Irving Davids/Captain Roger W. Wheeler Memorial Award

1973  Willy van Rysel

1916 – 2012


Willy van Rysel (born Willhemina Magdalena van Rijsel)  Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Willy van Rysel (IMSHOF 2002) had neither coaching nor encouragement. She taught herself to swim in the sea in her native Netherlands at the age of seven, and then pursued her passion in secret because her parents considered it improper for a girl to be seen in a swimsuit. Banned from even owning a costume, she swam in a vest held together at the bottom by a safety pin.


In later years she spent her pocket money on watching international swimmers and worked to emulate their techniques. She entered her first race at 17 and won.


After the World War II, van Rysel became a leading open water swimmer, completing more than 100 lake, sea and river swims in Europe and North America and breaking records in many. Willy also played water polo, gave demonstrations of springboard diving and in 1953 coached a team of 16 women and two boys for a water ballet show marking the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in England. She had a major hand in introducing synchronized swimming to Britain in the 1950s after watching a demonstration by the great American swimmer, Beulah Gundling. At 92, Willy retired from her swimming career but will always be remembered for the huge impact she had on Masters Swimming, on the local, national and international levels. She held 40+ world records in seven age groups over a 30-year period – from 60-64 years through 90-94 years.


Channel swimming was still rare in the post-war years and van Rysel's plans to swim the English Channel in 1949 made headlines. Through no fault of her own, the France-to-England attempt ended minutes from success when her escort boat hit the wall of Dover harbour in dense fog. In the ensuing confusion, van Rysel was ordered to leave the water some 500 yards from the beach.


She may have done just as much out of the pool as in the pool for Masters Swimming  by bringing Masters Swimming to the forefront in Great Britain.


She began with the British Long Distance Swimming Association, who responded in 1968 by introducing a "veterans" category for women over 40 and men over 45. Meanwhile, masters’ swimming was now well-established in North America and Willy began badgering the English Amateur Swimming Association to introduce five-year age groups for over-25s. In 1987, her dream of a National Championship was realized with the inaugural GB Masters Championships in Port Talbot.


In 1973 she was the first woman to be awarded the Irving Davids / Captain Roger W. Wheeler Memorial Award for her contributions to open water swimming. Her citation read: "for gaining acceptance of women distance swimmers and for promoting long distance swimming over the age of 40 in England."

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