The Legless Swimmer Who Refused To Quit

80 years ago today, one of the most amazingly inspirational stories of all time happened in the rushing waters of New York’s Hudson river.  Charles Zibelman, who went by Charles Zimmy as well as “Zimmy the human fish”, began his swim of 145 miles from Albany, New York to New York City.  He would stay in the water for 148 consecutive hours.

Charles Zibelman was born in 1893 as the Jewish child of immigrants who escaped the Anti-Semitism of Russia to find safety in America.  When he was nine years old, he was run over by a street car in Chicago, and lost both of his legs up to his hips.  He refused to let that stop him though.  He taught himself how to golf, and drive a car using special contraptions.  His real fame would come later, as an astounding endurance swimmer.

zimmy ripleys

“Zimmy” would capture the nation’s attention for his daring displays of fortitude by setting the record for most consecutive hours swimming for 100 straight hours in a swimming pool in Hawaii.  He would also attempt to swim the Catalina Channel, as well as the English Channel.  He came up short each time, the latter attempt had to be stopped because of a jellyfish sting.

Still, he kept going.

On August 23, 1938 he began his swim from Albany to New York city after greasing up to protect his skin from the chilly waters.  He went for six days, resting when the tide was against him.  Once, he had to swim a five mile stretch twice, because he was taken back by the river currents.  Due to his buoyancy, he could even sleep in the water.

He was a showman who liked to smoke cigars in the water while taking a break.  He smoked 150 of them on his journey, often while chatting with people on the boats passing by, or the many fans who lined the shores to see him.  He snacked on sugar cubes soaked in brandy, lost 20 lbs, and grew a beard during his journey.  By the end, barnacles had attached themselves to him.

He arrived at a dock near the George Washington Bridge at 9:00 P.M. on August 29, to be pulled out of the water by two policemen as thousands of spectators cheered.  He was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Harlem, where he would stay overnight.  He said, “I feel kind of funny being out of the water.”

On this 80th anniversary of an incredible feat, thank you to Charles Zibelman and those like him who teach us not to quit, and make the most of our lives regardless of the circumstances.

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