on October 4, 1954, in Casablanca, seventeen days before his twenty-seventh birthday. In his memory, the Les Tourelles Piscine, where the swimming events of the 1924 Olympic Games were held, was renamed Piscine Georges-Vallerey. Today the pool has been renovated and is one of the great pools of the world – a lasting tribute to a great swimmer and hero who died too young.