The day Greta Andersen needed to be rescued from drowning

Danish swimmer Greta Andersen cools of in a paddling pool (Photo by Derek Berwin/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Danish swimmer Greta Andersen cools of in a paddling pool (Photo by Derek Berwin/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: The story of Greta Andersen, a swimmer who almost drowned during the same Olympics that she won two medals.

The background

It was 93 years ago in Copenhagen that one of the brightest stars of the Olympics was born: Greta Andersen.

Having lived under Nazi occupation, she began swimming at the age of 16. At the time, she combined her love of swimming with her passion for gymnastics.

However, it was in the water that she really excelled. In her first international competition, the 1947 European Championships, Andersen won two medals, including gold in the 4x100m freestyle and silver in the 100m freestyle.

So when she competed in the London 1948 Olympics, she was already seen as one of the Games’ must-watch athletes.

The finals

She took to the pool at the London 1948 Olympic Games with pressure weighing heavily on her shoulders and expectations following her every stroke.

But as soon as she swam, she justified her reputation as the woman to beat. She won gold in the 100m freestyle, followed by a silver in the 4x400m freestyle relay.

Having enjoyed great success in two events, she was understandably confident going into heat three of the 400m event, she recalled: "I was positive I was going to win the 400m. I've had the best time in the world for the last two years. Nobody's going to touch me."

But this was far from the reality of what happened next.

The 400m heat coincided with Andersen’s monthly cycle and, not wanting to lessen her chances of success, the swimmer received an injection to delay her period.

"I felt pretty good until I started swimming."

"Then I felt like I was paralysed in my legs and my stomach. I just blacked out. I don't remember."

Andersen had fainted in the water. In fact, she was drowning.

Thankfully, other athletes noticed her distress and swam out to rescue her, including a water polo player from the Hungarian team.

How an Olympic champion swimmer almost drowned at London 1948

In “Sinking Dream”, Greta Andersen shares how her quest for a second gold was cut short when she blacked. But it didn’t define her career.

The outcome

None of what transpired would stop Andersen from continuing with her swimming career.

Two years after the London 1948, she won three medals in the European Championships.

But her bad luck returned when the next Olympics took place in Helsinki. Even though Andersen took part in three events, recent surgery on one of her legs meant she wasn’t able to perform to the best of her abilities.

Following Helsinki, Andersen moved to the United States, where she switched her attention to marathon swimming and once again made a name for herself. In 1958, she became the first person to swim the length of a major channel (the Santa Catalina Channel) in both directions.

By 1965 she had swum the English Channel a total of six times, becoming the first woman to do so. In fact, she still holds the women’s speed records for both directions: France to England (11 hours, 1 minute) and England to France (13 hours, 10 minutes).

Andersen’s love affair with the water continued long after she retired from professional swimming. Since 1960, she has run the Greta Andersen Swimming School in California.

In 1969, Andersen was included in the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and the website also highlights her success as a female swimmer competing against men.

"Miss Andersen was the first woman to consistently beat most of the men and frequently beat all of the men in her races."

"Greta Andersen has been first to raise this interesting speculation. If women can compete favourably with the top men at marathon distances, why shouldn't they be able to swim as fast as the men at the long and middle distances popular in amateur swimming?"

Andersen answered every question in the water, and at age 93 she is the oldest living Danish Olympic champion. But the only answer that still eludes her is the name of the medication that caused her to faint in the water at the London 1948 Olympic Games.