Harrison, Miss Lillian Gemma
Lilian Gemma Harrison (February 8 1904 – January 11 1993) was an Argentine marathon swimmer, the first person to swim across the River Plate, the widest river in the world, on December 22, 1923; and a holder of the world record of endurance in the water. She was a pioneer of swimming in South America.
Lilian Harrison was born in Quilmes, a city in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1904, within a family of British immigrants. As a child, when she has 8 years old, she went to England to attend school in Hertfordshire, where she learnt to swim. She returned to Argentina in 1920, when she was 16 years old, and started to swim in the Club Náutico San Isidro, where she was coached by Gunther Weber, with whom she started to prepare for a crossing of the River Plate. She was assisted in her training by Vito Dumas, Romero Maciel and Enrique Tirabocchi, among others.
Her first big endurance test was the 67 kilometer (41.2 miles) Zárate-Tigre raid, down the Paraná River, on February 4, 1923. Completing this swim, she established a world female record of endurance in the water of 21 hours and 20 minutes.
In 1923 she embarked on the crossing of the River Plate. Until then, nine attempts to cross the River Plate had been made. But these attempts, by swimmers Enrique Tirabocchi, Luis Garramendy, Elio Pérez, Romero Maciel and Vito Dumas, had failed. Of these, Dumas had been the one who lasted longest in the water (25 hours and 17 minutes), while Maciel was the swimmer who covered the longest distance, abandoning his attempt when he was only 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) short of his destination.
Lilian Harrison started her crossing on December 21, 1923, from the port of Colonia, in Uruguay, at 9:28 in the morning. During the first stretch, she was accompanied by uruguayan swimmers Caracciolo and Graneri, and had to struggle during three hours against the current pushing them back toward the uruguayan coast. Then she headed toward the south, accompanied by Tiraboschi and Wernotri.
She arrived at the Argentine coast at 9:47 am the next morning, at Playa Colorada, near the town of Punta Lara, after remaining in the water for 24 hours and 19 minutes and having traveled 48 kilometers.
In 1924, she attempted to cross the English Channel four times, without achieving her goal. On the last of these attempts, she was close to drowning.
On August 1, 1925, she participated in the 42K (26-mile) marathon of the City of Paris, a competition on the Seine River. Lilian Harrison was the only woman among the twelve swimmers, ending in fourth place.
In 1926 she married and abandoned high performance swimming. She had one daughter, Sheila Clark and six grandsons and granddaughters. Her grandsons include Ronaldo Munck, a well-known sociologist living in Ireland and Gerardo Munck, a political scientist living in the United States.
Prizes and honors
For her crossing of the River Plate, she was decorated by the Minister of navy, in the presence of the president of Argentina Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear and the first lady; and honored by the Governor of the province of Buenos Aires, José Luis Cantilo, during a celebration in Quilmes, her native city.
For her crossing of the River Plate she also received a prize of 5,000 pesos that the sport magazine El Gráfico had established for the first person to cross the River Plate.
For her career in marathon swimming, she was inducted to the “International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame” en 1973.
90 years until a second crossing of the River Plate by a woman
Lilian Harrison’s feat of crossing the River Plate in 1923 was only repeated by a women 90 years later, when Noelia Petti became the second woman to swim across the River Plate, from Colonia to Punta Lara, on March 9, 2014.