Brenda Fisher ‘nee Johnson’, was born on June 9 1927 in the same house in Grimsby that she lives in now. She is an unassuming woman, who calmly goes about her everyday life as a sprightly, soon-to-be 90 year old. Yet in the town of Grimsby, never does a day go by without someone coming up to her to say hello.
Whether one of the 60,000 people that turned out to celebrate her return from her victorious race across the channel in 1951, or one of her hundreds of swimming students. Many, now have children of their own, and thank her for the confidence she gave them in the water, which is being passed on. She clearly played a huge role in keeping Grimsby swimming.
Sitting on her sofa, surrounded by snapshots of her illustrious career and with her faithful dog Jessie at her feet, Brenda remembers how it all started. “When I was young I got really bad sunstroke, which made me very ill, so I was never really thinking about doing swimming like my brother and sister, they swam from Spurn Point to Cleethorpes, [4.25 miles] my sister was only 15 when she did that. Then, Buster and Jessie [Brenda’s siblings] decided to get serious so Mum and Dad said we would get a trainer, and that’s when we all started with Mr. McNally”.
All this training and avoiding her favourite meal, chips (back then the extent of an open water swimmer’s diet plan) – culminated in Brenda completing her very first open water swim across Morecambe Bay in 1946. “It was a hard swim but if you’ve had good training it makes an awful lot of difference, ” she says. Brenda then went on to win the race in 1948 for which she received a set of hairbrushes.
Whilst sat fondly looking at the picture of Buster, strapping in his RAF uniform, Brenda recounts: “Jessie and Buster had wanted to swim the channel but my brother was lost during the war, he was a pilot, but when it was over Jess still wanted to have a try. She said to Mr McNally that she wanted to enter the Daily Mail Channel swim. Mr. Mac said to me that if Jess was having a try, ‘why don’t [I] put in an entry as well?’ So we both entered.”
However, the Daily Mail cup would only allow 20 swimmers to race, so Brenda had to prove herself to the selectors, “You had to take so many tests all round the country as they could only pick 20 out of the world to go into the race. I had to swim in the morning before I went work, swim at lunch time, swim again at night time and then I would have done up to a 6 hour swim in the dock on a weekend. You have to give up a lot but it is so worth it in the end.”
Unfortunately, before the Fisher sisters could compete in the race, Jessie fell sick with appendicitis and was not able to take part, so it fell on Brenda to stamp the Fisher name, and that of Grimsby, on the open water-swimming world.
Making her way over to France for the first time in her life, Brenda was very matter of fact about it all; she had a job to do and was going to do it. “We didn’t see much of [France], it was only a small place where we were. The race was cancelled for three days because of bad weather. We couldn’t do anything but sit around – we couldn’t even go in the water because it was so rough.”
As is the case with most swimmers, routine is key in the lead up to the race. This was no different for Brenda, and whilst it did not include rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot, she said, “I used to cover myself in a mixture of lanolin and olive oil, it doesn’t keep you warm it just stops you chafing everywhere. But other people put lard on to keep you warm. I don’t know why, it doesn’t keep you warm, I think they think it will keep them warm.”
Such feats of athleticism are not only a physical test, but a mental one too. Keeping your mind occupied is a challenge all open water swimmers must overcome. Brenda recounts whilst quietly tapping her foot, “When I was swimming I always used to sing ‘Sing a Song a Sixpence’. I don’t know why I did but it just took the time away. When you get in the zone, it is sometimes a bit lonely, especially when you’re swimming in the dark, the water seems colder and you feel like you’re hardly moving at all, it was just something I did to keep going.”
According to ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) rules all channel swimmers must have a pilot to take charge of the boat, usually motor, but due to the fact that Brenda felt sick when behind a diesel boat her pilot had to row the whole 22-mile slog, “It was awkward when we got out as it was the pilot’s first time he had piloted it, and lived in St Margaret’s bay so he wanted to land there. But we landed between Dover and St Margaret’s bay and its really rocky there so there weren’t a lot of people. They lost me in the swim; they didn’t know where I was because we did a different course to the other people. Because my pilot thought that was the best way to go to get the tides.”
Fuelled by sugary tea, bananas and chocolate, Brenda completed the 22-mile swim in a blistering 12 hours 42 minutes, finishing 3rd overall, a new world record for a woman, beating the previous record of 13 hours and 20 minutes set by Florence Chadwick a year earlier. A staggering feat for which Brenda was awarded Sportswoman of the year in 1952, two years before the very first Sports personality of the year was awarded to long distance runner, Sir Christopher Chataway.
In 1954, Brenda again braved the icy waters of the English Channel to complete her second crossing. But, after missing the tides, Brenda was left swimming for two hours without making any headway, yet she was still the first woman to finish. Even after a 15-hour ordeal Brenda still had energy to burn, “we went out dancing to the dance hall in Folkston. George Fincher and Jess came with me. We danced till late in the evening.”
Whilst it is clear that for Brenda swimming was her job, dancing was her passion, “The lady next door but one, her sister used to teach dancing, she came here to my house, we cleared the ‘big room’ and she taught a few of us to dance.”
Whilst no longer dancing, Brenda is still at the top of her old partner’s dance card. “I danced with Vic Naylor, we still talk on the phone, he always asks me to go out dancing again but I say no, I’m past it now.”
Taking some time off from her swimming career, Brenda fulfilled a life long dream and ended up opening a shop – ‘The Brenda Fisher Sweet Shop” which she bought with her new husband, Grimsby Town F.C player Paddy Johnson. “I had always wanted one since I was a little girl… My husband he hated the shop” she says. But she didn’t stop swimming.
Her final attempt at the channel came in ’55 but due to poor conditions it was called off .
Being the woman she is Brenda never wasted the money she won, “I never really bought anything flashy, we didn’t have a house we just came here (her house now) and lived with mum and dad when we got married in 1954. We had to have the wedding on a Monday as he had his football on the Sunday and could only get 2 days off. We went to London for our honeymoon, and stayed at a hotel on the Strand, it was lovely. It was my first time in London and was a bit of a shock compared to Grimsby,” she recalls with a smile.
Still not completely satisfied and now an international star both in and outside of the swimming world, Brenda was asked to go and take part in a competition swimming in the 29 mile River Nile swim in April of 1956, “It was a two day swim in the Nile, we swam down to Cairo the first day, and then around Cairo on the second, but god, it was so hot it was April, one of the hottest months, I got blisters on my face from really bad sunburn, it was a tough swim. I beat Margaret Sweeney, by two minutes each day. Swimming in the Nile was horrible, we were in Egypt 3 weeks, they took us to the desert and all around Egypt, but the living conditions weren’t very good there, so it was an experience.”
Whilst undoubtedly the best female open water swimmer of the time, it was not other swimmers Brenda wanted to beat, but the water itself. After a cancellation of the race across lake Ontario in 1955, straight off the back of the Nile swim Brenda, with the ever present Mr. Mac, went back over in 1956 to complete a solo swim. “It was fantastic, it was fresh water which was great, saved the nasty mouthfuls of salt water I was used to. But when we were swimming there was a huge thunderstorm, and then I got water in my goggles and it was hard to get out so I had to stop and sort them out – but I carried on.”
By the age of 31 Brenda made the decision to retire from competitive swimming, “I decided that was it, I thought I had done all that I could do. When I entered the channel swim it made me a professional so I couldn’t enter the Olympics, but to be honest I never really wanted to. I don’t even think that there was an open water-swimming event.
When asked how she has noticed the sport changed, Brenda said, “It’s so much easier these days, besides my swimming I used to have to get my walking in, and then I used to go to a physio fella who had to massage me. There were so many things you had to do, whereas now it’s just so much easier; it’s a full-time job now.”
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