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Lynn Arave: Back when marathon swimming races flourished in the Great Salt Lake

“Floating like a cork” in the Great Salt Lake was a very popular pastime in Northern Utah, from when the first pioneers arrived until the early 20th century. And, by the 1920s, a new rage in the briny lake arose — long-distance swimming.

Annual marathon furnishes a thrill” was an Aug. 25, 1920, headline in the Salt Lake Telegram newspaper.

This “first” annual race (authorized by the Amateur Athletic Union) started at Antelope Island and ended at Saltair. Alvin Nelson won the 6.75-mile race in two hours and 40 minutes. McKeith Burt finished just five seconds behind, as runner-up.

(Note that Nelson had won a similar inaugural Great Salt Lake race a year prior, as an amateur, in 1919, but it was not organized under the auspices of the AAU.)

Thirteen swimmers started the 1920 race, but five had to be fished from the lake in the first 4 miles.

Four visitors to the Great Salt Lake shoreline are framed by the reflection of the setting sun in Salt Lake City, Utah, July 3, 2007.
Four visitors to the Great Salt Lake shoreline are framed by the reflection of the setting sun in Salt Lake City, Utah, July 3, 2007.

However, seventh place was taken by Frank Nelson, just age 13 — and he swam the last half of the race without goggles.

• The Telegram of Aug. 7, 1921, clarified that the August Antelope Island to Saltair race was for amateurs only. It also stated that “Professor” C.S. Leaf held the pro record for that same course at 2 hours and 28 minutes (or 12 minutes faster than the amateur record), set on Aug. 19, 1919.

• The Ogden Standard-Examiner of Jan. 20, 1927, promoted the idea of having a 31-mile marathon swim race around the Great Salt Lake that would capture the interest of the world. There’s no evidence this race ever became a reality. But the intent was for the Salt Lake and Ogden chambers of commerce to funnel some of the $100,000 combined money they used annually to promote Utah into this professional race and its prize funds.

The story also noted how there’s no fear of shark attacks in Utah’s lake and the salt-laden water would offer more of a buoyant rest for swimmers.

• The Telegram of July 6, 1930, explained how the Antelope Island to Saltair swimming race had been an intermittent event since its early years. For example, the race was held in 1930, but not in 1928 or 1929.

• “Orson Spencer sets mark for Antelope Swim. Annual paddling marathon most successful in history” was a Dec. 31, 1931 Telegram headline. The newspaper reported almost five months after the event that Spencer had set a course record of 2:25.41, breaking Professor Leaf’s pro record — and Charles Welch Jr. was just 17 seconds behind as runner-up.

• One shortcoming in early Great Salt Lake swimming races was the lack of female entrants. “Feminine entrants lacking from 1931 Saltair Marathon” was a July 22, 1931 Telegram headline. Mary Gibbs, a Salt Lake tennis player, had initially entered the race, but later withdrew.

• By 1932, the Great Salt Lake swimming race had attracted 40 participants. “Replete with tradition and color, the annual Antelope Island swim marathon on the Great Salt Lake will enter its 14th year of existence when paddlers begin the battle of the brine …” Reporter Wendell J. Ashton stated in a June 29, 1932, Telegram story.

However, the story stated that Mrs. Billie Droubay was the only woman entrant and an unofficial finisher in the 1931 lake swim, “finishing two hours after officials had left the finishing scene.”

The top finishers in the 1930s races won medals.

• The Telegram of Aug. 1, 1933, stated that year’s Great Salt Lake swim was set for Aug. 2 and that three women were entered. Results of that race were apparently never published.

• The Telegram of July 6, 1936, reported that Miss Hazel Cunningham of Salt Lake swam from Saltair to Black Rock, a distance of 5 miles, in three hours and 9 minutes.

And that was the last report of such a 1930s lake swim.

Why did these 20th century Great Salt Lake races suddenly stop? Probably at least partially because the Great Salt Lake’s level dropped significantly. All during the heyday of briny races in the 1920s, the lake level stayed 4,202 feet or more above sea level. (The lake’s average elevation is considered to be 4,200 feet.)

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, by 1935, the lake level was down to approximately 4,196 feet and by 1940, it had dropped to about 4,195 feet. These low lake levels would have made a swim from Antelope Island to Saltair an impossibility, as dry or very shallow lakebed would be the norm. The lake level rebounded some by 1950, but then by the 1960s it had dropped to the lowest level since the pioneers had arrived.