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Swimming: Naiad in Vaseline

3 minute read

The Strait of Messina, a turbulent, six-mile-wide ribbon of water that separates Sicily from the toe of Italy, has never been a popular place for water sports. It was the home of Scylla and Charybdis, the mythological monsters that wrecked ships and snatched unsuspecting seamen from their decks. And if sailors beware, swimmers positively shun the place. Only the very rash—or the very bold—venture into its treacherous currents.

The water temperature was a frigid 54° one day recently when Mary Margaret Revell, a pretty blonde of 25, stepped into the surf at Sicily’s Lido di Mortelle, pulled a pair of goggles over her eyes, and set out for the distant Italian coast. Two and a half hours later, she waded ashore, paused just long enough to gulp down honey, glucose tablets and tea, then started back toward Sicily. The going was tougher now; her right arm developed a cramp; she swallowed sea water and vomited. Only her legs kept her going. At last, after 5 hrs. and 22 min. in the water, Mary Revell staggered ashore at Grotta, Sicily—the first person ever to swim the Messina Strait both ways. She blew a kiss to the cheering crowd on the beach, then collapsed.

Against the Shark. Queen of the world’s marathon swimmers, Mary is the daughter of a Shafter, Calif., dentist who would have preferred a Portia to a naiad. But law was for landlubbers, and in 1958 she swam from Malibu to Santa Monica, a distance of 18 miles, in 8 hrs. 19 min. Next came California’s 25-mile Catalina

Channel. Mary made it, but not before she had collided with a shark—which fled.

In 1961, she splashed 7½ miles across Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac, and 18 miles down the Detroit River.

Marathon swimming is an expensive hobby—boats must be hired, support crews trained—and Mary needed someone to bankroll her adventures. Daddy did not offer, and Mary did not ask. To her rescue came the National Tea Council (she drinks tea during her swims), the Detroit chapter of the National Society of Non-Smokers (she does not smoke) and the National Swimming Pool Institute. When Mary swam the Strait of Gibraltar last June, solicitous Spanish smugglers provided boats and guides. In July, a Turkish newspaper persuaded her to visit Turkey. She shocked the staid Turks by wandering around in Bermuda shorts, but within a month she made herself a national heroine by swimming the Bosporus (both crosswise and lengthwise) and the Dardanelles, then chugging 20 miles across the Sea of Marmara in 8 hrs. 13 min.

Against the Grease. Mary already has more records than any other lady marathoner, and now she has set her heart on the Sea of Galilee, Lake Geneva, Loch Ness, New Zealand’s Cook Strait and, of course, the English Channel. Tall (5 ft. 91 in.) and lissome (137 Ibs.), Mary is a featherweight compared with most Channel swimmers, who pile on fat as protection against the chilly water. She spurns the traditional coating of axle grease, uses heavy-grade Vaseline instead: it is lighter, more water-repellent. And when she is in the water, her thoughts are miles away. “I concentrate on my family and other people who are fond of me,” she says. “The worst thing you can do is worry about whether you’ll make it.”

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