Before Mark Spitz – and way before Michael Phelps – America’s swimming rockstar was Henry Elionsky, a celebrity so famous he often was referred to only by his last name.
Starting in the mid-1910s, the 265-pound long distance swimmer from New London, CT began performing remarkable feats of strength and endurance in the water. Including:
- Towing seven men eight miles with his hands and feet tied.
- Swimming a mile with two men bound to him before getting caught in a whirlpool.
- Staying afloat after being wrapped in sailcloth and heavy rope.
- Swimming from Battery Park to Coney Island with hands and feet shackled.
When asked how he managed to keep from drowning in seemingly impossible situations he replied, “it’s just knowing how to breathe.”
Henry, also known as Harry or Buster, was a supremely confident athlete who later turned to coaching and briefly entertained a career as a boxer and wrestler.
(During our research we found news stories on the Web reporting his death from the Spanish Flu in 1918. However, there are news reports in our archives of him alive and well in 1919. Do you know what happened to Elionsky?)