Penny Dean (USA)
Honor Open Water Swimmer (1996)
FOR THE RECORD: 1978 Established English Channel crossing record (England to France, 7 hrs. 40 min.); 1979 Professional Marathon Swimming Circuit (Women’s World Champion); four Catalina Channel crossings (1976-1977); 12 WORLD RECORDS; Head Coach: U.S. National Long Distance team (1984-1988); Head Women’s Swimming and Water Polo Coach: Pomona College since 1979.
When she was ten years old, she came within 400 meters of swimming the length of the Golden Gate Bridge. But tired and with the water a frigid 52 degrees Fahrenheit and the escort boat an arms reach away, Penny Dean made a decision that would determine the course of her life for the next thirteen years and make Marathon swimming history – she got out. It was an understandable decision for a ten year old, but once on shore she mistook her mother’s look of guilt that she had pushed her daughter too hard and into failure, as a look of disappointment. She had let pain and fatigue distract her from her goal, and she vowed never to let that happen again. From that summer day in 1965, Penny Dean embarked on a challenging course that thirteen years later would lead to one of the greatest marathon swims in history.
She had a head start – she had been swimming since the age of 20 months in both San Francisco and Santa Clara – hot beds for swimming in California. She competed in AAU swimming for seventeen years in both pool Nationals and Long Distance Open Water Nationals, winning the Three Mile National Championship in 1971. As a swimmer for Pomona College, she was a six-time All-American. By 1976, she swam from the mainland of California to Catalina Island in the overall world record of 7 hours, 15 minutes 55 seconds – 1 and 1/2 hours under the former record. The next year she set the world record from the island to the mainland on her way to a 50 mile double crossing of the Catalina Channel in 20 hours and 3 minutes. These swims set the stage for her greatest challenge.
Tennis players have Wimbledon; runners have the Boston Marathon; swimmers have the English Channel. Penny not only wanted to be amongst the successful eighteen percent of swimmers who actually complete the English Channel, she wanted to break all the records. The water was 55 degrees, the tides were challenging and the channel is vast to the lone swimmer. A core of inner toughness kept her swimming, and a remarkable 7 hours, 40 minutes after she left England, her toes scraped against the sand of the French coast with a greeting committee of a few shocked shell hunters. Her time broke the world record by 1 hour and 5 minutes and was so impressive that it took another sixteen years before Chad Hundeby broke her record in September of 1995. Penny proved once again that women can swim faster and longer than men in Marathon Swimming.
She continued her long distance swimming career for another three years, winning at Lake St. John, LaTugue, Lakes Memphremagog and Paspebiac in Quebec, and Atlantic City in New Jersey, setting women’s world records in most of them. She was Women’s World Professional Champion in 1979 accumulating 1,000 points over her next rival.
Penny became a Professor of Education and Head Swimming Coach at Pomona College, but not before serving as the U.S. National Team Coach of Open Water Swimming from 1988 through 1991, Head Coach of U.S. teams to the 1991 Pan Pacific Championships, 1991 World Championships, 1982 and 1990 Windermere Championships, 1990 English Channel Race, 1984 and 1989 Catalina Channel Race and coach of nine solo Catalina Channel crossers. She was president of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America from 1985 to 1987 and served on the NCAA Swimming Committee. She has presented numerous international clinics on marathon and open water swimming, written articles for swimming publications and authored “How to Swim a Marathon,” with printings in 1985, 1988 and 1992, and “History of the Catalina Swims,” revised four times since 1985.
Penny has been a pathfinder in her swimming career. Studying law, she receives her Ph.D. in 1996. She stands as the tallest and proudest five-foot-two inch, 125 pound marathon swimmer the world has known. What the world did not know was that she swam her way to victory with no anterior artery blood supply to her left arm. She used the other part of her body for that – her guts.