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How Captain Matthew Webb Made Swimming Cool

Matthew Webb was born to swim, in a time and place in which few people went into the water willingly. He was born in Engladn in 1848 and became a merchant seaman at the age of 12. His took his greatest pleasure in rescuing men overboard and other people in danger of drowning.

As evidenced by this hobby, Webb didn't really want to be on the water: he wanted to be in it. In the 19th century, there weren't very many opportunities for aspiring professional swimmers—the Plague Years had kept germ-fearing Europeans out of the water, and the sport had a few centuries of suspicion to make up for. Rather than racing other pros or teaching amateurs, Webb slowly made his hobby more lucrative by marketing himself as an attraction. He invented showy scenarios and rose to self-imposed challenges, some serious and some silly, and he always took home a purse when others bet against him—in the same year, he wagered that he could swim 20 miles from Blackwell Pier to Gravesend faster than anyone had before, and also that he could stay in the water "longer than a Newfoundland dog." He beat the record in four hours and 45 minutes, and the dog in about an hour and a half.

The stunt that made Webb famous was inspired by an unsuccessful attempt to swim across the English Channel in 1872. Webb knew he could do it, and success would bring him lasting fame. And so he did, 140 years ago today. On August 24th, 1875, Webb swam for 21 hours straight. He not only made himself a household name (and quite a bit of money), but his popularity brought the sport of swimming back to England. Pools were built across the country to meet demand, and everyone wanted to take swimming lessons. But fame and fortune did not last all that long for Matthew Webb. Read his story at Atlas Obscura.


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